Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father
By Diana Wichtel
Heritage, 278 pages, $22.95
Diana Wichtel’s father was an improbable Holocaust survivor. He managed to squeeze through the window of a rail car on its way from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp, leaving his mother and other relatives to their fate. He spent the rest of World War II hiding in the forests of Poland and fighting with partisans, before finally making his way to Canada and a new life.
For a while, Benjamin Wichtel might have been happy. He married, had three children, and maintained a relationship with a brother in New York who had immigrated to the United States before the war. But financial ruin and deteriorating mental health conspired to lead him to a lonely, tragic death.
By then, Wichtel and the rest of her family had relocated to New Zealand, her mother’s native country. The marriage had frayed, and economic need impelled the move. For a while, Wichtel’s parents maintained the hope — or the fiction — that they would someday reunite in New Zealand. There were phone calls and letters from Canada – then silence, followed by news of her father’s death in an unidentified psychiatric hospital.
For years, Wichtel pushed her sadness to the side, marrying twice and building a career as a journalist. “Driving to Treblinka,” a second-generation Holocaust memoir that has been widely acclaimed in New Zealand, is her moving and ultimately successful attempt to reclaim her past, and her father’s.
Wichtel writes in the tradition of Daniel Mendelsohn, the classicist whose 2006 Holocaust memoir, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” is a touchstone of the genre. When she interviewed Mendolsohn, he advised her to insert herself “into the stream of history,” while warning that, once she began that exploration, there would be no turning back.
Wichtel lacks Mendelsohn’s profound erudition and philosophical inclinations. She writes in a staccato rhythm, with crisp, simple, declarative sentences, and the book at first seems dry, matter of fact. But as she ranges across history, memory and geography, “Driving to Treblinka” accumulates unexpected poignancy.
The memoir begins with a toting up of her father’s remains – the weight of his brain, his weight and height, and the state of his organs, including his narrowing coronary vessels. “I know the pathology of a broken heart…,” she writes. “Was he really only 5’5”, or had he grown smaller and smaller on his way to disappearing entirely?” His madness was diagnosed as “psychosis caused by arterial sclerosis,” but the causes of his demise are listed as pneumonia and bruising.
For a while, after her father’s death, Wichtel sent missives to Canada, seeking information. Learning nothing, she at first gave up, “shut the door on the black hole of my family’s crazy past into which everything vanishes.” But even as she doubts her own memory, she can’t shake off “this loss, this mystery that shattered the remains of the Jewish branch of our family….” In the end, she pledges: “No more secrets or silences.”
Each of Wichtel’s chapters begins with an epigraph, from her father’s single surviving letter, psychiatric hospital records, and other sources – fragments that she will need to assemble. Gaps inevitably will remain.
In Vancouver, Benjamin Wichtel was a hard worker who operated a store called English Textiles, as well as a loving father with “old-world charisma” who sometimes exploded in rage. He was Jewish, but no longer religious, and married to a Catholic, Patricia Valentina Scantlebury. They met when she went to work in his fabric-importing store. Her family, too, had its share of secrets and silences, including a father who had disappeared from Patricia’s life when she was a young child.
As the money dries up and tensions mount, Wichtel’s father becomes “greyer, shakier, a nocturnal silent presence.” Her mother returns to New Zealand with the children. The memoirist has no inkling that she’ll never see her father again. Gradually, she adapts to her new country. Her mother sells her husband’s paintings and throws away his letters, obliterating their past – or trying to. Wichtel blames her younger self for not making more of an effort to stay in touch with her father. “I hope that when I read his last letter,” she says, “I wrote back.”
Wichtel’s guilt is palpable. She lives with anxiety and, she believes, transmitted trauma. She begins to write about the Holocaust.
Facing the past, it turns out, feels better than running from it. Wichtel’s efforts to recover the shards of her father’s life, to contextualize his suffering, and to locate him in death are brave and profoundly touching. This is a narrative in which the Holocaust’s aftershocks wreak yet more damage on survivors and their progeny. Wichtel reports that her father was “lost, twice,” and “that everything he had was taken from him, twice.” The story is almost unbearable.
But there is the possibility of healing, if not reversing time or erasing pain. In the course of her search, Wichtel reconnects with other family members, revisits Canada, and traverses Poland and Germany, the scenes of the original crime. She reconstructs a family tree. And, finally, she orchestrates a memorial reunion around a new gravestone, a record of the legacy of her father’s bold decision to jump off that grim train.
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein