Diana Wichtel won the non-fiction book of the year award in May with her Holocaust book Driving to Treblinka. Her partner Chris Barton writes about his own profound experiences – and life-changing revelations – when he accompanied Diana to the Nazi death camps.
It was an odd place to be having a ridiculously obvious realisation about my life. I was standing in a 16th century cemetery in Kraków, Poland, ostensibly for a feature – “The architecture of murder and memorial” – that I was planning to inveigle into the New Zealand Herald. I’d never been in a Jewish cemetery before. I’d never worn a yarmulke. The man at the entrance to the synagogue had silently handed me one.
Covering of the head: I had some familiarity with the Christian ritual. Before I was 14, when I abruptly became an atheist, I went to church every Sunday. All the women wore hats, many of them ridiculously large. Men, if they wore a hat, removed it in church. In Judaism men cover the head, women too but for different reasons. I didn’t know precisely why, but figured it was some sort of deference to a god. In this ancient place I didn’t want to cause offence. I awkwardly put on the yarmulke.
Diana cried. She had always insisted I was more Jewish than her, something I kind of knew, but refused to entertain. My mother was born in Damascus, Syria and until she was about 15 lived in Haifa, in what was then Palestine. But the Jewish connection of my family was very disconnected. Barely acknowledged, almost never talked about, so much so it seemed not to exist, erased. There was nothing remotely Jewish in our New Zealand home, quite the opposite. My father was an Anglican priest. I didn’t have a clue about being Jewish.
But Diana was moved by my wearing of the yarmulke or kippah, I think because it reminded her of her father, also atheist, but who once wore one when he read from the Torah at her cousin Jerry’s bar mitzvah. He was a holocaust survivor who had jumped from a train en route to an extermination camp. Mostly this trip had been engineered for her. It was May 2010 and there was no inkling yet of her award-winning 2017 book Driving to Treblinka, which would tell that story, but it was on this trip that the driving happened. We had often talked about it. Someday we would go to Poland so she could visit the places where her father’s family had lived and where almost all of them – around 100 – were murdered. Now we were doing the dark tourism we had joked about – a holiday visiting the death camps of Eastern Europe.
I’d won the Wolfson Press Fellowship, which awarded a glorious term of study at Cambridge University. My topic was “the portrayal of architecture in mainstream media”. Or rather, the lack of it in New Zealand. To my surprise, the Press Fellowship agreed. Before 1988, when my career took an abnormal turn into journalism, I had trained and was practising as an architect. I had even gone back to university after my five-year bachelor’s degree and written a pretty average Master’s thesis. Inexplicably, in 1988 I gave it all away and became the editor of Interface, a computer magazine. It was a weird career that saw me over a period of about three decades emigrate from the computer trade press to NBR, then the Herald, eventually ending up there as a senior feature writer. I had a vague notion that the Press Fellowship would allow me to reconnect with the life and knowledge I once had and find some common ground in writing. Which was why some 30 years after I had walked away from my drawing board I was here in an ancient Jewish cemetery trying to understand why, when we have a surfeit of book, theatre, TV and movie critics in the mainstream New Zealand media, there are no architecture critics.
The Remuh cemetery in the Kazimierz district of Krakow was lined with rows of worn sandstone tombstones inscribed in Hebrew. Instead of flowers, there were small stones on the headstones, some weighing down scraps of paper marking a moment of memory, perhaps messages to a god. Like so much of Poland the place bore the scars of marauding hordes. At times in its history Remuh had been ransacked, most recently by the Nazis, and gravestones broken or taken for paving. Fragments of slabs recovered now make a mosaic on the inner side of the Szeroka Street wall.
The day before, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. At Birkenau, I had my first ridiculously obvious realisation: that architects had created these vast holding pens for slave labour, a living purgatory foregrounding the machinery of murder so expertly refined in the triple muffle furnaces of Crematoria II and III, the last stop on the Birkenau railway.
Today, only a few mouldering buildings remain, but the vast orderly grid of barracks is still visible in the rows of crumbling brick chimneystacks, forlorn in the long grass. The retreating Nazis in 1945 destroyed much of the camp. The ravages of time have done the rest – entropy engulfing fascistic rationality at a place that has you gasping and unable to speak.
