BOOK OF THE WEEK
WHEN TIME STOPPED: A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER’S WAR
by Ariana Neumann (Scribner £16.99, 368pp)
In the opening pages of this beautifully written, heart-wrenching memoir of love and family and war is a detailed family tree of the author’s Czech heritage.
It seems dauntingly complex as family trees often do, littered with unknown names and interchangeable dates. But then you notice that vast numbers of these men and women died in 1942 or 1944. In the death camps. In the Holocaust.
The earliest of the family to be killed was Ota Neumann, in 1941. Ota was a cousin of the author’s father. Young, polite and thoughtful, he had written letters about the rising tide of Nazi-driven anti-Semitism. Fired from his job for being Jewish, he was interned in a forced labour camp called Lipa, but allowed home for a short break.
Ariana Neumann (pictured) was brought up in well-heeled middle-class comfort in Caracas, in the pre-Chavez days when Venezuela was a byword for business and industrial energy
On a hot summer’s day in July 1941 he decided to make the most of his freedom by taking his ten-year-old cousin for a swim and a bike ride. A Czech policeman followed them as they rambled (the Gestapo encouraged locals to spy on anyone known to be Jewish).
He later reported he had seen Ota cycling carelessly and bathing in a part of the river forbidden to Jews.
Ota, who was a popular figure, and rather shy, was taken in and interrogated by the Gestapo. He explained he had specifically inquired where Jews might bathe, under the new rules, and had followed instructions to the letter.
But the treacherous policeman was not to be thwarted. He said the swimming area was not designated for Jews and by now Ota was helpless, stuck in the remorseless machinery of Gestapo bureaucracy.
He wasn’t allowed home and on November 21 was deported directly to Auschwitz, just across the Czech border in Poland. Ota was placed in Block 11, the penal unit, which even for that death camp had a terrifying reputation for brutality.
An ID card Ariana found as a girl in Caracas. Ariana’s father assumed a fake identity — Jan Sebesta — and went to live in the very heart of Nazism’s evil empire
The last, so poignant, pictures of him are still to be seen in the Auschwitz archives and are reproduced in this remarkable book: head shaved, in his striped prison outfit, he still looks poised and defiant.
On December 8, 1941, Ota was entered in the register of the Auschwitz morgue. He had been murdered in only 17 days. For taking a bicycle ride on a summer afternoon.
He was just 30. Ota is just one of the many characters, warm, often funny, always courageous, usually full of human frailties, who populate the pages of this overwhelming story. It is part family memoir, and part detective yarn.
The author, Ariana Neumann, was brought up in well-heeled middle-class comfort in Caracas, in the pre-Chavez days when Venezuela was a byword for business, cultural and industrial energy.
This was largely as a result of the country throwing open its borders to displaced Europeans who could not return to their homes after the war. Among the flood of refugees was Ariana’s father Hans.
An imposing, good-looking man, of considerable charisma and intellect as well as a brilliant businessman, he was soon a leading figure in the country, building up a manufacturing conglomerate and becoming one of the most prominent figures in Venezuela’s cultural life.
Members of Ariana’s family were killed at Auschwitz (the remains of the camp are pictured) in 1941 and 1944