When Time Stopped, by Ariana Neumann Frances Wilson
When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains
Occasionally there appears a book so devastating that the only response is stunned silence.
This is one of those books. As a testimony to the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War, it will take its place next to Victor Klemperer’s two volumes of diaries, I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End, but the Nazi atrocities in Czechoslovakia are tangential to the story Ariana Neumann has uncovered.
When Time Stopped is about the triumph of the human spirit rather than the banality of evil, and it is this that makes it such a humbling achievement.
Ariana Neumann, now in her fifties, was born and raised in Venezuela, the daughter of a glamorous Latin American mother and a much older Czech father, Hans, an art collector and successful businessman. Every morning at
6.30 on the dot, Hans would go to his study and fiddle with his antique-watch collection. Keeping the wheels spinning became a metaphor for survival because during the war, he said, ‘time stopped’ and he found himself disappearing.
Ariana adored her gentle and charismatic father but knew nothing about him: why did he wake screaming at night? Why was he unable ‘to have the past and the present connect in any way’? It is as though he was sealed inside a concrete bunker.
However, when he died, in 2001, Hans Neumann left his daughter a paper trail, in the form of a box of letters, photographs, passports, identity cards, official documents and his own fragments of autobiography. This box led to other boxes containing other papers and it has taken Ariana 19 years and a raft of researchers and translators to piece together the story of her father’s life and the riddle of his hermetic personality.
Hans and his older brother, Lotar, grew up in Prague where their father ran a paint factory. Lotar, protected from the Nazis because his wife, Zdenka, was a Gentile, was serious and responsible, and Hans – a fledgling poet – was a trickster and a tearaway, a different man entirely from the formal and obsessively punctual Venezuelan tycoon.
It was this cunning that enabled him to survive the war. As the Nazis, bit by bit, tried to strip the Jews of their humanity, Hans proved, again and again, the stuff of which he was made.
Twenty-nine of the 34 members of the Neumann family living in Czechoslovakia were deported. Hans last saw his parents when they were taken to the detention camp at Terezín, north-west of Prague, which would, over the next five years, house 33,000 Jews.
Terezín was not, said one of its occupants, hell itself but ‘the anteroom to hell’ and Ariana Neumann’s description of the place where her grandparents spent their final years before being gassed in Auschwitz is the still centre of the book.
When, aged 22, it was Hans’s turn to be rounded up in the transport, he decided to escape. Adopting the identity of a Czech Gentile called Jan Šebesta, he took a night train to Berlin, where, hiding in plain sight, he worked for two years as a chemist in a paint factory, manufacturing protective polymer coatings for German aircraft and missiles. ‘The darkest shadow,’ according to an old Czech saying, ‘lies beneath the candle’, and Hans lived beneath the candle at the heart of the Reich: the prankster’s ultimate trick. He achieved this feat with the help of four non-jewish friends; his girlfriend (and later first wife) Míla, his fearless sister-in-law Zdenka, his best friend, Zdenêk, and the manager of his father’s factory, Frank Novák. Each risked their life to cover Hans’s tracks.
When Ariana thanked Frank Novák’s daughter, Jana, for her father’s help, Jana replied, ‘Your thanks are not due because my father did not do anything extraordinary. He only did the correct thing. Simply, he did what everybody should have done. We should all, as a country, have behaved like Frank Novák. And it is we who apologise to you that we did not.’
Jana Novák is one of the many remarkable people whom Ariana meets as she joins together the present and the past. Folding the story of her quest for her father into a reconstruction of his early life, she also stitches into the book the pages of autobiography that he found too painful to continue.
With Hans’s voice blending with her own, Ariana Neumann presents herself not as the author of When Time Stopped, but as a channel through which the silence of the past can finally be broken.