It was the grid of austere horse-stable barracks organised by Bauhaus graduate Fritz Ertl in repeating units of 12 sheds, each with one latrine, kitchen and wash barrack that really got to me. Bizarrely, the architect in me saw a chilling link to early modernist ideas about minimum habitation promoted by Neues Bauen (New Building) architects in Berlin and Frankfurt under the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. Those architects were interested in large-scale production of affordable modern housing for large urban populations – something we’re still trying to figure out in Auckland today. At Birkenau, by compressing the idea of existenzminimum (subsistence dwelling) beyond imaginable limits, the Nazi architects had cracked it. It was a crude but efficient solution. Each barrack was subdivided into 62 bays, each bay with three “roosts” originally designed for three prisoners to sleep. The architects increased capacity to four and unbelievably crammed 744 people into each of the 174 sheds housing a routinely culled and replenished slave labour force of 125,000.
Then I saw the latrine barrack designed to serve about 7000 inmates. It was a shed with three open sewer drains, each with two rows of holes for toilet seats formed into the concrete slab bridging them. Later I came across Terrence Des Pres’s description of the conditions as an “excremental assault” designed to destroy the last vestiges of prisoners’ self-worth and dignity.
For some time, I accepted this view. This was the architecture of Untermensch, design for sub-humans. The idea fits with David Livingstone Smith and his book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. The core idea is that acts such as genocide happen when one fails to appreciate the humanity of others. And that the Holocaust’s evil – gas chambers, gruesome medical experiments, and mass graves — can be explained as arising from the Nazis’ failure to see their victims as human.
Viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct. The argument seems to explain how the holocaust atrocities happened. But recently I’ve come to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth. Indeed, as author Timothy Snyder asks: if the Jews had been thought to be indifferent to their treatment by the Nazis, what would have been the point?
The Nazis frequently engineered spectacles of humiliation for crowds to watch. They wanted to see their subjects suffer. The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not. These buildings weren’t made for less-than-humans. This was architecture explicitly designed as a means of torture and humiliation of men, women and children. Cruelty given form.
Following the railway track beside the rudimentary wooden watchtowers alongside the barbed wire fences, past the selection point at the termination of the Birkenau railway, you end up at the ruins of both Crematoria II and III, identical buildings designed by Karl Bischoff, Walther Dejaco and another architect, Georg Werkmann. Beside the ruins I’m transfixed by the photos and plans of what the buildings looked like and how they operated. From the outside, the crematoria are deceptively normal with steep pitched gables roofs and brick incinerator chimneys in the Volkisch rural vernacular style. Inside they are the epitome of German form-follows-function efficiency, employing five innovative triple muffles (three crucibles in a single furnace) each capable of burning 15 corpses at a time. Innovative because they solved a fundamental design problem of mass murder, that of disposal.
While the Nazis destroyed much of the camp, they forgot about the Central Construction Office which contained an archive of blueprints that show all the details of the “Bathhouses for Special Actions”: the power of the forced-air system to fan the flames; the official cremation capacity; how the mortuary was modified into a death chamber; the size of the gas-tight doors; and the specifications of the ventilation system required to extract the Zyklon-B from the gas chamber in 20 minutes
There’s also deliberate deceit in the design. Dummy shower heads to create the illusion of a shower-room were mounted on the ceiling of the underground gas chamber and Zyklon-B crystals were dropped from the roof into fake hollow sheet metal columns, perforated at regular intervals.
The truth of Birkenau’s insane grand design is so obvious it’s banal, yet it had never occurred to me before. I’d always thought of architecture as something uplifting. This was an extreme example of how a servile profession can be bent to do the worst. The client is always right. The experience had a profound effect. I hadn’t thought about how architecture could be harnessed by genocide.
In the Remuh cemetery, with the horror of Birkenau still swirling in my head, I realised that if I’d been here under Hitler’s rule, the close history of my parents’ generation, and my Jewish legacy from my mother’s side, would likely have seen me and my children sent to Birkenau. Another thought that had never occurred to me before.
Technically, I may have been wrong. My Jewish side stems from my grandmother Bida. My grandfather wasn’t Jewish so I think, under Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg laws that makes me a mischling (hybrid) of the second degree, someone with just one Jewish grandparent, a quarter-Jew. Sometimes under the Nazi worldview mischling status could provide an out clause for death, if not persecution.
Either way, my realisation among the dead in the Remuh cemetery, self-consciously wearing a yarmulke, was not an ideal way to recognise my Jewish ancestry. But it was a start and the most unexpected consequence of my tagging along with Diana as she began her increasingly obsessive search for what happened to her father. Weird happenings in weird graveyards would be a recurring theme of the journey.
We drove to Treblinka where most of Diana’s father’s family had been slaughtered – some 17,000 jagged granite shards set into concrete in a vast forest clearing, symbolic graves to some 800,000 dead, their remains ploughed under the soil to conceal the crime. The serenity of the stones amidst encircling pine trees and the pale blue sky made an enormous silence demanding a response, but it was yet another place where it was impossible to speak.
