Join Hafta-Ichi to find out the article “When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann review – an extraordinary Holocaust story | Books”
Getting to know your parents can take a lifetime, especially if they are secretive about their past. That her father, Hans, was more than a philanthropic, art-collecting Venezuelan businessman was something Ariana Neumann dimly grasped from childhood, after hearing him cry out in a strange language while asleep and finding a photo of him on the identity card of someone called Jan Šebesta. Being told, as a student, that she must be Jewish, was another clue: with her Catholic upbringing, it had never occurred to her. Over the years there were further revelations: hearing her father sob by an old railway station on a trip to Czechoslovakia (“This is where we said goodbye”); and finding his name among the 77,297 Nazi victims listed on a memorial in Prague (though with a question mark instead of the date of his death). There was even talk of him writing a memoir and of her helping with it. But it wasn’t until after his death that she began to understand what he’d been through during the war. And it’s only now, nearly 20 years later, that she has put together the pieces to tell his extraordinary story.
“A mosaic of assembled reminiscences”, she calls it, created from interviews, diaries, photos, letters, phone calls, emails and the dogged pursuit of leads and contacts across the world. What happened to Hans’s family is part of the Holocaust story. But the horrible familiarity is no less compelling. And Hans is a fascinating figure in his own right: resourceful, charismatic, courageous and ultimately saved (as he put it) by others’ lack of imagination.
Luck played a huge role too, which was ironic: as a child he was so accident-prone that the family called him “the unfortunate boy”. Dreamy, artistic, a poet and prankster, he wasn’t cut out to join his father Otto and brother Lotar in the family paint business. But by the late 1930s his world had changed. New antisemitic laws were passed every week, each more severe or ludicrous than the last: first the banning of Jewish lawyers, teachers and journalists, then the surrender of Jewish stamp collections, umbrellas and pets. In 1941, a cousin called Ota was imprisoned for swimming in a section of river allegedly prohibited to Jews. From there Ota went to Auschwitz; 11 days later he was dead.
The Neumann family did their best to escape the same fate: called in favours, applied to emigrate to the US, forged identity papers, lay low, procrastinated, bought vials of cyanide to be taken if all else failed. Knowing his grey hair would mark him as unfit for labour and therefore dispensable, Otto used black hair dye, then black shoe polish. It didn’t work. In 1942 he and his wife Ella were sent to Terezín (AKA Theresienstadt) where they survived for two years, thanks mainly to the food parcels sent by their sons, before being moved to Auschwitz.
Hans twice avoided deportation. After his third call-up, he absconded, hiding out in a secret compartment at the family paint works; it was there, cooped up, with time seeming to stop, that he became obsessed with watches – in later life he owned 300 and would spend hours taking them apart. In Prague, though, time was running out: knowing he would soon be discovered, he cooked up a plan to join his friend Zdeněk in Berlin. It meant borrowing Zdeněk’s passport, adopting a second new alias (Jan Šebesta), and talking Zdeněk’s Nazi boss into giving him a job. As Neumann says, the gamble was that by hiding in plain sight, at the heart of the Reich, the Gestapo would never find him.
At this point, she lets her father step in and tell his own story. Among the papers he left on his death was the memoir he had spoken of wanting to write. Where his youthful poems were trite and lovelorn, these prose reminiscences, written in maturity, are thrilling. They recount his narrow escapes from RAF bombing raids, his work as a firefighter and his guilt at working on behalf of the German war effort – guilt he appeased with acts of sabotage and espionage. Charm, intelligence and lies got him through the war. And afterwards he moved to Venezuela, to establish a new (more diverse) family business in Caracas, where – such was his influence and popularity – there’s a street named after him.
While doing her father full justice, Neumann also dramatises the research process that brought him alive to her. As a child, she formed a detective club with friends, and that apprenticeship has served her well. Among the cast whose stories she tells none is more remarkable than Zdenka, Lotar’s wife. She wasn’t Jewish but in 1942, with a yellow star stitched to her old coat, she joined inmates working in the fields outside Terezín, smuggled herself into the camp with them to check on her mother-in-law Ella’s health, then slipped out again with the afternoon shift.
To unearth such stories takes great determination, patience and sensitivity, not least because so many of those who survived did so by suppressing the truth. “Sometimes you have to leave the past where it is – in the past,” Hans told his daughter. But he didn’t altogether let it go and nor, on his and our behalf, did she.
• When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann is published by Scribner (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann review – an extraordinary Holocaust story | Books