Tracing trauma: “Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father” – by Diana Wichtel.

How do human beings survive horror? The answer seems to be that they do and they don’t. Some part of them is crushed and never recovers; other parts move on, around and away from the trauma, carrying on to the best  of any remaining ability.

This is certainly so for Diana Wichtel’s  father, the subject of her memoir “Driving to Treblinka”. Its subtitle  echoes throughout the book: “A long search for a lost father”. A man who was lost to his daughter, her siblings and their wider family, to the  grim forces of history, and to himself.

The story Wichtel tells – dedicated simply “For Dad” – is so dreadful it  would be distasteful to criticise its literary value. But we don’t have to. Enough to say that her writing is simple and direct, never getting between the reader and what she has to tell us. It speaks in a frank and  intimate first person, so that the feelings and events she recounts, though intensely personal, become our own.

She last saw her father when she was 13. Much later she discovers that he died alone, ill and psychotic, in a Vancouver hospital a mere seven years on. Painful extracts from official reports – from doctors, therapists and so on – head up chapters as she retraces her voyage of discovery, via documents, her own and others’ memories, and
gut-wrenching travels.

At the centre of her and her father’s story lies the Holocaust. He was young, skinny and athletic when, aboard a train carrying Jews from Warsaw to the Treblinka extermination camp, he escaped through a small, barbed-wired window. He lay in the snow, waiting to be shot. But the train moved on, and he fled into the forest. There, he hid out until the
end of the war. In the interim, entire branches of his family were murdered.

Eventually he found his way to Vancouver. But, as Wichtel records a family member telling her:

“He wasn’t all put together …?. If you get out of the ghetto and all this crazy running around, you don’t expect to be perfectly stable. Jumping off the train, living like an animal for three years with a little terrorist group who ran around and tried to knock off Germans or steal things to survive…”

Her memories of early family life provide a poignant backdrop to what happened before and after. Once inv Vancouver, her father met her mother, a young New Zealand woman. They fell in love and married, and Wichtel
was the second of their three children. Her father loved his children. He brought home toys, enjoyed setting off fireworks, and played the balalaika and the piano. He spoke seven languages and flourished old-world charm.

But he could also “change the weather in the house with a word, a look”. His wife struggled increasingly to hold things together, and “[w]e children got on with growing up, negotiating the cracks opening up in what was left of our family life.”

Finally, Wichtel’s mother could take no more. She and the three children packed a few belongings and took flight for New Zealand. The children believed – at least for a while – that their father would follow. He wrote: “I miss you all terribly it is very hard to describe and I only hope I will have enough strength to carry on until I can see you.”

Young Wichtel struggles with her alien surroundings, and the roller-coaster of teenagerhood. The fatherless family is poor, and life is hard. She is “probably depressed”. Her father’s letters become increasingly strange and irrational, then stop. Eventually, she realises he will never come.

This part of the story alone is terribly sad. But what she disinters, as her courageous “long search” begins, is heart-breaking. She recalls at age 11 watching with her father the televised Eichmann trial and first hearing the word Holocaust. Realising that this had been her father’s reality, seems – though she doesn’t say so – to mark the end of her childhood.

She develops compulsive rituals “to stop the bad things from finding us”. But her father couldn’t escape his past, and neither, in the end, could she. An American academic talks to her about transmitted trauma: “the child and adolescent needs to know and feel the inner reality of the parent, even if this reality includes horror. Without this access, everything feels phony, unreal, including the child… herself.”

Along with her Jewish husband, Wichtel is driven to find out what she can about her father and his experiences, and about her wider family. The family tree at the front of her book identifies five of his siblings and notes the single year of their deaths – 1942.

Shell-shocked, she and her husband visit memorials and museums, and the camps whose names will always stand for terror and despair. Some of what Wichtel learned in the course of her search she refuses to share: “It’s not for me to put such nightmares into anyone else’s head.”

The horror of industrialised mass murder is suffered by individuals, and its “lucky” survivors don’t have hard drives that can be wiped free of data. The horror takes up residence and is passed on. That’s why stories such as Wichtel’s matter.

*By Wellington reviewer Jane Westaway. This review was originally published in New Zealand Books Te Pukapuka Aotearoa.

“Driving to Treblinka” won the Royal Society Te Aprangi Award for General Non-fiction at the 2018 Ockham Book Awards. The judges said:

“The toughest task of any book, whatever the form, is to make a sentence so good that you just have to read the next one, and the next one, and then wish it could just about go on forever. So it is with Driving to Treblinka.

“From the first page, Diana Wichtel’s memoir draws you into a fascinating ancestry: the story of a girl growing up in Canada, her mum a kiwi, her dad a Polish Jew, a man who leapt in desperation from a concentration-camp-bound train, a moment around which everything in this book orbits.

“Wichtel’s curiosity, alternately upsetting and uplifting, turns invisibly into a kind of mission. At its heart this is a family story, but one which cannot but shine a light on the vestiges of anti-Semitism that linger in Europe today. It is not just a beautifully written book, but an important book, too.”