Helen Watson White
Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, 2017), 288 pp., $45
‘I was always looking for my father, even when he was still there,’ writes Diana Wichtel of her Polish-born father, Benjamin Wichtel (on his first gravestone, ‘Witchell’). This father’s absence from his daughter’s life is, however, only the tip of the iceberg that is his once-numerous Warsaw family’s accumulated grief and loss after the ravages of the Holocaust. Driving to Treblinka maps Wichtel’s life-long ‘search for a lost father’, and makes the process of searching both a framework for and a part of her subject.
The drive towards Treblinka, one of the Polish sites of Nazi killing-centres, is a metaphor for the author’s search for the truth about her father’s life and death – not because he was murdered at Treblinka, but because he wasn’t, having escaped from a train carrying most of the rest of his family to their deaths.
The author’s journey, made in a continually renewing present, causes painful regressions for her and her remaining relatives: they are constantly being asked to recall or relive historical events, changing their perceptions of them as each new piece of information is found. Throughout the book Wichtel is questioning her family’s experiences before, during and after the war. Some sort of resolution is found by the Wichtel descendants only when the writer and other family members gather in 2016 in the place Benjamin was last alive and symbolically replace an inadequate gravestone, rehabilitating his memory.
In what Diana describes as ‘my personal account of my father’s story’, names and dates are crucially important. Everything, indeed, is personal. A genealogical table prefacing the book shows Benjamin’s mother Rozalia, widow of Jacob Joseph Wichtel, died in 1942 – in precisely the same year as her siblings Dora, Salomon, Herszel, Faiga and Szymon, and most of the next generation of Wichtels, including Benjamin’s older siblings Cheniek, Fela, Maurice, Tola and (again) Szymon. Benjamin’s maternal grandparents also died in the war years, his grandfather in 1939 and his grandmother in 1941, specifically in the Warsaw Ghetto. Yet the family tree is offered as ‘a guide only’, because it is incomplete. Those five named siblings of Rozalia, then another five named siblings of Benjamin, had husbands, wives and children whose names may never be known.
Even within the family of her New Zealand-born mother Patricia, writes Wichtel, ‘Secrets and silences roll down the generations like something in the cells that can’t be unlearned.’ One ‘painful absence that was never spoken of’ was that Patricia herself had no beloved father in her life after the age of five; he ‘disappeared’ unaccountably, replaced by a stepfather who was a different sort of man entirely.
Diana’s father didn’t so much disappear as fail to appear. He had intended to follow Patricia and their three children to New Zealand when they emigrated there in the 1960s. In his last phone call from Canada to his daughters in 1964, he asked fourteen-year-old Diana to come back to Vancouver. ‘I remember wondering why he was saying that,’ she writes, ‘when he was coming to New Zealand. You can get so used to nothing making sense that you stop asking questions.’ Such ‘wondering’ may persist in any family; but questions remain unanswered if they are never asked.
When Wichtel asks why her parents married in Canada in 1949, it is not quite a rhetorical question: ‘How had a young Catholic woman from New Zealand ended up on the other side of the world, married to a Polish Jew ten years older, a man who had survived horrors she would spend a lot of time trying to learn about in her quest to understand him?’ She draws a parallel between her mother’s and her own ‘quest to understand’, just as she sympathised with her mother’s loss of a father at an early age.
It is not until 1968 that Patricia tells her daughters where Ben is – by which time it is clear that he will not be joining them in Auckland. She has asked for help to determine his whereabouts as she wants to divorce and re-marry. At age eighteen Diana discovers her father is in a mental hospital in Ontario, ‘in no state to have papers served on him’ – in fact ‘so ill he is beyond reach’. By 1971, she and her sister have lived for several years apart from their mother, who took their young brother to Japan with her new partner. It is then the Wichtel girls hear of their father Benjamin’s death in Ontario some months after it happened; a door to their shared history is closed and Diana does not manage to open it for decades.
A letter from her mother reveals Patricia has not attempted to contact Ben’s only surviving brother Sy: ‘I’m a coward I suppose but I hate the thought of opening up the past again.’ Diana is dealing with guilt and cowardice of her own, hardly able to remember when she last wrote to her father, regretting she did not keep an active connection with him. It wasn’t her fault, of course: ‘When parents run from their history, they also obliterate the history of their children,’ she writes. While she understood her mother’s need for ‘a clean start’, Patricia’s selling Ben’s paintings and throwing away his letters and papers destroyed crucial pointers to his state of mind and health, and to the place where he died. ‘She didn’t know,’ writes daughter Diana, ‘that the things she needed to leave behind to survive were precisely the things I needed to hang on to. How can I judge her for this?’
