When Time Stopped: A story of Holocaust historical detection

So great was the crime of the Shoah that many Jews lapsed into silence. A piercing review of a daughter's search for her father's past.

Dr.Norman Simms ,

Clock, time
Clock, time
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Review of Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains..

Part One: The Search for the Father

At a certain point in the history of the Holocaust, the actual voices of the survivors are replaced by those of their children and others who take on the task of preserving memories, and one of the key new genres in this phase is the book of historical detection. Like Sherlock Holmes and his followers, the survivor’s
Like Sherlock Holmes and his followers, the survivor’s child or other relative inherits a small number of clues...
child or other relative inherits a small number of clues—a few vague words, a hidden box of fragmentary documents, a sense of incompleteness—and an increasing number of mysterious gaps that open up once the search begins. Sometimes the investigating narrator does not even know they or their parents are or were Jewish, let alone victims of the Holocaust.

This new kind of author is also editor of someone else’s words, whether written or spoken, and an interpreter of those words—often confused, fragmentary and locked into the incoherence of a horrible time—whether through acts of great empathy and imagination, almost to the point of fictionalization as a novel at one or two removes from the reality, or objectified into quotation and paraphrase within a mesh of scholarly or journalistic discourse, generating a virtual microhistory of several sequential events or a biography of one or more people whose lives were broken, distorted and transformed by their ordeal. Certainly, the driving force of the narrative is the search for clues and then the working out of interpretations.

"My father left the world of which he seldom spoke a riddle for me to unlock, the answer perhaps being the key to his complex and hermetic personality" (p. 35).

Neumann’s search for further clues and ways to fill the gaps leads also to the discovery of distant, virtually unknown members of the family, who also have incomprehensible memories, unidentified people in photographs and a desire to find out who they really are and, in time, whether any other members of their family are still alive. She is young and naïve, never-doubting that what she was is Catholic and Venezuelan, and yet, as she inherits something in her personality she does not for many years recognize, a sense that the world is not only full of mysteries to be solved, but of deceptive gaps that are dangerous and treacherous places, as well as to be played in and with.

"The truth of his [her father’s] past, for him. Was a horror that could be barely even glimpsed and then only through the cracks between his fingers."(p. 35)

About half way through the book, however, the narrator discovers long narratives written by her father explaining how he transformed himself from a flighty, irresponsible adolescent into an imaginative, crafty, cunning adult: how he changed his name, sneaked from Prague and the transports that were to take him and hundreds of thousands of other Jews to the death camps in Poland, and lived and worked as an industrial chemist in Berlin right under the eyes of the Nazis.

In the course of the process of writing the book, there are chance meetings, unexpected encounters, uncanny scenes of recognition. In a variation of Marcel Proust’s special moments when the obscurities of memory open up like a madeleine in a cup of tea, Ariana starts to fit together the hints of terrible dangers along with little flashes of beauty.

"Perhaps all remembrance is a process of compilation and creation. Every day we absorb what is around us and assemble observations of a specific time: sounds, smells, textures, words, images and feelings." (p. 44)

Thus “a mosaic of impressions” is formed (p. 45) and a gestalt gradually fills out both through discovery and external research. But for most of her childhood, they are only impressions and vague clues, since no one prompts her into crossing the divide between her unidentified self doing the search and the efforts of her father and others to mask the reality of the past. In her detective work, on her own with occasional help from others, she senses that something very important is missing, not only further clues, but also a way of processing the information she is gathering.

"Yet, growing up in Venezuela in a firmly Roman Catholic culture, attending a school run by Ursuline nuns, I felt out of place but never quite understood why …. I was different because my mother and father defied Venezuelan religious mores. I had unconventional parents. This both irked me and made me love them even more." (p. 129)


In a variation of Marcel Proust’s special moments when the obscurities of memory open up like a madeleine in a cup of tea, Ariana starts to fit together the hints of terrible dangers along with little flashes of beauty.
Only into her early adulthood and departure from home in Caracas is the differentness and discomfort recognized insofar as it leads towards closure in her quest and satisfaction to the creator of the book; but then, it seems, the discovery has to be smoothed out so as to please herself, her editors, her reviewers, and ordinary readers. However, there’s the rub: the more persuasive the prose, the more other questions arise about the roughness and painfulness of the memories that stimulated the search in the first place—and the reasons for the irritation, repression, censorship and resistance.

