Ariana Neumann: “The Nazis would never think a Prague Jewish boy could escape to Berlin”
When Time Stopped is the title of Ariana Neumann’s first book, about the history of her Jewish family in Prague during the war. Before he emigrated to Venezuela in 1949, her father Hans (or Hanuš) Neumann survived the Holocaust thanks to false papers and the audacity that allowed him to find work in… Berlin. The book is filled with extraordinary personal documents and letters preserved in a few boxes found by the author in Caracas, Prague but also Libčice or Teplice.
Journalist and writer Ariana Neumann answered RPI's questions from London, where she is now based, after growing up in Caracas.
Do you remember the first time you heard Czech spoken?
“I don’t know if it was the first time, but my father only spoke Czech – my father was born in Prague and I grew up in Venezuela – when he had nightmares.
“When I was a little girl, and even later on in life, he would wake up the whole house because he would be screaming, and he would be screaming in Czech.
“That’s my most distinct memory of him speaking Czech.
“I think he also spoke Czech to his first wife and to my older half-brother, to his son, who was born in Prague.
“There were the only instances where he spoke Czech: with the family he had emigrated from Prague with.
“So it was mostly the nightmares – I think that was the first recollection of the Czech language.
“I’m having real trouble learning it. It’s obviously a very difficult language to learn, but I wonder there’s a little bit of a psychological block there, because it reminds me of my father’s nightmares.”
Did he tell you about his Czech life, his life in Prague?
“I grew up in Venezuela in the ‘70s and ‘80s and it was such a beautiful, luminous country.
“And I think his life in Prague was also beautiful and luminous, when he was a child.
“But obviously things completely changed.
“He was born in 1921. Things started really changing in Prague and I think the fear was evident there in the mid ‘30s.
“But of course his life changed completely when he turned 18.
“He turned 18 on February 9, 1939 and of course in March the Nazis invaded.
“So his life completely changed. His family… well, I knew nothing about his family.
“I knew nothing other than the fact he had emigrated from Prague in 1949, with his older brother Lothar.
“Someone said, or must have said because that’s what comes back in my memories, that he had been escaping a broken Europe.
“But I had always assumed it had been broken by communism, and by war, of course.
“But I hadn’t realised how much his own life had been broken.”
Did he ever mention how his parents died?
“Again, when I was a child growing I was aware that they had died in the war, but that was it.
“There was one tiny, little photograph of them, which was a very sad photograph, by his bedside.
“And whenever I asked any questions about them, he would change the subject, or he would start to shake, so I very quickly learned not to ask very many questions.
“When we went to Prague – he was invited to go to Prague in 1990, after the Velvet Revolution – it then became apparent that his parents had been deported and had died.
“But he never mentioned where, or how, obviously.
“I think he wasn’t able to communicate, he just wanted to forget all of that darkness, all of that horrible past and embrace his life.
“He was actually a very successful industrialist in Venezuela.
“He was a renaissance man, involved in writing and art and education and philanthropy; he was so, so, so busy.
“When I was growing up as a child in Venezuela it made perfect sense that if his present was so full, why on earth would he sit there and reminisce of talk about a past.”
You were in Prague with him and you realised, because you had no clue, and you describe a scene at the infamous Bubny train station. That’s where it all came together for you, I guess?
“I think it came together in little bits and drabs.
“When I was a little girl I had a detective club with my cousins and friends, and I one day found an ID card in a box I shouldn’t have been in – I was in the wrong place in the house.
“I opened it because I thought, Oh, a mystery, why is this box here?
“And actually when I opened it there was an ID card with a photograph of my father as a young man, a stamp of Hitler.
“My father was named Hans Neumann and this ID card was in the name of Jan Šebesta, so completely different.
“That was the first clue I had that there was a mystery there.
“My father only spoke Czech when he had nightmares.”
“I was never told that I came from a Jewish family, at all.
“In 1990 I go to Prague and my father pretty much refused to talk about his life before.
“But he agrees to show me the apartment in Prague 6, where the family lived.
“We go there and on the way back he made the taxi stop at this train station, which just looked like an overgrown, pretty abandoned train station, at the time.
“And he didn’t really say anything other than, This is where we said goodbye – and just broke down.
“The station was fenced and we were on the other side of the fence.
“He was holding on to these wire diamonds of the fence and I realised that they were shaking, and they were shaking with the force of his sobs.
“My father was a very, very strong man. He never cried, he never showed any weakness really, except when I tried to ask him questions about his past.”
He himself had a so-called ticket for a transport to go to Theresienstadt (Terezín), like his father. It’s extraordinary, in one of the boxes that also made your book possible, with all your work and research… there is this transport ticket and other very valuable documents. They are valuable for your family of course, but also for the history of the region and of the Holocaust in general. Among these documents, what’s the most valuable for you?
“I think it’s probably my father’s ID card that I found as a child – that’s certainly the one that sticks out initially the most.
“Because it tells the story of my father, a young Jew from Prague – from a very assimilated family but completely ethnically Jewish – who should have been deported time.
“The first time with his mother in May ’42, the second time with his father in November ’42.
“The third time was in March ’43 and it is in March ’43 that he decides he cannot be saved from any of these transports any more, there’s nothing they can do to keep him in Prague.
“He has letters from his parents in the camp that say, Please, do whatever you can.
“The letters were to their boys and were snuck out as contraband so they’re very open.
“And they say, Do whatever you can, be safe.”
They were writing from Theresienstadt…
“They’re writing from Theresienstadt, where they’re imprisoned, to their boys who are outside and who have managed to stay out of the transports through all sorts: talking to friends and trying to pull strings.
“So the letters say, Do not come here. And that’s actually when really says, OK, what do I do? I’m not going to show up to the transport.
“And of course once he does that, and that’s actually in the files of the Jewish Museum in Prague – if you look at his card it says, Wanted by the Gestapo; if this man shows up anywhere in Prague, please report him immediately to the Gestapo, because he had absconded from a transport.
“He is kept in hiding in the family factory by a very brave man, called Mr. Nedvídek, who takes a huge risk by keeping him and feeding him and building a fake wall in this factory, which still stands today: [laughs] I think it might be a nightclub.
“Mr. Nedvídek is incredibly brave and I actually had the huge luck of meeting his daughters, who still remembers the fights between him and his wife.
“Because his wife, understandably, was very concerned that they were going to be caught.
“It was a crime to give a Jew a cigarette – you can imagine what would happen if you were found to be aiding one in hiding.
“And that’s when my father decides that the only way he can survive this is by doing something crazy.
“You have to understand that my father was pretty crazy as a young man. He was a prankster. He belonged to a club of pranksters in Prague, for example, with his best friend Zdeněk; he wasn’t Jewish but they were studying chemistry together.
“He would build what are called stink bombs where I come from. They’re bombs of Sulphur and he would throw them at the guards.
“He would also play dead in the middle of the street, just to frighten passers-by.
“I think he took great pride in this.
“He turned 18 on February 9, 1939 and of course in March the Nazis invaded.”
“His father and his family were all very serious and very hard-working and my father at the time was not.
“So as a prankster he decided his only chance of survival is to do the biggest prank of all, to fool the Nazis.
“Because the Nazis are never going to think that a Jewish boy, a 22-year-old from Prague, is going to go and hide in plain sight in Berlin.
“So that’s what he does.
“And this ID card that I find as a child detective basically tells that story.
“You know, as I speak to you I also think that maybe the most important document…
“The ID card is quite thick and you would expect it to last a long time.
“But what also lasted a long time – and as I speak to you I think it is one of the most important if not the most important document – is the transport ticket, with the number 449.
“It was a transport ticket from November ’42. It was CC449 – and it was an unused transport ticket.
“My grandfather and my father were meant to be transported.
“My father was saved at the very last minute. He had already been in Bubny and had spent the night there.
“He had been given his little stub, which is a tiny, very fine piece of paper.
“You wouldn’t expect it to last a week, let alone 70 years.
“But that’s how long it lasted, and it was in this box.
“It could so easily have been handed in by my father, who would have then been deported and, like most people in his family, would have been killed.
“But it wasn’t, and it was in my box.
“There are so many documents and so many stories behind each of them, but maybe that’s the most important one.”
You discovered a lot of places here where your family had lived and experienced normal life, pleasures, before the catastrophe. Which of these places in Czechia struck you the most?
“I think when you do an investigation like this it is so filled with horrors and darkness that you want to focus on the light.
“I really felt a duty to tell this story and if I had not focused on the light, it would have been very difficult: if I had not focused on all the brave people that helped and all the people that decided to take huge risks for example; if I had not focused on the joys that my grandmother felt, even in Theresienstadt.
“One of the places that brought her joy was the beautiful house they had in the beautiful town of Libčice.
“And I was lucky enough… there is a marvelous, marvelous Czech man called Michal Peřina there.
“He really is one of the most wonderful human beings on the planet and he kept my family’s documents for me, from 1937, in his safe.
“This is just a wonderful story which I have to tell.”
There again you’re lucky enough to have documents.
“You know this whole story and the story of my family on my father’s side is a story of luck.
“They were all immensely lucky. It was luck that saved my father.
“Someone said, He was so brave to run away to Berlin.
“And, you know, it could have easily been, He was so foolish to run away to Berlin.
“So he wasn’t really brave, it was just a crazy call and it turned out OK. But it was luck that made it turn out OK.
“And it was luck that made these boxes arrive, because my father did leave me a box, but then it turns out that all these other people kept all these other boxes [laughs] – and sent them to me.
“One of the extraordinary things that happened was that when I was doing research the researcher in Prague who was very kindly helping me, and helps many families piece together their stories before the Holocaust, said to me…
“I went to the places they lived in Prague, I went to the factory, I went to the apartment that they had, I obviously went to Bubny; I walked around all the places that were mentioned in any of the family correspondence.
“I was going to go to Libčice and I didn’t have a lot of time on the first trip and the researcher said, I’ve looked at it on Google Maps and it doesn’t look like a house any more – it looks like some sort of storage facility – so I don’t think you’re going to find very much there.
“So I hadn’t gone on my first trips, when I was doing the investigation.
“I was doing the investigation for me, not for a book, but eventually what I discovered was so extraordinary that I thought I have to write a book.
“Then I was very lucky that I got an agent and the agent sold the story.
“So I knew I was going to write a book and I thought, Goodness, how am I going to write about this place that is so crucial to my grandmother – and my grandfather, but especially to my grandmother – if I haven’t been and I don’t know anything about it?
“So I went on Facebook. I had the name of the deed of sale, which was Peřina, from 1947, and I was astonished. He lived at the same address as my grandparents’ house.
“This was, I think, in 2017.
“I write him a Facebook message saying, Hello, you don’t know me but I think you may be living in the house that was my grandparents’.
“I told him a little about what I was doing and I said, Would you happen to have any old documents from the house, of what it looked like? Could you tell me what it looks like now?
“He replied immediately and said he was in the middle of some work thing but had some things for me.
“I thought, Great, maybe I’m going to get some photographs or some plans of how the house looked in the ‘40s or maybe in the ‘60s and maybe that would help me tell the story.
“And lo and behold three weeks later I get this remarkable box.
“It’s beautifully packaged and all the documents are beautifully restored. And on top of it is a little story that Michal writes.
“He says, When I was a little boy in my grandparents’ house there was a safe that was locked, and I always dreamed that there was a treasure inside this safe and I always wanted to open it.
“Then there were the terrible floods in, I think, 2002 and the whole basement, where the safe was, was flooded.
“He eventually had to repair the house – and opened the safe.
“And he thought, Yes, I’m going to find my treasure.
“Unfortunately for him, the treasure was just my grandparents’ papers, which they had locked in the safe before being transported to Terezín.
“There were applications for American visas, because they were trying to escape the Nazis. There were letters from American banks saying, These people haven’t enough money.
“But they were mostly just really boring papers.
“What is extraordinary among the many extraordinary things about Michal is that he wrote to me, It wasn’t my treasure and I kept it.
“I said, How do you keep it from 2002 to 2017? I mean, it could so easily have been junk.
“And he said, It wasn’t my treasure but I thought it might be someone else’s.
“So I’m incredibly indebted to him. Because it was my treasure and he just kept it for me.”
Also in some other boxes there were yellow stars. Or pictures of clandestine schools for little girls in Roudnice nad Labem. All this reflects whole process.
“It does. I was very lucky. It was like being in a magical realism Latin American novel [laughs].
“All these boxes seemed to arrive. One from California, one from Teplice – I traced people all over.
“It was extraordinary – all these boxes kept arriving.
“What I’m very aware of is that I have this treasure.
“It’s a treasure because it’s my family, but every other family in Bohemia and Moravia – there were I think 110,000 Jews in Prague before the war – every single one of them would have had a similar story, of the anti-Semitism, of all the horrors that happened to their family.
“They would have had the documents, they would have had the yellow stars. But maybe the families didn’t survive, maybe the documents didn’t survive.
“I was lucky: mine did. And it showed me that I had to tell their story.”
The sister-in-law of your father, the wife of his brother, managed to enter the Theresienstadt ghetto camp to visit, which is quite extraordinary. Your father and his brother were the only ones of a very big family that were not on a transport – and his sister in law made it into the camp.
“That’s right. My father and his brother were both meant to be deported. My father in 1943 and then my uncle in 1945, but he also absconded, with the help of his wife Zdeňka. Born in 1916, she was a remarkable Czech woman, really intrepid, beautiful, clever and brave.”
“She also broke all the rules, she wasn’t scared, and she was financially independent. Because of this, she was able to help my family.
“Initially, when the Nazis first came, she could drive, buy medicine and transport letters. Jews were not allowed to move from their place of residency, could not have phones or radios.”
“There were all sorts of horrific little rules that were passed in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
“Some seemed ridiculous – they could not even carry umbrellas or had to turn in their photographic cameras.
“There was so many of these rules that it successfully dehumanized them, made them prisoners and made it almost easier for them to be deported.”
“So, Zdeňka marries my uncle in 1939 despite the fact that her entire family was scared. And then, when my grandmother is transported to Theresienstadt in May 1942, the family don’t know where she is.
“They know she’s left the Bubny train station and was on a train bound for Sobibor with her brothers and nephews and friends. The train had ended up in Sobibor and passengers had all been shot or gassed. Sobibor was really horrendous.
“But it appeared my grandmother had fainted in the train on the way, was taken out of that train and transferred to the hospital in Theresienstadt. That, strangely, saves her life, for a couple of years.
“The family don’t know where she is until August 1942. When they find out, Zdeňka gets information about how to sneak in. She dresses up as an agricultural worker with a yellow star.
“She goes to Bohušovice, take a bicycle, goes to the fields and pretends to be one of the workers to get into the camp to bring her supplies.
“She does that again in 1943 or 1944 and brings some shoe polish to my grandfather, to die his hair and appear younger.
He was 54 and if you had white hair, the Nazis thought you were useless and just gassed you. If you seemed younger and capable of working, you had a better chance of survival.
“So Zdeňka sneaks in, she’s a real hero of my family story.”
Unfortunately it’s raining when your grandfather arrives in Auschwitz, and the trick is not going to work, as the shoe polish will be washed away by the rain…
“That is very true, the trick doesn’t work in Auschwitz. But it does give my grandparents a little bit more life.
“Her bravery gives them a little bit more joy, and it enables me to get to know them better because she brought to their children these letters filled with their dreams, love, and horrors they lived through as well.”
Among the places you’ve visited while researching in Prague there is of course the Pinkas Synagogue. On its walls, dozens of thousands of Shoah victims are written with a birth date and a death date. There is a question mark instead of your father’s death date. Have you thought about changing this question mark into the actual date when he died, that is in 2001?
“I did. When in 1997 I first saw his name, Hanuš Stanislav Neumann, among victims deported from Libčice, I thought ‘That’s wrong, he’s alive and should not be on this wall, it’s a mistake!’
“I asked, and they would have to change all the names on the wall and redo everything.”
“But then, as I uncovered the story and uncovered what he went through, I realized his silences came from a place of terrible trauma. The question mark really should be there, for a number of reasons.
“One of them is because we spent so much time – rightly – remembering those that died, that we sometimes forget that the trauma of genocide, of the Holocaust, is not just about people who lost their life physically.
“As a prankster he decided his only chance of survival is to do the biggest prank of all, to fool the Nazis.”
“A lot of people lost their capacity to live on or to love.
“A lot of people around these people that died were so traumatized, many that survived the camps, many that did not go to the camps, some that just loved these people – we should always also remember their trauma.
“They are not victims in the same way, but they are also victims of the war and I thought it was right that they should be remembered.”
“And then of course, it’s a fact that this question mark is sort of cool, because it implies that there is a mystery there.
“I don’t know what the Jewish museum is going to do about it. I’d like to think that they are going to leave it there.
“They have left it so far, so I hope they do.”
When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann was published in English by Scribner and translated into nine languages so far, including Czech (Pod svícnem tma, Argo).
This interview with Ariana Neumann ends with the Czech famous song about the Golem, Píseň strašlivá o Golemovi, by the famous duo Voskovec & Werich.