My search for my lost father - Kiwi journalist Diana Wichtel's story

Ben Wichtel in Sweden following the Second World War, before he travelled to America and began a new life in Vancouver.
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Ben Wichtel in Sweden following the Second World War, before he travelled to America and began a new life in Vancouver.

Diana Wichtel was brought up in Canada. Her mother is a Kiwi, her father a Polish Jew who miraculously survived the Holocaust. When Wichtel was 13, the family moved to New Zealand. Their father was to follow. She never saw him again. This is an extract from her new book about the experience.

One night we're sitting watching television.The first documentaries about what is starting to be called the Holocaust are beginning to screen. There is footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, the emaciated bodies, children with haunted eyes in the streets of a civilised European city.

"I was there," my father says. I turn to look at him. His eyes hold steady on the television screen.

"What was it like?"

"You would wake up in the morning and the person next to you is dead."

I don't ask who that person was because you don't ask.

There are images of a place called Auschwitz. "There were worse places," my father says.

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I am shocked into silence. I thought I knew at least something about his life until I sat with him and saw those pictures.

The book's author Diana Wichtel is an award-winning journalist who lives in Auckland.
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The book's author Diana Wichtel is an award-winning journalist who lives in Auckland.

I must have told the kids at school that we were going to New Zealand before the summer holidays in June because I remember Paul Zaluski saying: "You'll be eaten by the Mau Maus." My mother's family in Auckland sends us copies of the New Zealand Herald. I have the ghost of a memory that the newspapers were sent so my father could look for jobs. The television page of the Herald reveals one channel that comes on at two in the afternoon and finishes at 10.30pm with a prayer. I flatly refuse to leave, but our life in Vancouver has already ended. In the last two months I stop seeing my friends.

We're as good as gone.

We have to get rid of our dog Dukey. My mother puts an ad in the paper. A family come in their car with their other dogs to get her. We watch her anxiously staring at us out the back window of their car as the people drive away. We weep. My mother, who survived her own chaotic past by not looking back, doesn't think to get the people's contact details. Dad is furious that Dukey has been taken away, destination unknown, and there is no way of finding out her fate. The phone keeps ringing from the ad. My mother can't talk to the callers because she keeps bursting into tears. I have to take the phone and say: "The dog is gone." Dukey, I hope you had a good life.

In these last months my father seems to become greyer, shakier, a nocturnal silent presence. He comes home one night with a gash in his head so bad it requires stitching. He says he walked into the edge of a heavy glass door at the bank. The meeting at the bank can't have gone well.

We begin to spend more time together watching television. No one is bothering to tell me to go to bed so I don't. Dad likes to watch Meet the Press

Ben Wichtel with Diana Wichtel(right) and a friend in the garden of the Wichtel family home in Vancouver, 1958.
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Ben Wichtel with Diana Wichtel(right) and a friend in the garden of the Wichtel family home in Vancouver, 1958.

We start to have late night talks about philosophy, politics and religion. 

We are living in a very conservative Christian neighbourhood. I come home spouting what I have been told at school about Jesus (good) and communism (very, very bad).

"Jesus was a great philosopher," my father says. "He was not the son of God."

And the communists? "They aren't the worst thing in the world." 

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During these talks I learn to admire his mind. Then I go to say goodnight to my mother. She's crying. 

Soon we're packing our suitcases, just what we can carry. Dad is to stay behind and crate up our belongings to send to New Zealand. My mother packs nothing of any value. The amethyst brooch that was a gift from her aunt, the hand-me-down mink coat Aunt Mollie sent from New York, her engagement ring, all have long since been pawned. For some reason she takes a huge hatbox. It won't fit in the planes' overhead lockers and will cause farcical scenes as we get jammed in the aisles.

My goldfish is named Dewey, after my initials DEW. On our last day I carry Dewey, sloshing unhappily in his fish bowl, around to my friend Anne's house. I haven't seen much of Anne over the summer. We promise we'll write, and do for a while. Recently, Anne tracked me down and came to visit me in New Zealand, trailing traces of that other world behind the closed door. She couldn't remember much about my father. She hardly ever saw him, she said. I always went to her place, with its Danish Modern furniture and clean-cut blond parents with normal accents, like a family from television. Her mother enrolled us for charm school. Our ship was going down and I was learning the ladylike way to get out of a car.

I can't remember much about the day we left. When we got to the airport I felt a little put out when my father paused to put some 50 cent pieces into an insurance machine that promised to pay out if we crashed. He always was a bit of a gambler. I don't remember saying goodbye, just turning to wave when we went through the gate. It didn't feel like a big deal: Dad was going to follow us to New Zealand.

We would see him soon.

After an eternity we landed and stepped on to the tarmac to a chorus of yoo-hooing from behind the wire fence. In a photo we have, my mother looks a little deranged and we girls shell-shocked. I'm clutching the wretched hatbox. My mother's family had clubbed together to finance the rescue mission that had brought us to New Zealand. There was an air of disgrace about the whole enterprise. 

We were separated for the convoy home through the damp, lush, alien landscape. We girls climbed into the back of Uncle Jim's blue Mini. I had never seen a car so small that didn't have pedals."What do you think of the scenery?" Uncle Jim said.

"Lovely!" I quavered, lighting on the correct answer to any question about how we found our new home.

"I expected you to be glamorous but you're just ordinary girls," he said. Maybe in New Zealand that was a compliment.

There was a gathering at my grandmother's house to greet us. Other than at funerals, I would never again see so many of our relatives together. My Great-aunt Alma was small and perfectly square. 

She said "Hooray" when she meant goodbye. 

Also: "We're a mad lot," and, encouragingly: "It's a great life if you don't weaken."

Four months later it's Christmas. We are living in a tiny prefab beside my grandmother's house, one road back from Milford Beach. My father phones. "Come back, Diana," he says, "it's snowing in Vancouver."

I say: "How can we come back? Mum is working six days a week. We don't even have enough money to buy shoes."

My mother takes the phone away.

I am 14, angry, a bitch. He knows how much I love the snow. 

This extract is from Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father by journalist Diana Wichtel, published by Awa Press, $45. Available now.

 - Your Weekend

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