Then there was the question of how Germany memorialised such a monstrous history. Graberfeld (Field of Graves), better known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a grid of ash grey rectangular slabs in the heart of Berlin by New York architect Peter Eisenman is an extraordinary achievement. The vast expanse – 2,711 concrete standing stones or stelae arranged alongside 95cm wide single-file paths and covering 13,000 square metres – creates an architecture of unease, a controversial monument to national ignominy. Architecture harnessed to address historical amnesia.
That was 2010. Diana wasn’t done. She knew she would have to come back to Poland. Back in New Zealand in early 2011, I wrote “The architecture of murder and memorial”. It was the beginning of a concerted effort to bring my architectural knowledge into my journalism. It wasn’t easy. By this stage, the Herald was diving headlong into tabloid mode which made the editors wary of anything that might be perceived to be too brainy. Architecture tended to be seen as an elitist topic, not a term to describe the fabric of the built environment which we all inhabit. It was best not to use the word architect or architecture. I adopted a strategy of architectural writing by stealth. My stories were about holocaust memorials, heritage conservation, the Christchurch rebuild, green buildings etc, never about architecture.
I also tentatively took my first steps as an architecture critic. I wrote about the Auckland Art Gallery and the huge battle over its design that began in 2007 and played out in the Environment Court until 2009, costing the Auckland City Council an extra $5.4 million. I started to develop a framework for writing about architecture – secrets, lies and compromise. These were the essential ingredients of architecture – the tools of the trade that every architect wrestles with – and the lens I’d use as a critic.
I now sometimes add the word “silence”. That idea developed from the first trip to Poland and visiting the Nazi death camps. Architecture sometimes embodies an enormous silence, like the building ruins at Birkenau that no one, least of all architects, really wants to talk about. I felt that silence when I was writing about the Christchurch earthquakes and learned from engineers that it was well known that many pre-1976 buildings had design flaws – typically involving concrete beams that are too strong for their columns so the column is more likely to give way than the beam. They also have flaws in the beam-column joint zone. We’ve seen the consequence in the catastrophic failure of the both the Pyne Gould and Canterbury Television (CTV) buildings. Unbelievably nobody has been held accountable.
The Poland trip in 2010 proved pivotal. Not just for Diana as the beginnings of her book. But also for me in developing a change of tack in my writing, and, as it turned out, in my career. It also signalled another more personal seismic shift that would take until 2016 to materialise.
In 2014 Diana was asked by Mary Varnham at Awa Press to write a book about her father’s story, so in 2015 we travelled to Poland again and she discovered her great-grandfather’s, grandfather’s and great grandmother’s graves in the Warsaw cemetery. In Canada she also miraculously found out what had happened to her father. In 2016 we travelled to Canada again and then to Israel. More graveyards.
The trip to Israel was largely at my urging. Jerusalem has Yad Vashem, the official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, including the Holocaust History Museum designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. By now I was the architecture critic for Metro, doing some freelance journalism and teaching part time at the Auckland School of Architecture, having departed the Herald at end of 2012. I was keen to see Safdie’s building and thought I might further my research into the architecture of murder and memorial. Plus, I was sure there would be information there that would help Diana with her book. She was sceptical but agreed and then promptly set about tracking down my Jewish cousins. It was a crossover of narratives. Diana’s book was about uncovering her family’s secrets and silences. I was now about to confront the same in my family.
Not knowing about my cousins was part of the silence in our family about my mother’s past. She died when I was 14. She’d almost never talked about her childhood or her time in Palestine. I do remember once when I was doing a social studies project at primary school she told me about living on a kibbutz. But in our Auckland home she was married to an Anglican priest and took me and my younger brother to church every Sunday. Life was here, not there. I never twigged that she was Jewish. She never said as much. Neither did my father.
I’m not sure when I first realised I had a Jewish heritage. It was certainly after my mother died in 1969. Family discussion unlocking the silence started after my grandmother Bida’s death in 1984. That’s when we were sent two documents from her estate in England.
One was a photo of a Turkish Ottoman cavalry officer in full uniform on a horse. The other was a bravery citation in beautiful cursive Ottoman script for a medal awarded to one Sai’id Effendi. This was less than helpful – effendi being an honorific and Sai’id being a name as common as Smith.