After busy years spent studying, as a temp in London and a traveller in Europe, then as a first-time mother in 1976, Diana becomes a student again and completes an MA. In one way she’s been grounded by motherhood (‘my life never feels like my life until I have my first baby’); but in another way the experience is perplexing, overwhelming – for Patricia as a grandmother, too, ‘broadsided by emotion’ on first sight of newborn Benjamin, named after his late grandfather.
While working as a university tutor, Wichtel feels ‘ready to start looking’ for her father. Things come to a head at an encounter group on Waiheke Island in 1981: ‘The disappearance of my father comes up when it’s my turn to try and figure out what’s wrong with me, but the story feels remote, as if it happened in some other world to some other father and daughter. I make no connection between what happened to our family and my panic attacks, anxiety and hopeless passivity.’
What’s wrong with Diana is exactly the same as what’s wrong with Patricia –ever since she became a Wichtel while pregnant with her first child – and indeed what was wrong with Ben Wichtel, whose story this is, spending his last months in a mental hospital besieged by fears of persecution. Diana’s first awareness of the reality of the Holocaust had been born from her father’s clear statement as they watched TV documentaries in the early 1960s: ‘I was there.’ When asked what it was like in the Warsaw Ghetto, he replied, ‘You would wake up in the morning and the person next to you is dead.’ These disclosures had a profoundly alienating effect on the young teenager; what she describes herself experiencing helps us understand something of the alienation Benjamin himself suffered from the trauma of those times.
Having lost her primary source of information when she lost her father, Diana draws strength, once she’s ‘ready to start looking’, from Wichtel relatives who were not in Warsaw when Ben escaped and when most of the rest of the family were crushed by the Nazi juggernaut. Chief among her sources is Ben’s first cousin Joe Lubell, whose mother Sabina was Ben’s only surviving aunt: he sought her out when he arrived in New York in 1947. As well as supplying precious photos and describing family links, Joe knows Ben’s story because he knew Ben, in youth ‘a very athletic man’ who not only jumped from a moving train, through a window with barbed wire, but fought for his survival alongside other Jewish escapees and partisans in the woods, ‘living like an animal’ for years.
Wichtel’s search was fuelled and propelled by extensive research which now richly informs this book. The long journey takes her, with other close family members, to Krakow with its phoney-nostalgic-Jewish postwar tourist district; to Auschwitz/Birkenau with its entry-sign ‘a calculated crime against the meaning of words’; to Warsaw, where every sign of the Ghetto (and much else) has been erased; to Berlin, with its Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; to Bad Arolsen with its tracing service for missing persons (‘the world’s largest Nazi archive’); to the US and ‘the old family places’ in Vancouver; and finally to Brockville, Ontario, where her father lies buried in St Francis Cemetery.
We, the readers, also do some time-travel, at least in mind. Having appreciated eloquent family pictures of the Wichtel immigrants’ life in North America (the wedding of Mollie and Uncle Sy, the bar mitzvah of their son Jerry in 1960), we also see, in contrast, historic photographs of places like Warsaw’s Umschlagplatz, the holding area by the station from which 300,000 Jews were sent to their deaths at Treblinka between 1942 and 1943. We hear of the 9.5-hour film called Shoah recording an interview with an SS officer at Treblinka, and of multiple survivor interviews recorded in 1946 by an American professor and which were transferred to tape by the Library of Congress in 1955; of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, which holds handwritten notebooks by Ben’s Uncle Paul; and of other intensely personal but similarly authoritative books by Holocaust survivors or their children.
This radically honest memoir, sensitive and funny as well as tough, expresses the righteous anger and the outrage at misinformation felt by all who have suffered the effects of the Nazi Jew-killing machine, or of the anti-Semitism that persists in many parts of the world. It deserves a place, I think, in the multifaceted historical record. Worth repeating, finally, is the finding of the United War Crimes Commission that was suppressed for over 70 years: ‘that the Allies knew as early as December 1942 about the fate of the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries and did little to prevent the slaughter’. One can only feel woe that that is so.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer and editor who began writing theatre reviews for Playmarket’s Act magazine in the 1970s. Since then she has reviewed books, art, theatre and opera, as well as publishing poems, short stories, articles and photographs. A member of the collective judging the Dunedin Theatre Awards, she is committed to supporting all the arts.