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Diana Wichtel's long search for her Holocaust-survivor father

Ben Wichtel in post-war Sweden. Photo/Wichtel family collection

A new book by Listener senior writer Diana Wichtel offers a quietly devastating memoir about her search for her father, a man who escaped the Holocaust while much of his family perished.

Diana Wichtel left Canada in 1964 with her mother and siblings when her parents’ marriage unravelled. She never saw her father, Benjamin Wichtel, again.

He was a Polish Jew whose family was decimated by the Holocaust. How he survived World War II had long confounded Diana, as did what happened to him after his Catholic-raised New Zealand wife Patricia took their Canadian-born children back to her home country and they lost contact.

RelatedArticlesModule - Driving to Treblinka

After Wichtel wrote about going in search of traces of her father’s family in Poland for the Listener in 2011, Awa Press publisher Mary Varnham got in touch.

The resulting book, Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father, is riveting, a quietly devastating memoir of growing up in a fractured family that attempts to shine a light into the cracks. It’s a reminder of the undying anguish of the Holocaust, but it’s also a droll genealogical detective story.

I duly requested an interview with the author. This involved wandering over to her desk. She looked at me funny. She batted away all compliments about the book. Eventually, she said yes.

Diana Wichtel.

So you’ve written a book and a very personal one, too. How are you feeling?

For any writer of any book, it’s a terrifying thing. I now understand why Virginia Woolf used to take to her bed the minute her books were published. It’s a nerve-racking time when you are seeing it go out into the world.

Why is it nerve-racking? You’ve been a print journalist for many years.

I think I get by as a journalist by never imagining anyone actually reading what I’ve written, because it has a certain paralysing effect. But also with journalism, you put it out there and it’s gone pretty quickly. I haven’t written that many personal pieces. I have written one or two and that was a little nerve-racking, too. This one is a much more personal piece and it involves family history and all those things. So it feels quite exposing.

So why did you do it?

There were times when you just go, “What was I thinking?” But it’s also probably the only sort of personal story I ever would write because it kind of wanted to be told, in a way. I was always thinking I would write it for the family one day. Because I’ve suffered – and the family has, too – from being in a family of silences and secrets and things you don’t know. It’s amazing how, with the greatest determination not to do that, you can pass these things on to the next generation. The same patterns can occur.

Jewish partisans near Lublin, Poland.

How so?

With the best of intentions – I’ve got a bit of it in the book – a younger family member would say something to me like, “Who’s that in that photograph?” You open your mouth to start to explain it and it just all seems too much and you find yourself backing away from it. So the not talking about it can pass on down the generations.

You had written about visiting Poland and tracing your family’s Holocaust history there for the magazine. Did you think then that it needed to be a book?

Well, no. No. It’s a topic that not everyone wants to know about and that’s one thing I discovered in the writing. There has been this myth that the Holocaust survivors when they came back didn’t want to talk about it. And there are plenty who didn’t, for whatever reason. But I was just reading Laurence Rees’ book The Holocaust: A New History and he talks about that and makes the point that sometimes they did want to talk about it, but other people didn’t want to listen. It can be a real conversation-stopper.

Patricia and Ben Wichtel with Rosalind, two, and Diana, Christmas 1951.

When I was approached [by the publisher], that crystallised it. If someone is saying, “You have this odd family background. Would you like to write about it?”, to not do so would feel like an abdication of responsibility. It’s very galvanising to have a publication deadline.

What was the hardest part to write?

Definitely, I think, without giving too much away, the part where I find out what happened to my father [after her parents’ split]. I ended up finding out, in far greater detail than I ever expected to in a million years, about his last few years. That was hard to write, hard to pass on to family. But once you’ve got the material, you have to share it with your family, of course.

Your mother died in 2007. Was she aware of your need to find what had happened to your father?

Yeah, she was. It’s funny how long it took, but I think this is common in families. The number of people I’ve spoken to with any kind of war background in their family … they are all kicking themselves and asking why they didn’t ask more questions earlier. There are a million reasons why you don’t. One of them is that your mother cries.

