DRIVING TO TREBLINKA: A LONG SEARCH FOR A LOST FATHER
by Diana Wichtel
(Awa Press, $45)
Reviewed by James Robins
'The best that can be achieved," Hannah Arendt wrote in Men in Dark Times, "is to know precisely what the past was, and to endure this knowledge, and then to wait and see what comes of knowing and enduring."
For a long while, award-winning Listener columnist Diana Wichtel did not know but she endured. Her father, Benjamin Wichtel, was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto who escaped a train to the Treblinka death camp and became a partisan in the Polish forest. A survivor - unlike so many millions - he settled in Canada and married a New Zealander.
When the marriage collapsed, Wichtel's mother returned with the children to New Zealand, leaving Benjamin behind. Without anchor and order, his mind unspooled. He was buried in a misnamed grave - "Relatives and friends present: None." - and lay undiscovered for nearly half a century.
For Diana, born in 1950, his past was another country. A door that remained closed. Unexplained. Behind that door lay horrors: her wider family's fate - several generations, all gone. Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father is both a loving tribute to Benjamin and a redolently powerful meditation on the great weight carried by descendants of survivors. It has been wrought from a brutal severance and many quiet decades.
The earliest chapters are, at times, unbearably tender; an accumulation of quips, looks and sensations - beats of the uneven rhythm of life. The wide-eyed world of the child brushes up against, and sometimes bangs against, her father's experience. In the 1960s, she watches a television documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto with him. "I was there," Benjamin says. A nightmare glimpsed but not understood.
Pierced with yearning and perhaps a degree of guilt, Wichtel slipped tentatively into research, knitting together a "puzzle composed mostly of missing pieces". Uncovered fragments took her to Poland, the US and the warm embrace of a newly discovered family.
By attempting to envisage Benjamin's journey through the midnight of the century and grappling with Primo Levi's famous injunction against understanding, Wichtel has been gifted a superior, shared empathy with those who didn't make it, and their undone families, too.
Her prose is exquisite; her wit elegant. She imprints the scale of her longing into the marrow of your bones and I couldn't help but wish to remind her of Siward's epitaph of loss and memory from Macbeth: "Your cause of sorrow must not be measured by his worth, for then it hath no end."
Some of that worth has already been measured by the tears spilled in unearthing this story, and will be measured again by the tears of the book's readers. Such is the earnestness, the vivacity, and ultimately, the profoundness of its conclusions.
"There's no closure," Wichtel writes, agreeing with Hannah Arendt. "It's better to stay in the stream of history. That's where he is. It's where he's always been."
(Allen & Unwin, $33)
Reviewed by David Hill
The courage of this man is breathtaking.
Bandi means "firefly" in Korean and it's the pseudonym of an author, still living in the grotesquely-governed North, whose short fiction was smuggled across the border into China. It's set in the 1980s-1990s, so Kim Il-Sung is Beloved Leader.
Was, rather: three months after its ruler's death, North Korea has virtually no flowers left growing as "competitive displays of grief" continue. Secret police watch for any dry eyes; swoop on a young couple daring to hold hands while they search for blooms.
The same paranoia and persecution bubble through these seven substantial stories. In all of them, individuals are accused or denounced in some form. The book's title is fearsomely relevant.
Spies are everywhere. A waft of steam from a kitchen implies self-indulgence and therefore ideologically unacceptable cooking. When a mother draws curtains so her little boy isn't frightened by a huge portrait of Karl Marx flapping outside the window, she's promptly charged with anti-revolutionary behaviour. A soybean crop on a collective farm fails to meet its production target; arrests and indictments follow.
A "heavy shroud of helplessness and desolation" hangs everywhere, across "this land of deceit and falsehood", whose alternative facts make Donald Trump look positively transparent. Savagery and surrealism are rendered in image after incident.
The North appears as a virtual caste society: if your father/grandfather died fighting "mind-rotting" capitalism, you're comparatively free and privileged. If it transpires that he defected to the South, your punishment is inevitable and brutal. Characters' lives are stretched almost beyond hope.
A decent, loyal official realises the system he serves is both absurd and foul. The tree which an old revolutionary planted to symbolise a new world breaks with him. A pregnant wife tries to exist on dog food while evading a Communist Party predator.
Yet in spite of the savagery and hopelessness they face, people in these stories do endure. They can be kind, loving, stalwart and stoic. They find glints of joy; you ache for them.
The Afterword indicates that the pseudonymous Bandi is still active inside his country and continues as a respected member of the Official Writers' Committee. Even mentioning that must put his life at appalling risk. Whoever he is, he's produced the bravest book I've read for decades.