Diana Wichtel: Driving to Treblinka

by Diana Wichtel / 08 January, 2011
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was a 1943 act of Jewish resistance in German-occupied Poland. Photo/Getty Images

Just over five years ago Diana Wichtel travelled to Poland, where her father survived the Holocaust, one of just 10% of Polish Jews to live.

Brok, everyone told us. It was a picturesque enough place, where storks made their huge nests on the tops of power poles. But we had passed through that hamlet near the Bug River at least four times. This was the sort of trip where you find yourself hopelessly lost in the countryside northeast of Warsaw, asking a couple of elderly Polish farmers for directions to a death camp. They looked at each other. “Treblinki?” they said. “Brok!” they beamed.

It started in Warsaw. We had only two days there, and with an unerring instinct for making the already difficult near impossible, we arrived on a major Catholic holiday. The chanting of a priest broadcast over Castle Square floated in the window of our little hotel in the Old Town. The whole of Warsaw was out, popping into church, then cruising the shops, every second one of which seemed to bear a sign marked Lody (ice cream) or Alcohole (make mine a double).

No tours were available to Treblinka, a couple of hours’ drive away. No one wanted to rent us a car for a day. Getting there by public transport was hard – it is, for obvious reasons, in the middle of nowhere.

Finally, the receptionist called to say she knew someone who knew someone. Thus we ended up at 10pm in a dark street taking possession of a small vehicle from a man in a crumpled suit. The navigation system had to be hand-held, went for a few minutes at a time and was out of date Treblinka-wise, as we found out the next morning when we ended up in a dead-end-road excavation. “Treblinka?” we enquired of an old man and his dog. They looked at us as if we were mad.

The writer’s father in post-war Sweden. Photo/CC/Ewelina

If the past is another country, for me that country is Poland. I never saw my father, Benjamin Wichtel, after the age of 13 when my mother took her children home to her Catholic family in New Zealand. He was brilliant, charming, increasingly unwell. He was meant to follow. Everything fell apart and he died in Canada in 1970.

I knew little about his earlier life, not much of it good. He was born in Kraków, raised in Warsaw. His father was a Talmudic scholar. His Polish first name was Bronislaw and he served in the Polish Army. I know he was in the Warsaw Ghetto because, as we sat together watching the first documentaries in the early 60s, he remarked casually, “I was there.” He spoke of waking up to find the person beside him dead. With another man, he jumped from a train carrying his mother, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews to their deaths. He rolled down a bank and waited to be shot. The only choice left for a Polish Jew in 1942 involved different versions of dead. Somehow they weren’t noticed and took off into the woods.

One of many things my poor mother didn’t understand about my father was that he had German friends. He told me young German soldiers, also terrified, helped him. The only bitterness I heard him express was about his fellow Poles. In Poland, only about 10% of more than three million Jews survived. I knew the Poles also suffered terribly in the war; I’ve learnt that many took horrific risks and lost their lives helping to save Jewish Poles during the Holocaust.

I also knew that in some other countries – Denmark, Albania and Bulgaria, among them – many Jews were saved. And that anti-Semitism in Poland predated Hitler. My father remembered having to hide in a field at night as a small child. Someone stole his blanket.

Pogroms didn’t end with the defeat of the Nazis. There were people who survived the camps only to be murdered by their neighbours when they tried to return home. In the 60s, under communist rule, there were purges in the name of anti-Zionism. More of the small number of remaining Jews left. For a long time I had no desire ever to set foot on Polish soil.

Polish Jews face interrogation before being taken to Treblinka. Photo/Getty Images

But in Poland we found ourselves, thanks to a course of study my partner had undertaken on the architecture of murder and memorial. Poland has a lot of that. We started in Kraków. For someone in search of their Jewish roots, it’s a destination designed to mess with your mind. We stayed in a little Jewish hotel in Kazimierz, home to many of Kraków’s over 60,000 pre-war Jewish inhabitants. Fewer than 6000 survived the Holocaust. By 1978, the Jewish population could be numbered in the hundreds. Kazimierz was left to squatters, addicts, bohemians.

Now it’s become a sort of Jewish revival theme park. Our hotel featured in ­Schindler’s List. It had the town’s only mikveh – ritual Jewish bath. The shops were full of carved wooden figures of Jews and other dubious tchotchkes.

Jewish restaurants, klezmer bands: every­thing but actual Jews. We ate cholent, a traditional Jewish stew, in a restaurant on Szeroka St called, mistily, Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz: several old Jewish shops knocked together and full of evocative memorabilia.

The menu recounted the heart-warming story of a vibrant pre-war Jewish culture, Jews and Gentiles living happily together. I turned over the page to read the fate of the owners of the names proudly displayed outside. Not a word about that. Are the owners Jewish? I asked our waitress. “No,” she said, with a conversation-stopping look I would see a lot in Poland: shutters sliding down. Let’s not talk about that. I was familiar with it. A beautiful coffee-table book called Remnants: The Last Jews of Poland came out in the 80s, when it seemed there would soon be no Polish Jews left. I asked a Polish man I knew about the dwindling numbers. He said, “Oh, they all wanted to go live somewhere else.” The Look. We didn’t pursue the matter.