That is a pretty strong reason.

She was always more than willing to sit down and try to answer all my questions as best she could. But she had difficulty handling the whole thing. The family broke up and she went on with her life. She had never kept anything. It was all too painful. So any documentation, any paperwork, any letters, had all been thrown out. So we just had to try to piece it all together.

At cousin Jerry’s bar mitzvah, New York, 1960. Photo/Wichtel family collection

There is a large part of the book dedicated to memories of your childhood in Canada, then your teen years in New Zealand. So it’s also a book about memory, in a way, and how memory works.

The worst thing is where you have a quite a clear memory and then, the more you think about it, the more you wonder if it is a clear memory. My father was such an enigmatic figure. I mean, I loved him but I think I was always trying to figure him out, even when he wasn’t there. So almost every exchange of any significance we had is very vivid in my mind – it always has been. The thing that’s really tricky is that, to get by, you construct narratives from what you remember and what you know. And the narratives are what break down and you think, “Well, most of what I thought I knew is, to some extent, wrong.”

You’re joining dots.

You’ve joined dots into a story you can live with, basically. That’s why when people say, “‘Oh, you must feel good now you’ve got closure.” Well, no. You’ve actually blown everything up and you have to start again, reconstructing the story that you carry with you about what happened.

The new father in the family’s Vancouver backyard, 1949. Photo/Wichtel family collection

So, you must feel good now that you’ve got closure …

Ha, ha. The other thing is I don’t want closure, I decided. I remember I talked to Daniel Mendelsohn about The Lost, the wonderful memoir about his family in the Holocaust. And he said you’ve got to open the door to the past and insert yourself into the stream of history. You’ll be amazed what happens once you’ve done that. That’s not a door I want to close. It’s uncomfortable, but I just want to remain there in this stream of history for as much as possible.

How did being wrenched out of Canada as a teenager affect you?

In different ways, I think. As I have come to realise, you can grow up in the same family and have completely different experiences. I was 13 and so it was a transitional age, but it was a profound culture shock coming from a Canadian high school where you wore make-up and dressed how you wanted, within reason, to Westlake Girls’ High with stockings and berets and where if you spoke to a boy on the way home you’d be suspended. I was probably marginally depressed for a couple of years.

Was writing about your family cathartic?

Not yet. I live in hope. No. I think in fact it just opens a whole bunch of other stuff because, inevitably, you know, we weren’t there when my father died. There was no funeral, no nothing. It was like he never existed. In that regard, it was like what happened to his family in Poland. He left no trace. So, it’s a lot of delayed grief, inevitably.

I also think there’s that thing with your relationship with the past. For me this is not the closure sort of thing. The thing about writing the book that was wonderful was finding the past is this parallel universe that is always there. It never stands still. It keeps on changing and so you engage with it in different ways.

There was a bit of grief in finishing writing the book because my intense engagement with the past was over.

Jewish families forced to march by German soldiers during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943. Photo/Getty Images

What did it do to your head, spending all that time in your and your family’s history?

You would have to ask those closest to me. But it’s a very haunting experience, definitely, and I’m not religious. I have no real belief in any supernatural thing, but there were dreams. It puts you in a strange space. I found I was very open to slightly unusual feelings of connections to that past and to those people. I don’t put it down to anything supernatural.

You’ve entered something of a ghost story.

That is what it felt like, sometimes. You were visited by ghosts, not literally obviously, but you were visited by ghosts because you had opened the door.

Your father may have been an enigma, but as you conclude in the book, by escaping the Nazis the way he did, he was also a badass.

I remember saying to my daughter, “he was liberated with Polish partisans in the forest”. She said, “that’s some Tarantino shit. He was a badass.” I’m like, “I guess he was.”

That is where the younger generation is so wonderful. They have a whole different take. They have told the story back to me differently. For me, the narrative was: “You lose your father; you don’t know where he is; where do you find out?” It’s quite traumatic. But for them, it’s the story of someone who did incredible things against incredible odds. So it’s helped me change my narrative.

Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father, by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45) is published on September 28.

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.