My father was a bit of a magician. When I was little, he would come home after work at his tailor shop and conjure coins from the ears of the neighbourhood kids on a Vancouver summer evening. I didn't understand then that, a few years before I was born, he'd pulled off a far greater wonder: he was a Jew who survived World War II in Poland.
Today, January 27, UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, as many as 1.5 million of whom were children. It is also a day to remember those who escaped or survived, each with a miraculous story, given the odds.
Benjamin Wichtel was in the Warsaw Ghetto, where his grandmother died of starvation in 1941. Brandla Jonisz had given her rations to the little ones, all murdered in 1942. My dad jumped from a train on the way to the extermination camp, Treblinka, and took off for the forest. In July 1944 he was liberated by the Red Army near Lublin, with partisans and camp survivors. If he'd had to wait until this day in 1945, the day Auschwitz was liberated, chances are I wouldn't be here writing about it.
After the war he went to Sweden – no question of staying in Poland, where survivors could face hostility, violence and even pogroms – then to Canada. He was a person displaced, with a history no one talked about. He ran his shop, played the piano on his one day off, alternatively spoiled his three children rotten or terrified them with sudden, incomprehensible rages. I'll never know the full extent of what he carried around with him until he couldn't any longer. In the end he wasn't going to the shop every day but sitting in the park feeding the birds.
When I was 13 my Kiwi mother packed up my sister, brother and me and took us home to New Zealand. Dad was meant to follow. In researching what happened to him in Canada after we left, I found an official document with a devastating note: "Wants to go to New Zealand".
He never made it. Many did. The theme of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand's public commemorations in Auckland, Napier, Wellington and Christchurch this year is the resistance and resilience of displaced persons who started again, going on to make significant contributions in a new land.
Artists, musicians, architects, the German writer Karl Wolfskehl… It was a treat for a girl who'd landed up shipwrecked on Milford Beach in the homogenized culture of 60s and 70s Auckland to occasionally meet people like Prague-born photographer Frank Hofmann. I mentioned my father's background, but the talk soon turned to other things. It was a time to look forward, not back.
Viennese philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote what Michael King called "the most influential book to ever come out of New Zealand", The Open Society and Its Enemies, while waiting out the war in Christchurch.
There's much that still resonates in an age of MAGA and fake news. "The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism," he wrote, "the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police and at a romanticised gangsterism. Beginning with the suppression of reason and truth, we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human."
A small number of refugees were accepted by New Zealand before and after the war – about 1100. As historian Ann Beaglehole has written, "Edwin Dudley Good, Comptroller of Customs, in the mid 1930s, was quite explicit in his interpretation: 'Non-Jewish applicants are regarded as a more suitable type of immigrant.'"
Those who did make it were still battling the odds. They helped transform the local culture, as have refugees and displaced persons throughout history.
But the past doesn't stay put. Fueled by chaotic times, anti-Semitism and racism is on the rise, as seen in the white supremacist trappings among those who attacked the United States Capitol on January 6, incited, incredibly, by the President.
The Christchurch mosque attacks of March 15, 2019 and life in the time of Covid have showed us – and the world – how powerfully all of us in Aotearoa, from here and from everywhere, can do the mahi together in tough times.
The strength and grace of our Muslim community over the sentencing of the mosque attacks perpetrator, and the support they received, turned what some feared might be used as a platform for hate into an occasion that offered a valiant response to intolerance: unite as a community, tell our stories, speak out.
The legacy of New Zealanders displaced by the horror of the Holocaust and their descendants goes on. My father's story ended as tragedy, but my children and grandchildren have demanded that I also see it as a story of resistance and resilience. He jumped and fought and survived. He went on the make a new family who won't forget.
Diana Wichtel is a journalist, author of the memoir, Driving to Treblinka, and serves on the board of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. Centre patron Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff speak at a memorial event this evening at the Auckland War Memorial Museum Southern Atrium.