Book Review

When Time Stopped

When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains

  • Author: Ariana Neumann
  • Genre: Biography, Nonfiction, History
  • Publication Date: February 4, 2020
  • Publisher: Scribner

TRIGGER WARNING: Anti-Semitism, discrimination, genocide, bombings

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In 1941, the first member of the Neumann family was arrested for swimming in a stretch of river forbidden to Jews. He was transported to Auschwitz. Eighteen days later, his prisoner number was entered into the morgue book.

Of thirty-four Neumann family members living in Czechoslovakia before World War II, twenty-five were murdered by the Nazis. What Ariana Neumann’s father, Hans, experienced was unspeakable. Decades later, after he’d built an industrial empire in Venezuela, he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. Ariana knew nothing of his past — not even that his family was Jewish.

As a child Ariana yearned to be a detective. One day she discovered a card stamped with symbols of the Nazi regime and registered to name she didn’t recognize. But the photograph on the document was unmistakably her father as a young man. When, after his death, Hans left her a box crammed with letters, diary entries, and memorabilia, including the identification card with the different name, she felt she had permission to search into her father’s past.

What she found launched her on a years-long quest to discover who her father was. She learned of his audacious choice to assume a false identity and escape from Nazi-occupied Prague, bound for the most unlikely refuge of all: Berlin. Ingenious and intrepid, Hans presented himself as an upstart Czech, gambling that no one would imagine a Jew calling such attention to himself. 

Ariana also discovered the relatives she never knew — a loving family finding meaning and trying to stay alive when the worst that can be imagined is happening.

When Time Stopped is two stories — the first, of a woman who becomes an astonishingly tenacious detective, assembling the most devastating details of life and death in Nazi Germany, and the second, of the man she’s determined to understand: her own father.

Let me start my review by mentioning that it is absolutely impossible for me to review a book like this without comparing it to my own experience. This is actually the first time I’ve ever read a book written by the child of a Holocaust survivor, and I was shocked at how much I identified with Ariana’s experiences, even as different as our father’s stories differed. My own father was a Holocaust survivor as well, but he always spoke freely about his experiences, even though it was extremely difficult for him. The aftermath of trauma is way more difficult to hide, even if a person doesn’t speak about it. It’s very clear in this story, which mirrors what I saw in my own home. 

At first, I was worried that the writing rambled a little, got lost in tangents, and mentioned so many names that I got confused. But that passed quickly, and the story became focused and really interesting. 

Ariana was born to her father when he was older. He was settled in a country he had immigrated to after the war, and had started a successful business. These are things that I related to intensely.

“By the time I came along over two decades later, any vestige of refugee hardship had entirely vanished.”

My father felt an almost irrepressible urge to bear witness and speak of the horrors that he had seen. Especially in light of the fact that people were denying that the Holocaust had ever occurred while people who had lived through it were still alive. However, so many survivors just couldn’t face the trauma of their past, and Ariana’s father was one of those:

“It was then that I first sensed that hidden beneath my father’s strength and triumphs were shadows cast by nameless horrors so terrible that they had to remain unuttered.”

The story is equal parts biography and detective story. It’s the tale of a girl seeking to uncover the history of her own family, and the fascinating and unique story of a young man trying to stay alive against all odds. Hans left Ariana a box full of memories upon his death, and in doing so, gave her permission to investigate his story:

“…each document in the box was kept for a reason, sometimes sentimental, often practical, and, on occasion, both. Each paper yields a story, a reason for its inclusion as a memento or clue to the puzzle that was my father’s life during the war. Hans would have had some purpose in keeping this telegram.”

Along the way, we learn about the rest of the family as well. But no one got out without emotional scars. And while my own father struggled to move on from his past, Hans worked hard to leave his behind:

“‘Sometimes you have to leave the past where it is — in the past.’”

That trauma never got better, no matter what survivors did. There was no escaping it:

“I realize now that there are sorrows that cannot be conveyed, wounds with which you learn to live but that never completely heal.”

Survivors commonly faced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many didn’t receive any kind of therapy or support. They just shoved things down and moved on as best they could. It was especially resonant when Ariana talked about her father’s difficulty in expressing his emotions:

“It was as if there were a concrete wall around his feelings, and he feared that even a trickle of emotion would be the prelude to the dam bursting.”

The other thing that really smacked me in the face while reading this was the parallels to today’s society, and the anti-Semitism, racism, and violence that we are seeing on a daily basis. I’ve been seeing it for a long time, but the way it was written in this book really clicked and made me realize the warning signs that we are seeing … and ignoring. There have been anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish people, some of which have become violent, and I’m sure no one can miss the blatant racism that is prevalent in our society.

“By then open discrimination and even violence against the Jews in Prague seemed to have become a regular occurrence.”

“Individuals too were now empowered to voice their hatred and to act, unpunished, on their prejudices. Racism and violence were being normalized. Every day of May and June 1939 saw the burning of a synagogue in the Czech Protectorate.”

The prologue and epilogue were especially emotional for me to read. The prologue because it kicked up a lot of feelings about my own father and his passing, which was reflected in the death of Ariana’s father. The epilogue because it discusses the fate of all the characters I had grown to care about throughout the course of the book. But what hit me really hard was this line:

“I cried on reading the gentle voice of that grieving young man, little more than a child.”

It made me think of my own father, after being liberated by the Russians (at 14 years old) talking about how there were no children left, and the few that remained were old before their time. I always cry thinking of my father, who never even got to be young.

This is by no means an easy book to read, but it was also fascinating and incredibly important. It’s not just a family history, but it’s a part of world history. This is one man’s way of bearing witness, even if it was done indirectly, in an effort to help us remember the past and hopefully learn from it to prevent it from happening again, to anyone. With everything going on in the world, it’s even more important now than ever before.

8 replies »

  1. Well now I’ve flooded you with comments! Whoops.
    Anyway, I still need to read this book, I’ve got the audio. I recently watched a documentary and also felt the same thing as what you said about the young men and about your father. Really brings tears to my eyes every time I read stuff like this… But it’s got to be read and remembered, cause memory is all we can do for them..

    Liked by 1 person

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