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.