Bob Moyer reviews a memoir that’s also the story of piecing together a very personal puzzle.
Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer
WHEN TIME STOPPED: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. By Ariana Neumann. Scribner. 321 pages. $28.
Growing up in Caracas, author Ariana Neumann knew of her father’s family only from the faded black-and-white photograph he kept of his parents. Hans Neumann emigrated to Venezuela immediately after World War II and became a leading industrialist. His daughter easily recalls the handful of times he gave any hints about his life in Czechoslovakia before or during the war. She did not realize she was Jewish until she went to school in America. When he died, she got a surprise. Her father left papers, identity cards and other material, all in German or Czech, about the life she never knew.
In a box.
That materiele became a jigsaw puzzle that took years of detection, research, love and imagination to put together, that life her father refused to mention. Some of the pieces led to other pieces—an album from her Uncle Lotar’s daughter, another box from a cousin in California. A photo of her father as a boy stuns her with its similarities to her son. Translations of the letters and help from a researcher in Prague led her to the house in the countryside her family owned. There, the owner shared with her the contents of the safe, “a snapshot of their lives, catapulted across the distance of place and time,” that had remained in the house unopened for 85 years. Some pieces came indirectly, like “misplaced files.” Her cousin suddenly remembers the name of her Uncle Lotar’s first wife’s daughter’s boyfriend in Switzerland. This connection leads to a major part of the puzzle, a gentile girl who married into the family and played a major role in the family’s survival.
Survival is perhaps not the appropriate term. Twenty-five of the 34 members of the Czech family perished in the Holocaust. Yet the picture that emerges from Neumann’s piecing together of pictures, letters, notes and memories is ”…laced with vivid glimmers of light.” “… interspersed amid the horror were wisps of beauty and love,” moments of normalcy, seated at dinner, walking down the street, letters of daily life sent to the American branch of the family. In spite of the tightening of the Nazi noose around Jewish life in Prague, Neumann gives us glimpses of people bravely living the best they could.
Until the family is ordered to report for shipment to Terezin, the way station created for Czechs on their way to Auschwitz. Both parents were transported. Older brother Lotar, married to a gentile, “disappears.” But Hans, the “unfortunate” younger son who is a prankster, does the unthinkable. With the help of friends and forged papers, he moves to Berlin and gets a research job. He spends the rest of the war hiding in plain sight.
The majority of the papers in the box were Hans’ record of his life in Berlin. This record, interspersed with the fates of the mother and father in letters and interviews, takes up the final section of the book. By this time, what started as a jigsaw puzzle has turned into what Neumann calls “a mosaic of assembled reminiscences.” The theme of time in the title arises from this assembling. She starts with her memory of her father working on his beloved watches, his fingers so still it “…would suggest time had stopped.” One of the watches he owned reminds him of one of his father’s. That leads to an anecdote in which his father’s watch ends up on Hans’ plate, when he is late for dinner. Later, she finds a picture of him as a young man looking with the same intensity she saw in his work on watches, into the viewfinder of a camera. Finally, she brings back her father’s fascination with watches, when he tells her it started when he was a young man in Prague. He said “… he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.” In that time, isolated from everyone, “The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.”
Neumann has expertly collated recollections of her unknown family, and consolidated them with her memories, photographs and hundreds of documents. She takes her family out of “faded shadows,” into vivid life in this book.