There are times of crisis for her, such as a passing statement from a fellow Latin American student at Brown University that she looks like a Jew and has a Jewish name, something she never imagined; or a trip to Prague with her father to see where he grew up, and the shocking observations of where and how he responded to sites and objects that seem to be without meaning to her, such as the railway station where he said goodbye forever to his parents.

"At that stage I knew nothing of their [his parents’ and other relatives and friends’] fate during the war. More importantly, I also did not know who or how many they were. I imagined that he would show me the places where he had lived, tell me stories of his youth and finally open up to me about his family and his past." (p. 135)

Her reasoning powers of detection—though she calls it imagining or envisaging—does not spark shards of insight across the divide of time and deeper sensibilities. Her Jewish imagination has not yet awakened and lit up the dark places in her soul.

That kind of paradigm shift begins during the visit to Prague, but it only starts to reassemble the facets of her personality and intellectual abilities.

"It was not until we were left alone on the afternoon of the second day that I realised there was more to my father’s behaviour than just obduracy. He simply could not remember the streets of his old city. This amazed me." (p. 136)

But his memory failed not because of his age or of a simple denial of reality. Much more was going on in his mind, and what it was that was leading her towards recognition of something also hidden and denied in her own experiences. At the nearly derelict railway station, her father begins to tremble—to show an emotion he had never let her see before; and he mentioned a new name, Zdenêk, he had never mentioned before (pp. 138, 140). Here is a moment that starts to explode away the old ways of thinking and shatter the pretty mosaic she was piecing together. She starts to see the inexpressible memories locked away in her father’s memory.

"I have nothing to reveal about how the hours passed beyond my own horror in contemplating them [at the time the Jews were taken away to the concentration and extermination camps in the East]. No one spoke or wrote of it afterwards. I can only imagine then relentless and mounting trepidation that must have filled the house in Libčice that night." (p. 145)

Then she begins to imagine still further and in so doing her imagination starts to metamorphose:

"…the trepidation that must have filled the house…would have been palpable…must have been devastated…would have had to wrestle with the desperate fear….must have felt… "(p. 145)

This change in perspective lets her go back to the photographs and documents her father left for her to find. She examines with a new depth of mental acuity, a new sense of the imaginative making what is blurry clear, and reading between the lines, filling in the gaps, and creating historical contexts. And then, when the new clarity starts to emerge, she feels both with and for the people she recognizes as part of her father’s—and therefore her own—life.

Part Two: The Jewish Imagination

Leslie Donald Epstein wrote the following in relation to Roberto Begnini’s controversial 1997 film Life is Beautiful:

"The war against the Jews was in many ways a war against the imagination (and at bottom the Jewish conception of God): to suppress the workings of that imagination to deny the sufferings of the Jews any sort of symbolic representation—would make that a war that Hitler had won."

This is a very complicated statement and yet worth careful parsing to show how it is relevant to our reading of Ariana Neumann’s When Time Stopped. The first point is that the Jewish imagination (which we shall discuss shortly) is an integral part of the Rabbinical conception of God.

The second point is that a suppression of this sense of the Jewish imagination stands in the way of understanding what the victims and survivors—and their children and other relatives—of the Holocaust experienced and how it could exist within the idea of a just and merciful God.

The third point is that when such a suppression, misunderstanding and indifference to the Jewishness of the imagination—in this special sense—means that we allow Hitler to have succeeded in his genocidal aim to annihilate the Jewish people and cultural destruction of their historical achievements in history.

Epstein elsewhere expands on this thought:

"In an age when the belief [in heaven, hell and a supervening god] was no longer tenable, when the supreme fiction, which was that everything was possible, then the extermination of the Jews, who in their infinite minds conceived of the infinite, becomes an attack on the imagination itself."

Unlike the Romantic notion of imagination wherein the term imagination becomes almost synonymous with fantasy, on the one hand, and refers to all poetic creativity, on the other, the Jewish sense of the term has a wider and more complex definition. Instead of pointing towards the non- or even pre-verbal dynamic of the mind’s playful means of generating thoughts packed with emotional intensity, it designates the fraught relationship between words and ideas, words expressed in visible characters and energetic thoughts invisibly generated beyond verbal expression.

