Friday, 1 October 2021
One family’s story
of love and tragedy
during the Holocaust
Packing for a holiday is always a difficult task. It’s not so much which clothes, towels or suncream to take, but which books to take … and which books not to take.
I no longer need to take a Bible or prayer book, as these are easy to find on my laptop and on my phone. I always take a number of local guidebooks – even if I’ve been there before, there’s always somewhere new to discover or explore, and something new to learn. And I also like to take some poetry, and the latest editions of the Economist, New Statesman and the Church Times.
Last month, my case to Rethymnon also included two books I am reviewing for journals, and one paperback that I thought, from its formatting and presentation, was going to be lighter reading by the pool or on the beach: When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann.
Yes, I read it by the beach and by the pool, and, although a review on BuzzFeed says it ‘reads like a thriller and is so, so timely,’ it was anything but light reading.
Ariana Neumann grew up as a Catholic in Caracas in the 1970s, the daughter of successful industrialist, publisher and philanthropist in Venezuela. But it was a chance remark from a fellow student during her orientation at Tufts University near Boston that led her to the story of her father’s family.
Her search was also stimulated by questions about Jan Šebesta, whose Nazi-issued ID card she found as a child, later being told at Tufts that she must be Jewish, hearing her father sob by an old railway station in Czechoslovakia, and finding his name among the 77,297 Nazi victims listed on the memorial that covers the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.
Over time, and through a worldwide search, she put back together the details of the family tree, rediscovering the intimate details of their lives, loves and suffering.
The first member of the Neumann family to die in the Holocaust, her cousin Ota, was arrested by the Nazis in the former Czechoslovakia fin 1941 for swimming in a stretch of river forbidden to Jews. He was deported to Auschwitz and was murdered 11 days later.
She found how her grandparents, Ella and Otto Neumann, were sent to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in 1942. Their daughter-in-law Zdenka was not Jewish but smuggled herself into Terezín on at least two occasions to offer them comfort and support before slipping out again. They survived for two years before being sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered in 1944.
Of the 34 members of the Neumann family she identifies, 25 were murdered by the Nazis. One of the survivors was Hans Neumann, Ariana’s father, who avoided deportation twice, and went into hiding after his third call-up. He escaped certain death in the Holocaust by travelling to Berlin and hiding in plain sight under the very eyes of the Gestapo.
But his experiences were so horrific, he never found the words to share them with his own children. When Hans died, he left his daughter a small box filled with letters, diary entries, and other memorabilia. But it took Ariana 10 years to summon the courage to have the letters translated.
When Time Stopped is an epic family memoir, spanning almost 90 years of family history. Ariana Neumann was painstaking in her research into the story of her Jewish-Czech family, and her resulting book is a gripping search for truth that is part memoir, part history, with all the qualities of a well-written novel.
But this is no fiction: it is both harrowing and beautiful at one and the same time, filled with tragedy, sorrow and death alongside hope, love and life.
There are some brief stories of bruising encounters with the Ursuline nuns at school in Caracas, and of nominal conversions to Catholicism to ensure the legality of marriages under Nazi occupation. But there is virtually no discussion of the faith, beliefs, customs and practises of a largely secular Jewish family in central Europe.
What provided them with hope? Where did they find spiritual succour? Did they ever come together at Passover or Hanukkah?
And, on this Friday evening, two weeks after finishing this book in Rethymnon, I find myself wondering whether someone, anyone, prays the mourner’s kaddish for those who died such terrible deaths.
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which he has created according to his will.
May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honoured,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be he,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in his celestial heights,
may he create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
● Ariana Neumann has worked as a foreign correspondent for Venezuela’s The Daily Journal and has also written for The European. She now lives in London with her family. When Time Stopped is published in paperback by Scribner (London, 2021), and sells in Irish bookshops for €10.95.