Diana Wichtel won the non-fiction book of the year award at the Ockham New Zealand national book awards in May for her book Driving to Treblinka. In a recent essay for The Spinoff, Wichtel’s partner Chris Barton writes about his own profound experiences – and life-changing revelations – when he accompanied her to the Nazi death camps.
It was an odd place to be having a ridiculously obvious realisation about my life. I was standing in a 16th century cemetery in Kraków, Poland, ostensibly for a feature – “The architecture of murder and memorial” – that I was planning to inveigle into the New Zealand Herald. I’d never been in a Jewish cemetery before. I’d never worn a yarmulke. The man at the entrance to the synagogue had silently handed me one.
Covering of the head: I had some familiarity with the Christian ritual. Before I was 14, when I abruptly became an atheist, I went to church every Sunday. All the women wore hats, many of them ridiculously large. Men, if they wore a hat, removed it in church. In Judaism men cover the head, women too but for different reasons. I didn’t know precisely why, but figured it was some sort of deference to a god. In this ancient place I didn’t want to cause offence. I awkwardly put on the yarmulke.
Diana cried. She had always insisted I was more Jewish than her, something I kind of knew, but refused to entertain. My mother was born in Damascus, Syria and until she was about 15 lived in Haifa, in what was then Palestine. But the Jewish connection of my family was very disconnected. Barely acknowledged, almost never talked about, so much so it seemed not to exist, erased. There was nothing remotely Jewish in our New Zealand home, quite the opposite. My father was an Anglican priest. I didn’t have a clue about being Jewish…