Friday, 1 October 2021

One family’s story
of love and tragedy
during the Holocaust

The walls of the Pinkas Synagogue are covered with the names of 78,000 victims of the Holocaust … one name provided clues for Ariana Neumann’s book ‘When Time Stopped’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Shabbat Shalom

● 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.

‘When Time Stopped’ … a memoir of resilience, hope and love during the Holocaust

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
125, Saint George’s Church, Aghios Gheorghíou Street, Rethymnon

The tiny Church of Saint George is tucked in behind the houses in Aghios Gheorghíou Street and Pateálrou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland continues today, and once again I am likely to find myself in front of a the screen of my laptop for the next two or three days taking part in ‘Zoom’ meetings.

But, before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is churches in Rethymnon on the island of Crete, where I spent two weeks in mid-September.

My photographs this morning (1 October 2021) are from the Church of Saint George, in a hidden corner of Rethymnon, off Patriárchou Grigroíou Street.

Inside the Church of Saint George, with its small, wooden iconostasis or icon screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Aghios Gheorghíou Street is an almost-hidden cul-de-sac off Patriárchou Grigroíou Street in the narrow streets and alleyways of the old town of Rethymnon.

Only a discreet sign indicates that at the end of the street, tucked into the right behind taller houses, is the tiny single-aisle Church of Saint George, squeezed in against the back of the houses on neighbouring Pateálrou Street.

This church was originally a monastic foundation. It is a single-aisle chapel with a wooden iconostasis or icon screen.

The house next door on Aghios Gheorghíou Street has recently assumed the name of ‘Bishop’s House,’ although it is unlikely that the Bishops of Rethymnon ever lived here.

Every town in Greece seems to have a church dedicated to Sant George. In Rethymnon, there is a modern Church of Saint George in Rethymnon, on Egeou Street in the eastern suburbs, behind the long sandy beach, and to the east there is a modern church dedicated to Saint George in Panormos, above the harbour and the beach.

Looking out into the churchyard and Aghios Gheorghíou Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 10: 13-16 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 13 ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.
16 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’

An icon of Saint George in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (1 October 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the development and renewal of friendships between USPG’s partner churches in the Global South.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A window onto the world … a window on the north wall of the church overlooks a neighbouring garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The house beside the church is known as ‘Bishop’s House’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)