Scoop Review of Books


Book Review
Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father, by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45.00)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

treblinka-001Diana Wichtel’s father was a Polish Jew who jumped from a train that was taking his family to a death camp and her mother was a Catholic New Zealander. They met in Canada after the war and settled in Vancouver. Ben Wichtel could be a very fond father but was deeply affected by the fate of his mother and siblings, which at times made him hard to live with. He had frequent nightmares and was subject to sudden bouts of anger, exacerbated in due course by his failing business which led to their valuables being pawned and moves to progressively cheaper houses.  When Diana was thirteen, her mother moved with the three children to New Zealand taking only the luggage they could carry.  The journey was funded by her mother’s family. They were told their father would follow with their remaining possessions, but they never saw him again.

I admired the fact that Wichtel was willing to share intimate personal details with a wide audience. As she matured, she realised how little she knew about her father, even when the family was still receiving occasional letters from him: he was not discussed. Was he really planning to follow?  Years later, when she finally decided she had to try to find out about him, she travelled to Canada, the US, Germany and Poland, following various leads. She caught up with some cousins in the U.S. – several for the first time – and discovered quite a bit about him and his family: his survival in Poland throughout the war, the antisemitism of some Poles as well as Germans, his arrival in the U.S. and his move to Vancouver, despite his wealthy New York relatives urging him to stay with them.  But she still does not know some basic facts about her father.

A family tree was very useful in keeping track of the Wichtel family and the preponderance of 1942 amongst the dates of death was a grim reminder of the key event behind the story.  A family tree for her mother’s relatives would also have been helpful, as that family, too, had its complexities and problems, though they are mostly somewhat peripheral to the main story.

This is not a book that you “enjoy” in the usual sense of that word. But the book is not so consistently grim that it is hard to read.  Right at the start you learn that Ben Wichtel died in a psychiatric hospital at the age of 60.  I learned a lot from reading it. I did not know that half the Jews killed in the Holocaust were Poles or that Jews formed 30 percent of Poland’s pre-war population and 90 percent of them were killed.

It is a salutary reminder of the immense and lasting impact of Nazism.  We tend to think mainly of the millions of Jews and others who died in the Holocaust but no doubt many of those who survived were, like Ben Wichtel, scarred for life.