Journalist Diana Wichtel tells the heart-wrenching story of her search for her Holocaust survivor father in her book Driving to Treblinka. She is a finalist in tonight's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She also speaks at the Auckland Writer's Festival this weekend.
1 Before you started this book, what had your father told you about his experiences as a Jew in Poland during World War II?
We knew his family were in the Warsaw Ghetto. They were deported by train to Treblinka, an extermination camp where most people were killed within two hours of arrival. He managed to escape by jumping out a small window. He told us stories about surviving in the forest, living in a box under the ground. As a child I asked questions like, "How could you leave your mother on the train?" that must have caused him pain.
2 Why did you decide to write this book?
When you come from our sort of family there's always secrets and silences. You're haunted by the fact that over a hundred family members have disappeared virtually without a trace. There were times when I'd open the door, take a quick look and shut it again because it was all too hard. A few years ago I wrote an article and Awa Press invited me to write a book.
3 What was it like to finally 'open the door' on your past?
The American writer Daniel Mendelsohn was an inspiration. He told me, 'You have to open the door and put yourself in the stream of history'. It's given me quite a different view. The past doesn't stay put; it's not back there. I put myself in that stream and that's where my father was. I saw him in my dreams. It was hard to stop.
4 You grew up in Canada until the age of 13 when your mother took her children and moved to Auckland. Why did she leave your father behind?
After the war, my father had established a life for himself in Canada. He married my mother, had three children and ran a business. But when things started to go wrong financially, the resilience wasn't there. He could pick himself up and carry on once, but not twice. I think that's not uncommon for some survivors. I don't judge my mother for leaving. She went through terrible times. I later discovered he was only pretending to go to work. He was just sitting in a park feeding the birds. My mother's family rescued her in a sense.
5 What story did your family tell people about your father's absence?
The narrative was that he would follow us to New Zealand, but he never came. He wasn't spoken of in the extended family. There were names you didn't mention. As children we had this radar of working out from people's reactions what you couldn't say. Whenever I tried to talk to Mum about him she'd cry. That's one reason I didn't ask more questions at the time.
6 People talk about 'finding closure'. Did that happen when you discovered your father's fate?
I don't believe in closure. There should be another word for what happens. It's more the opposite because everything you thought you knew about your family narrative is thrown up in the air. It's very disorienting and I'm still trying to put the pieces back together. When my father's file finally arrived with all the most painful information I thought; 'What have I done?' Now I have to share this with family. My daughter and I read it together, weeping. The way I look at it now, when we left Canada, my father was back in the forest; running away, living like a fugitive, reusing all the skills that allowed him to survive the first time. That's heartbreaking.
7 In the promotion of this book you have had to retell this story many times. Does it get any easier?
It hasn't yet. There's one school of thought that making people talk about trauma just re-traumatises them. On the other hand survivors like my father didn't get any support or recognition of what they'd gone through. Scientists have shown that trauma can actually be passed down genetically. I once asked Richard Dawkins if Holocaust trauma could be passed down. He said; 'There's some evidence that it does but only for a generation or two'. That explains a feeling I've always had, that despite the silences, I had absorbed and understood things at an almost cellular level.
8 As the child of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, do you identify as Jewish?
My mother was a lapsed Catholic and my father was an atheist. I didn't identify as Jewish growing up, but it was interesting when I went along to a second generation group in Auckland in the 90s; the minute I got in that room it felt familiar – the sense of humour, the stories, the intensity. It was just like our house growing up. It felt comfortable. It's not religious. It's cultural and it's tribal.
9 What was it like going to Poland to visit Treblinka, the Warsaw Ghetto and other sites of significance to your family history?
Subconsciously I had resisted going for a long time. It was my partner who said, 'We've got to go'. Some people say they'd never want their feet to be on that blood soaked ground but I felt completely the opposite. In Treblinka I wanted to lie down on the ground because that was as close as I was going to get. It sounds crazy; it's a very primitive urge for connection. You want to touch, you want to feel. It became very real at Treblinka. They murdered all those beautiful people.
10 You also visited a bunker in a Polish forest like the one your father survived the war in. What was that like?
Fascinating. My father had told us he'd hid in a box under the ground during the war but we didn't know much else. He told us about digging up potatoes and eating them raw. In the forest they were hunted, not just by Nazis but by anti-semitic locals and some partisan groups. It was also emotional going to the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. We found several family graves including my great-grandmother who starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. At that stage they were still trying to keep up a pretence of normalcy so Jews could pay to give their dead a burial.
11 What did you think of recent news reports that 40 per cent of Americans don't know what Auschwitz is?
I wasn't surprised. It was really only from the Eichmann trial in 1961 that the word Holocaust really started to be used. The Holocaust author Laurence Rees says it's a myth that survivors didn't want to talk about it. Many did but no-one wanted to listen. That was my experience too. It's a conversation stopper - people don't know what to say. For me the healing part has been the third generation and their willingness to know. They're so fierce about it; "This is my grandfather - he was a badass!" That's such a different narrative from mine which is the tragedy of the complete destruction of a person.
12 In the end of the book you find your father's grave in Canada and decide to mark it with a headstone. What was that like?
It took a bit of doing because our family are dispersed all over the world and we had to confer about what to write on the headstone. The unveiling was an amazing day. It felt like a victory just to have that list of names there; all his children and grandchildren. It's testimony. He is remembered. He isn't erased like so many of his family were. It's not closure but it is very comforting.