Kraków is a charming medieval city. The soup – zurek, borsch – is excellent. It’s quite cheap, if you stick to vodka, and you will need a drink on our sort of trip. Cross-cultural interaction at Propaganda, a bar decorated – in another act of bending history to new ends – in Soviet chic:

“Do you have a wine list?”

“No.”

“Can you recommend something?”

“No.”

We had vodka.

A ghetto remnant in Prozna St, Warsaw. Photo/Chris Barton

I found Kraków’s born-again Jewishness, with its destabilising mix of nostalgia and evasion, disturbing and irresistible. I’d come to engage with the shattered Jewish side of my heritage. Here was a country beginning to grapple with a part of its history that, against all odds, refuses to go away.

The busy Jewish museum in the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz has traces of 16th-century murals still visible. We wandered among the broken stones in the cemetery at the Remuh Synagogue, also 16th century, scanning them for names I wouldn’t have recognised because they are in Hebrew. (A family friend had offered to teach us Hebrew when we were children. My father said no.)

Exchange with caretaker:

“Is there a list of names in English?”

“No.”

When we went inside, my partner, who has a fractured Jewish half-heritage, too, some of it in Poland, put on a yarmulke. I cried.

The Jewish revival in Poland is not just about an unnerving nostalgia. Some of it is led by Jewish organisations and by those finally connecting with their Jewish heritage suppressed during the communist era.

But the dialogue remains tense. While I was there, the Kraków Post ran an interview with Polish academic Aleksander Skotnicki, whose grandmother helped Jews during the Holocaust. The professor was being honoured for his work on Jewish heritage. He was asked about Fear, a book by Polish-born American academic Jan T Gross about such post-war examples of anti-Semitism as the Kielce pogrom in 1946. About 40 Jews were murdered, including women and children.

“What he says is true,” said Skotnicki, of Gross, a Princeton University history professor. But he was concerned. “If it is the only source of information for a reader about Poland and Jews, then, of course, people will say: ‘Ah, everybody was eating Jews for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’”

Gross launched Fear, his second book on anti-Semitism in Poland during ­and after the war, in Warsaw. Time magazine reported cries of “Lie!” and ­“Slander!” and a police presence.

A gas chamber. Photo/Chris Barton

Alongside all this runs the increasingly popular “dark tourism”, which is touted everywhere. Go to Auschwitz, Schindler’s factory or the salt mines or take the whole package. Schindler’s factory was closed. We only had time for Auschwitz. We travelled by van with two other couples. Pleasantries were exchanged. No one said why they were making the journey. A video we were shown of footage taken by the Soviet liberators ensured the rest of the trip was in silence.

Auschwitz-Birkenau. “You will see the industrialisation process of murder by the Nazis,” my cousin Joe wrote to me before our trip. “It is an education like no other.”

I’d read about this forever, seen the documentaries. But there’s nothing in your repertoire of responses suitable for visiting a machine of death. There’s the terrible, familiar iconography: the Arbeit Macht Frei sign (“work will make you free”), proof that the Holocaust was also a calculated crime against the meaning of words. The barracks at Birkenau, the ramp, the cattle wagons – the more you look, the less you understand, because it defies any kind of reason. To writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, the orchestra being made to play jaunty tunes while men, women and children were forced into gas chambers was a symbol of the camp, “the auditory expression of its geometric madness”.

In my Uncle Paul’s account of his escape from the ghetto, he writes of “a house painter, a brutal murderer with the name A Hitler”. It’s preposterous. Trooping through Auschwitz with thousands of other tourists sometimes felt like a ghastly parody.

Block five contains Material Evidence of Crime, heartbreaking displays behind glass: beautifully smocked baby dresses, tiny woollen hats brought along against the cold, hopefully labelled luggage. The hair, some of it carefully plaited, has faded to grey, as if it has carried on ageing in the absence of its owners.

There was a shrine at Auschwitz to Father Kolbe, the heroic priest who ­volunteered to die in the starvation cells to save another prisoner. We saw no tribute to any individual Jewish heroism, such as the woman mentioned in Robert Jan van Pelt’s book Auschwitz. Selected to work, she chose to go the other way. A four-year-old girl she knew was holding her hand and she couldn’t bear the child going to her death alone. I could have asked about that but I don’t.

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Photo/Getty Images

At Birkenau, where most of the Jewish prisoners – 90% of the total – were murdered, we were relieved to be free to wander. The gas chambers and crematoria remain as ruins. Our guide was answering questions. I asked her what she thought about the Jewish revival. She said, “You will have to ask someone in Kraków.”

Auschwitz has been contested ideological territory since the war, bent to the service of Polish nationalism or communist ideology. It wasn’t until 1968 that the first exclusively Jewish exhibition was mounted here, and 1989 when the genocide of the Jews was mentioned on the monument at Birkenau. There have been controversies – there was an attempt to site a Carmelite convent on the periphery of the camp. There were battles between the cross and the Star of David. History in Poland seems always up for grabs.

