Diana Wichtel, a long-time TV reviewer and journalist, has just won national awards for her first book, Driving to Treblinka, about her search for her father. From the publisher’s blurb: ‘Diana Wichtel was born in Vancouver. Her mother was a New Zealander, her father a Polish Jew who had jumped off a train to the Treblinka death camp and hidden from the Nazis until the end of the war. When Diana was 13 she moved to New Zealand with her mother, sister and brother. Her father was to follow. Diana never saw him again.’
We always used to get the Listener in my house growing up, and I always used to save up Wichtel’s column to read: she was my favourite. I had previously attended The Art of the Critic, where she was the panellist who spoke the least. In my review of that session I mentioned I was puzzled by the way she seemed to speak poorly of her own work. Chair Jeremy Hansen cleared this up straight off the bat: ‘You’ll probably see as we go along that Diana suffers from chronic modesty’.
Hansen was a good chair, asking interesting questions and drawing Wichtel out without pressuring her. She was a quiet presence on stage but she had a mana about her that drew us in. After thirty years of reading her funny, incisive columns, I had thought Wichtel must be a loudly hilarious person. As the session went on, I began to realise that all that time she was carrying a weight of absence, guilt, and unresolved grief.
Wichtel grew up in an atmosphere of not looking back. Her mother shut down conversations with instructions not to upset your father, but looking back, Wichtel wonders whether he might have liked to have spoken about his wartime experiences. ‘The real problem was that no one wanted to listen.’ After he didn’t turn up in New Zealand, a teenage Wichtel was told there was nothing they could do and no way to contact him. She now realises there probably was, and this rearrangement of the narrative of her life has been disruptive and painful.
Wichtel didn’t find out her father had died until several months after the fact. She was a young woman, flatting in Auckland with her sister. There was no funeral, none of the normal processes of bereavement. ‘His death fell into a silence.’ He was just gone, like his family during the war. After that, Wichtel says she drifted. The world felt absurd. It wasn’t until she had a child of her own that she came back to herself. ‘Having a child, you can’t really deny you exist after that because there’s the proof. Without any thought at all I named my son after my father.’ She says she doesn’t judge her mother for what she did: ‘I can’t judge either of them for anything because of the hard lives they had to live. The book has taught me there’s always another story.’
Wichtel’s book details the process of trying, as an adult and an orphan, to figure out what happened to her father. ‘Going back into the past was a very hypnotic and magical thing to do.’ The past is a haunted space, ‘very seductive and painful’; a parallel universe running alongside our own that we can dip into. ‘I want to stay in the stream of history because that’s where I have contact with my family.’ She has visited the remains of the death camp at Treblinka, and says it is ‘dispiriting in the extreme’ to see the current rise of anti-Semitism.
If we had expected that writing the book would bring about some kind of neat emotional resolution for Wichtel, we were wrong. ‘There’s no closure and I don’t want there to be. I’m happy to sit with the guilt – it’s the least I can do.’ It was an extraordinary note to end my 2018 Auckland Writers Festival experience on.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Driving to Treblinka won both the Best First Book of Non-fiction and the Best Book of Non-fiction prizes at the Ockham Book Awards last week. It is available at bookshops nationwide.