The Jewish imagination is always exploring, generating and exploding the confines of verbal language. The deity has neither visible form nor substance, cannot be seen or heard, but creates the grounds of perception, understanding and realization in historical acts of justice and morality by which it known. Through diligent study, active and ongoing discussion and endless debate the specifics of the Law may be performed, without leaving painful shadows and echoes of its presence.

God is actualized, made virtual and experienced in the performance of mitzvoth, including loving kindness, charity and forgiveness. Just as breath is needed to read aloud the texts of Torah and Talmud, so the truth and justice of God’s role in history—of the individual, of the Jewish people and of the created cosmos—requires active participatory thinking and practical deeds of justice. Any attack on this collective and historical intellectual process not only prevents Jews from experiencing their imagination as something that gives power and truth to the reality of God in their historical existence; that something being, as Epstein expresses it, “the greatest imaginative leap of all, that of comprehending, out of nothingness, a burning bush, an empty whirlwind, the ‘I am that I am’,” and thus “in their finite minds conceived of the infinite.”


The Nazi Endlősung or Final Solution sought to undermine the Jews’ active role in the continuing creation and moral continuity of the world.
The Nazi Endlősung or Final Solution sought to undermine the Jews’ active role in the continuing creation and moral continuity of the world.

Dolgopolski shows how the word talmud functions as a verb in generating performative rituals of debate that keep affirming and authorizing the nature of Judaism as an extended moment in history without definiteness—an always open and creative starting point to being in the world as agents of truth, justice and lovingkindness. Based on rabbinical philology, rhetoric and philosophy, the Talmudic event plays out like a film of montage, split screen and stop-action technology: the words embody ideas, the ideas explode into sparks, the sparks cohere into images, and the imagery is embodied in persons, places and actions.

The horizontal stage on which this history transpires allows for no hierarchical, oppressive and obscurantist claims to power. The Jewish imagination is not only embodied by divine wisdom—to reveal the truths of Scripture and Talmud through rational inquiry; but dynamically recreates the illusions and delusions of certainty and enduring rule to keep witty discussions constantly adjusting to the historical changes in the world and undercutting cruel pretentiousness and oppressive institutions.

John Milton, spokesman for the mid-seventeenth-century English Puritan Commonwealth and well-studied in the Hebrew texts, understood this in Paradise Lost when, the deity on his throne learns of rebellion among the wicked angels: “Nearly they threaten my omnipotence.” Finally getting the joke the figure of Jesus replies: “Justly Thou holdest them in derision.”

The Holocaust, more than any other churban (disaster) in Jewish experience, tested their strength of character, individually and collectively, and intelligent engagement with the world to the very limits.

More than the Destruction of the Second Temple and the great dispersion following the loss sovereignty in the Holy Land and the ending of the laws of the priestly cult pertaining to a national territory.

More than the Expulsion from Iberia at the close of the fifteenth century and the new wandering, suffering and forgetting of the mission to be a Light unto the Nations.

More than the repeated pogroms and forced migrations of the nineteenth century.

So enormous was the unspeakable crime of the Shoah that for many Jews their imaginations failed: they lapsed into silence, denial and indifference; they tried never to speak of what happened, they denied their identities to themselves and to their children, and they seemed not to care.

Thus with Ariana Neumann, even as she plays girl-detective in searching for clues, interviewing witnesses, and compiling an apparently coherent picture of everything her father and other relatives tried to suppress. She identifies persons, dates events and matches them with documentary history. But she may do more, although the pressure of completing her search makes it seem she has missed out on interpreting the most poignant clues of all. Without interpretation, and all the playfulness of the Jewish imagination, the Holocaust becomes normalized, and thus trivialized, just another event in human history.

Part Three: Intergenerational Trauma of the Holocaust

Yet perhaps not. Look at the title of the book, something like a variant on Dita Kraus’s memoirs, A Delayed Life, a hint at the nature of time in the Jewish imagination: experiences midrashed, as it were, from specific moments into transcendent moments of insight and understanding.

The darkened room where Ariana’s father repairs clocks and watches, not only referring to the time when he was hiding in a narrow shelf waiting to escape from the Gestapo, or alluding to the miracle of the sun standing still at noon for Joshua’s victory to be achieved, but to a sense of affirming the time of life over that of unimaginable darkness of non-being that was the goal of the Holocaust.


The darkened room where he repairs clocks..a sense of affirming the time of life over that of unimaginable darkness of non-being that was the goal of the Holocaust.
The repairs do more than fill up missing, empty time; they perform little acts of tikkun ha’olam, restoring, correcting and re-imagining time as the space for creation. The father’s explanation to the young Ariana is a diversion, but also a provocation for her to think beyond the moment and the ordinary sense of space:

"He explained to me that he had become enthralled by watch mechanisms in Prague. When he was a young man. He said that it was during a period when he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped."(p. 207)

She doesn’t understand and asked herself “How could time have stopped?” She will later learn about the stratagem of being hidden in the wall and waiting for a time to escape from the trains transporting the rest of the family to certain death in the gas chambers.

"I realise now that this must have happened while her was hiding in the dark and narrow chamber at the factory. His days alone, caged in the cramped stillness, were a void of timelessness." (p. 207)

That, however, is not enough. The mechanisms of the clock-work universe do not open her understanding to what was going on in her father’s mind, more than the cramped void of his waiting, his transformation not from a thoughtless adolescent into a mature and cunning adult view. More and other than Spinoza’s rational universe, more and other than Newton’s clock-work deity.

"Hans Neumann from Prague had absconded rather than submitting to transportation. He had hidden and assumed a false identity. This was not unusual; thousands of those persecuted had survived by doing the same." (p. 224)

How different? He chooses the ridiculous name Jan Šebasta, a trickster in Czech folklore, familiar in children’s books. He runs away to the centre of Nazi power, Berlin, not away to the peripheries where crossing the border might become possible as the Allies and the Russians advance on the collapsing Third Reich. He does not lurk in cellars and secret houses, but works openly in the chemical factory, obtains official permits to live among the German people, consorts with a Nazi widow. No one suspects the ruse.

Ariana later identifies him as “[t]he practical joker from Prague.” Even as she comes across the long narrative her father wrote about his experiences in Berlin living under the assumed name of a famous fictional character and brazening out his forbidden lie before the eyes of Nazi officialdom, she doesn’t go beyond the surface. He warns his reader, that is, his daughter Ariana, for whom he writes his own story:

"Nietzsche wrote that what separates human from animals is the ability to find one’s condition risible. Nazis tended to solemnity and humourlessness. They always showed what Nietzsche called 'Tierischer Ernst,' a certain 'animal earnestness,' a complete inability to laugh at themselves." (p. 263)

Had she been more alert to the context of these shenanigans, had she been familiar with the performers on the popular Yiddish stage in Prague that Franz Kafka became intimate with and from he learned to hone his unique version of the Jewish imagination, she would have realized that such oral and written literature abounds in various kinds of tricksters, practical jokers, eirons of many sorts (shlemiels, shlemazels, shmegeggees) and traditional entertainers whose music, dances, and story-telling have provided the means for a persecuted and scorned people to rise their way through history.

By preventing public ridicule by presenting the individual and group as fallible, weak and powerless, Jewish purveyors of Witzen (which Sigmund Freud saw as a parallel royal road to the unconscious along with dreams) appeared in the death camps and, until the final moments, offered an intellectual and emotional release from the terrors pressing in on the victims of the Holocaust. A good example of this kind of transformational Witz is found in Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish:

"What is it that hangs on the wall, is green, wet -- and whistles?" I knit my brow and thought and thought, and in final perplexity gave up. "A herring," said my father. "A herring," I echoed. "A herring doesn't hang on the wall!" "So hang it there." "But a herring isn't green!" I protested. "Paint it." "But a herring isn't wet." "If it's just painted it's still wet." "But -- " I sputtered, summoning all my outrage, "-- a herring doesn't whistle!!" “So I put that in to make it harder for you.”