Some say these places should be left as they were. That’s difficult to argue when you see new generations walking, stunned, through the exhibits. It’s a place to subdue even youthful exuberance. Though not quite: it does you good to see some teenage boys taking clandestine photos of each other in a punishment cell. “The aims of life,” said Levi, “are the best defence against death.”

In that spirit, an Australian artist took her father, an 89-year-old survivor, to Auschwitz, where they danced to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. It’s on YouTube. The old guy dances with grandchildren the entire might of the Third Reich tried to prevent being born. I watched with my daughter. Or tried to. “Mum,” she said, “stop crying.”

Dancing on graves, some objected. If you were to avoid dancing where people have been murdered, there would be little dancing in Poland or many other places. Or, as one YouTube commentator said, “Yeah, screw you, Adolf, with a gay anthem made famous by a black woman. Respect comes in many forms.”

In Lily Brett’s novel, Too Many Men, Ruth takes her survivor father, Edek, back to Poland as well. “There is nothing there,” says Edek. “We are visiting one nothing after another.”

Treblinka’s symbolic railway tracks. Photo/Chris Barton

I thought of that as we tramped over kilometres of Warsaw, trying to trace the remains of the ghetto. It was easy to miss a stone here, a marking of the pavement there. The ghetto was destroyed after the 1943 uprising, when the starving remnants of Warsaw’s Jewish population held off the Germans for more than a month. At the monument to these heroes was a stall selling more memorabilia. Desperate for something tangible to hold onto out of this tour of gaps and absences, I bought a book, which the seller stamped with place and date.

At the Umschlagplatz, the place from which Jews were deported to Treblinka, we had to negotiate our way around an Israeli group that had taken over the monument. I felt irrationally annoyed with them. At most other places, like the fragment of ghetto wall you have to creep through private property to get to, we were alone. We could have taken a tour, but after the organisation of Auschwitz, this was something we wanted to do – in our bumbling, culturally slightly shell-shocked way – on our own.

We had occasion to rethink this independent strategy while driving to Treblinka. Getting lost aside – the kind Polish farmers got us a map – the trip became increasingly grim. The road went for miles through ancient forest where Polish and Jewish partisans hid, the sort of place where my father must have hid.

Treblinka is not one of the well-known camps. No one was liberated there. It was built in 1942, as one of the Operation Reinhard camps, for extermination of Jews. My father once said there were worse places than Auschwitz; this is what he meant. People were dragged half-dead from the boxcars, made to undress, driven with whips down the “Himmelstrasse” (Road to Heaven) and thrown into gas chambers, often within two hours. Guards were allowed to grab babies and smash their heads on the boxcars. The sick were taken to the Lazarette (infirmary) and shot at the edge of a pit. More than 800,000 died at Treblinka.

The Germans had enough awareness to realise they might not be applauded for this work; they destroyed the camp. Everything there now is symbolic: symbolic entrance, symbolic railway tracks; symbolic ramp. It was serene and full of birdsong. No crowds until buses of Israeli Defence Forces personnel arrived and took over the central monument for some sort of service. I felt irrationally annoyed.

Concentration camp victims’ shoes. Photo/Getty Images

At Treblinka, it’s about stones that are grave-like but enduring and assertive. There’s a symbolic cemetery with names of towns and cities from which people were deported; a symbolic cremation pit. I sought out the stone marked “Polska”. My cousin has a censored last letter from the ghetto, but there is no documentary record of the deaths of my family. At the museum, I was able to write in the book: “In memory of the Wichtel and Jonisz families who were murdered here.” Outside we placed stones, in the Jewish tradition, and I left our name with others on a memorial. The rain would soon wash it away.

Walking through Jewish Warsaw, we nearly didn’t make it to Prozna St, the only street remaining from the ghetto. Time was running out. But the decaying tenements were easy to spot by the huge unbearably poignant photo­graphs of the people who once lived there: families, children, old people. The area comes alive during the Jewish festival; the Jewish Renaissance Foundation plans to restore it. We peered through broken windows and into eerie inner courtyards, unable to stop looking for ghosts.

At street level, a small bar tunnelled into a near-ruined building, the weight of history bearing down on it. Outside, a young Jewish guy in a yarmulke sat ­drinking with friends. He looked at home. I’m not sure how at home I am with Poland. But it’s the place where fragments of my family remain, where the history of what happened to them is still being debated, evaded, prodded and played out.

Even the slippage and the evasion are testament to the power of what happened there, and an answer to those who say it never happened and I just somehow mislaid more than 100 members of my extended family. Poland is as close as I’m going to get to them. Before I left, I knew I wanted to come back.

Meanwhile, we badly needed a drink. The girl at the bar in Prozna St cast a cool eye over two tired and dusty, dark tourists.

“Yes?”

“Do you have wine?”

“No.”

We had vodka.

Diana Wichtel has written a new memoir about her search for her Holocaust-survivor father. Read our interview with her about writing Driving to Treblinka.

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