Non­fic­tion

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

  • Review
By – February 15, 2021

Ari­ana Neu­mann opens her mem­oir, When Time Stopped, with a pho­to­graph of the memo­r­i­al wall at Pinkas Syn­a­gogue in Prague. Inscribed in the wall are the names, birth dates, and death dates of the 77, 297 Mora­vian and Bohemi­an Czechs mur­dered by the Nazis dur­ing World War II. When Neu­mann vis­it­ed this memo­r­i­al, in 1997, she found her father’s name inscribed, with a ques­tion mark where his death date should be, and was shocked. She knew her father was alive and well back home in Cara­cas, so why was his name on a memo­r­i­al wall in Prague?

The per­plex­ing wall inscrip­tion leads Neu­mann back in time through her child­hood mem­o­ries of her father. She recalls play­ing junior detec­tive around her house and dis­cov­er­ing a for­eign-lan­guage doc­u­ment with her father’s pho­to attached, but with a strange man’s name on it. When she brought it to him, he explained nothing.

Neu­mann grew up in Venezuela, and was close to her lov­ing but reserved father, Hans. While Hans made his liv­ing as the head of a suc­cess­ful paint busi­ness, his real plea­sure was clocks. No mere col­lec­tor of expen­sive watch­es, he per­son­al­ly main­tained a vari­ety of unusu­al time­pieces, each with a his­to­ry that Neu­mann grew up hear­ing. As the sto­ry unfolds, Neu­mann paus­es to show pho­tos of a par­tic­u­lar pock­et watch of her father’s, empha­siz­ing a larg­er theme of When Time Stopped as a whole; that every arti­fact has a story.

When he dies, Hans leaves her a box of papers which become her roadmap to the his­to­ry of her father, to all the fam­i­ly he would nev­er speak of, and to the past he would nev­er let enter his present. Before long, Neu­mann is forced to become the detec­tive she’d played as a child if she wants to unrav­el the enig­ma of her father.

With a care­ful atten­tion to detail — down to the body lan­guage in pho­tos—When Time Stopped evokes a vis­cer­al emo­tion­al response in the read­er. As Neu­mann dis­cov­ers more about her family’s trag­ic his­to­ry in Prague — how many lost loved ones, or found they could no longer stay in their homes — we begin to under­stand how com­plex the term sur­vivor” real­ly is. In the end, the sto­ry cir­cles back to Hans’s final days in Cara­cas — to this man who lived by stop­ping the clock on his past.

Not only is Neumann’s sto­ry com­pelling­ly told, but her unusu­al deci­sion to include all of the mate­ri­als she men­tions — her father’s work per­mits, his bill from the Czech police, a let­ter from a laun­dry lady her grand­moth­er knew, and more — make it all the more evoca­tive. And, while most of the arti­facts are in Czech, and many are illeg­i­ble; it doesn’t mat­ter. These objects togeth­er tell a sto­ry, bring­ing this his­to­ry to life. When Time Stopped is a page-turn­er and a remark­able achievement.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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