This was my mother’s terrible secret. The man on the horse was her father, my grandfather. My mother knew none of this until 1942 when she was applying for a job with the British Foreign Office in Cairo at their Middle East Headquarters. During the war my mother, who was fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, worked for the UK clandestine Special Operations Executive. She needed a passport and it was then she found out the man she believed to be her father – Sydney, who Bida married in Haifa in November 1919, was not her biological father. It was a terrible betrayal for my mother. She believed she was illegitimate and felt ashamed. I think it caused an irreparable rift in my mother’s relationship with her mother. It was something once discovered, never to be mentioned again.
I never really knew my grandmother. My earliest memory of her is in Woodchurch, England where she had a sort of lifestyle block around her cottage. She gardened and kept a few animals. There was a milking goat. In my memory, the goat is angry and Sydney is saying, “Careful”. Granny is having none of it and strides towards the goat with purpose. It lowers its horns and charges at her, butting her smack in the stomach with such force she is thrown on her backside in the mud. I’m shocked and try not to laugh.
Bida came to New Zealand once when I was five. I recall a lot of tension in the house. I remember her as a heavy-set dour figure. She liked to knit and I remember her making me hold yarns of wool as she rolled it into a ball. On one occasion, curious, I asked her: “Why are you so rude?” She slapped me hard across the face.
We also knew Bida’s maiden name was Lerner and that she was born in 1896 in Zikhron Yaakov, near Haifa, when it was Palestine. You would think with such an intriguing mystery someone in my family – I have two brothers and sister – would try to unravel the truth. But none of us, perhaps ambivalent, perhaps conditioned to keep this door to the past closed, or perhaps just too busy with our own lives, did.
It was armed with this scant knowledge that Diana’s by now well-honed and somewhat obsessive Googling research methods rose to the occasion. She joined the dots and found a Lerner who had also lived in Zikhron Yaakov. “I think this is your cousin,” she said. “Since we are going to Israel you should email him. It can’t hurt.”
Wracked with irrational resistance, I took a deep breath and sent the email. Much to my surprise I got an almost immediate reply asking, “Where have you been?” My cousin had on several occasions tried to get in touch with Bida’s family. Yes, he and his two brothers would be more than thrilled to meet us. As would another cousin – the son of Helena, Bida’s youngest sister. Zohar lived in Haifa and was the only family member who actually met Bida.
I was stunned. And so, it came to pass that I met my Jewish cousins and their families in Zichron Yaakov. I was blown away by their warmth and hospitality. I felt an immediate connection. They had never seen the photo of the Turk on the horse, but they knew some of the story. Bida was something of a legend in their family history.
It seems likely Bida, who had served as a nurse with the Ottoman military during World War One, met our Turkish grandfather at the Ottoman Military Hospital in Damascus. Quite what happened next we still don’t know. My mother was born and her father disappeared. Bida then meets Sydney also at the Damascus hospital which is now under British control. Sydney who was serving with the army had been shot in the leg and had contracted both dysentery and malaria.
The cousins told us Bidas’s marriage to the Ottoman officer had so incensed her father Israel Lerner, that he went to the local Sharia courts and disowned her. This was a bit of a bombshell. I hadn’t really thought about my grandfather being Muslim. Within 18 months my grandmother had married Sydney and become a Christian. That resulted in Bida and her father going to the local Hebrew Magistrates court in 1919 to sign an agreement whereby Bida, for the sum of £60, renounced all future claims on her inheritance.
What a mess. While we were there we visited some of the houses in Haifa where my mother had lived. And St Lukes Church, where Sydney, my mother’s stepfather had married Bida in 1919, the same church where my mother was baptized into the Christian faith. We also made a special trip to Notre Dame de France, now a hotel, in Jerusalem because that’s the building in the backdrop of the photo of the man on the horse. But by far the most moving moment was when my new-found cousins took me to the cemetery in Zichron Yaakov. All around were relations I never knew I had. It was surreal to be standing in front of both my great grandfather’s and my great grandmother’s graves. In the Jewish tradition, I placed a stone on each.
Where am I now? Still processing it all. Still somewhat irate that my parents kept all this so secret for so long. Still trying to discover just who our Ottoman grandfather was. Before we left Israel, I found myself at a souvenir shop in Bethlehem looking for mementos for my brothers and sister. I found a cross for my brother who remains Christian. And a combination of a cross and a Star of David for my sister who is Christian but recognises her Jewish cultural connection. “I don’t suppose you have one that includes a Muslim symbol too?”, Diana asked the shop owner. Sure, he said and presented a piece with cross, star and crescent. The perfect gift for a Jewish Christian Muslim. That’s my heritage.
Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father by Diana Wichtel (Awa Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.