Diana Wichtel’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. Her father was a Holocaust survivor and she grew up in a house filled with silences and extreme contrast. She an
d her siblings and her mother grappled with the challenge of living with a man who was so clearly bright and brilliant but also tortured and tormented. He spoke seven languages, played musical instruments like the zither, the banjo mandolin and the piano and had a wonderful sense of humour. But he was also sometimes absent. The motif of this contrast runs throughout the book, beginning with the first chapter which is entitled: Daddy Mad Face, Daddy Angel Face. She writes: “The house seemed to doze when my father wasn’t there. When he came home, it woke up and stood to attention.”
I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Diana as part of the 2019 Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. One of the first things that I asked was what it was like to grow up in this type of home. She shared that it wasn’t easy. She conveys this adeptly in the book through the different genres that she uses to describe her perceptions and memories of her father – from snippets of his medical records from Brockville Psychiatric Hospital (“Patient married a girl from New Zealand in 1949. They met in Vancouver.”) to his own letters and memories.
Driving to Treblinka traces Diana’s attempt to ‘know’ her father long after he disappears from her life and his death. Her book sets itself up as an attempt to chase the past, to hold it and perhaps undo parts of it. In a way, reading this book reminded me of the documentary The Last Goldfish which the talented Su Goldfish created about her father and all she knew – and didn’t – about his life.
For many children of survivors, there is a delicate challenge when writing their parent’s story of survival. Diana alludes to this challenge when she retells a dream she had of her father sitting by her bed and reaching out to take her hand. In her dream, she asks him: “Is it ok that I’m telling your story?”
Clearly, the process of writing Driving to Treblinka, has allowed Diana to embrace much of what she did not know about her father, to rediscover him and to ensure that he is remembered by her children and grandchildren who were never able to meet him.