As the putative Jan Šebesta, Ariana’s father Hans Neumann insinuated his way into the very core of Nazi power and arrogance...
As the putative Jan Šebesta, Ariana’s father Hans Neumann insinuated his way into the very core of Nazi power and arrogance, playing with the inability of the Party and its dupes to distinguish illusion from reality. He was a nobody (a nebesh) with the name of a famous fool, a supposed naĩf albeit with technical knowledge the National Socialists needed to keep fighting the war, just surprisingly naughty enough to keep away suspicion of a disguised trickster, he outlasts those who would murder him:

"I figured that by acting in an unexpected manner or in any way that ran contrary to expectations, I could increase my chances of survival." (p. 264)

By the final sections of the book, Ariana feels she has completed her quest and achieved her goal of figuring out who and what her father and his family went through during the war. Has she? She now knows people, places, things and events that she could not remember or recognize at the start of her journey of discovery; she can retell objectively the terrible murders committed by the Nazis and the traumatic suffering undergone by those who managed to survive. However, she refuses to go to Auschwitz to be in the place where so much evil inflicted itself on her people.

“I simply cannot go to the place where they died” (p. 313).

She also speaks of trauma, as though she could understand it, as though she could get into the skin and minds of the people who endured things no rational, ordinary person should ever have to see and feel. Yet her own children disagree.

"They firmly believe that we each decide and shape who we are, that we learn from our own experiences and from observing others, that unspoken traumas and lessons are not somehow imprinted in our cells. How we behave and who we become is up to us."(p. 334).

But while they sound like those apologists, as it were, for the suffering of the Jews, those who, though they themselves endured the horrors of the Holocaust, nevertheless preach a pretentious sentimentality and transcendent inner strength to forget and forgive—because all people are alike, and who is to say you wouldn’t have acted like the Nazis had your places been reversed, and so on and so forth ad nauseum.

Her version of the argument is a kind of compromise position, one taken from her Catholic upbringing and education. Then she juxtaposes some incompatible ideas: the notion of trauma being passed on through the mechanisms by which genes are expressed in each individual according to their specific circumstances; and the contrary notion that by sheer force of will one can override these genetic expressions, alter patterns of emotional response, and arrive at a better place where there is hope.

"I like to believe that life lessons are etched into us and passed on. We choose who we are, but our choices are always moulded by where we come from, even when we do not know where that is." (p. 334)

She does not consider that her children’s views come not only from their milieu and opinions that are current in environments where the nice middle-class comfortable idea that everyone has a choice in virtually everything, but also because—like her father—she failed to prepare to live in a world where being Jewish is set by millennial experiences and traditions, where previous generations have worked out ways to endure inevitable tribulations, and where childrearing practices have set up triggering mechanisms to be set in motion when collective troubles begin.

"I look at my three children as they chatter and laugh, and I pray that, in addition to the timekeeping and tenacity, they also have my father’s boldness, his poetry and his strength. And hopefully[,] too[,] a little of his luck." (p. 334)

Ariana can certainly see that in her other relatives and in their children:


“It means that I tricked them. That is exactly what it means. I tricked them. I lived.”
"She never spoke of the war to Victor’s children or grandchildren…they had no idea that they had any Jewish heritage or that their step-grandmother had ever been in a camp." (p. 329)

The most revealing moment comes when Ariana tells her father that she had examined the memorial plaque in the great synagogue in Prague listing thousands of names and their dates of birth, transport and death by gassing, starvation or disease. Next to his name there is a question mark.

“What does it mean, Papi?” I asked. “If your name is on the wall, they must think you are dead.”

He paused for a brief moment.

“What does it mean?” he said, chuckling quietly. “It means that I tricked them. That is exactly what it means.

“I tricked them. I lived.” (p. 326)

The big mystery Ariana does not solve is what her father means by “them”. He has tricked the Germans, of course, by surviving the war and the Holocaust, and all the post-traumatic stress symptoms that he displayed throughout the rest of his life. But he has also tricked the Jewish community, its official way of calculating who perished and who survived. He showed them that what was needed to escape and endure was the many imaginative tricks he played.

Norman Simms, associate professor (ret.) of English at Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand, was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1970, after several years in Canada, he moved to Hamilton, New Zealand where he ran the Waikato Jewish Studies Seminar. He became an Israeli citizen in 1995.



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