Some objects are obvi­ous­ly beau­ti­ful. Aes­thetes point at the sym­me­try, ornate­ness, or per­haps a cer­tain refine­ment cul­ti­vat­ed dur­ing the cre­ative process. This beau­ty imbues objects with pow­er and often ren­ders them valuable.

I grew up in Venezuela of the 1970s and 1980s, sur­round­ed by aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing things; stun­ning works of art and my father’s col­lec­tion of jew­elled and del­i­cate watch­es. At the time, Venezuela was a coun­try filled with promise, joy, vibran­cy, and colour. My father and his broth­er had emi­grat­ed from their native Czecho­slo­va­kia in the late 1940s. By the time I arrived, any ves­tige of immi­grant hard­ship had long since dis­ap­peared. My father enjoyed huge suc­cess as an entre­pre­neur, phil­an­thropist, and col­lec­tor. Always engaged in the present, he nev­er spoke of his past.

My par­ents, like most, were keen to edu­cate me as best they could. Their only child, I attend­ed what seemed like thou­sands of con­certs, bal­lets, and exhibits in muse­ums all around the world. I sat through hours of Strauss and Stravin­sky, ambled through miles of halls observ­ing objects and fine art of all kinds. My expo­sure to such activ­i­ties was mag­ni­fied by my par­ents’ con­nec­tion to the arts; artists and thinkers con­stant­ly vis­it­ed our home.

I learned that a per­fect bal­ance of crafts­man­ship, aes­thet­ics, and mean­ing cre­ates har­mo­ny. It imbues some­thing with that elu­sive qual­i­ty we call beau­ty. My father couldn’t walk by a piece of art with­out expound­ing on it. In many mem­o­ries of my child­hood, we’re stand­ing in front of paint­ings and sculp­tures whis­per­ing as my father, who had a bril­liant eye, tried to teach me the dif­fer­ence between a daubed can­vas and a work of fine art. Eager to please, I strained to under­stand why Jack­son Pollock’s paint splash­es were so much bet­ter than my own.

Eager to please, I strained to under­stand why Jack­son Pollock’s paint splash­es were so much bet­ter than my own.

Despite all this expo­sure to fin­er things from a young age, the most beau­ti­ful object I have today is a coarse cop­per ring. The base mate­r­i­al seems to be a sec­tion of pipe that was most like­ly des­tined for plumb­ing. The ring was prob­a­bly fash­ioned with a ham­mer and a nail. It was made by a grand­fa­ther I nev­er met in 1943 or 1944 while he was impris­oned by the Nazis in a camp near Prague known as Terezín. The ring emerged from my family’s Czech past that my father kept hid­den from me and those close to him.

When my father died in 2001, he left me a box of clues to his elu­sive life dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. A few years lat­er I began research­ing his family’s his­to­ry. I scoured archives, deci­phered papers, traced peo­ple all around Europe and Amer­i­ca, asked ques­tions and uncov­ered untold sto­ries. When I first found the unusu­al look­ing ring, it was just a loose trin­ket, an appar­ent­ly unex­cep­tion­al sou­venir in one of the many box­es that made their way to me after I start­ed my inquiries into the past. As I learned more, the ring began to acquire meaning.

Grow­ing up, I knew noth­ing of my father’s ear­li­er life in Europe. I dis­cov­ered that my father came from a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Prague. My father Hans and his broth­er Lotar were part of a large, well-to-do, hap­py fam­i­ly. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Neu­manns owned a fac­to­ry that man­u­fac­tured paints. When my father turned eigh­teen in 1939, he was liv­ing with his par­ents Otto and Ella. His old­er broth­er Lotar was engaged to Zden­ka, a beau­ti­ful, clever, and inde­pen­dent young law stu­dent who wasn’t her­self Jew­ish. Even­tu­al­ly Lotar and Zden­ka mar­ried. As Nazism bore down on them and the fam­i­ly was stripped of their pos­ses­sions, Zdenka’s per­son­al resources offered a tem­po­rary lifeline.

I now know that twen­ty-nine mem­bers of my fam­i­ly were sent to camps. Unlike most, my father’s imme­di­ate fam­i­ly wasn’t deport­ed togeth­er. My grand­moth­er Ella was deport­ed first, in May 1942. Ella’s trans­port end­ed up in Sobi­bor, where all were shot on arrival. It was not until August that the fam­i­ly received news that Ella had col­lapsed in the trans­port and had been removed from the wag­on and interned in Terezín. The fam­i­ly used every tool at their dis­pos­al to send to the camp what­ev­er they could to sup­ple­ment Ella’s food, keep her warm, and pro­vide her with the cur­ren­cy need­ed to sur­vive. The sup­ply-chain logis­tics took time to estab­lish; every link in the chain had to be infal­li­ble. Inter­me­di­aries had to have a way into the camp and be trust­wor­thy. No one could risk being caught. It took weeks for the fam­i­ly to arrange a work­able sys­tem, sneak­ing parcels of con­tra­band in and get­ting cod­ed, but can­did, let­ters out.

Grow­ing up, I knew noth­ing of my father’s ear­li­er life in Europe. I dis­cov­ered that my father came from a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Prague.

Zden­ka, who’d grown close to Ella and was very bold, was so buoyed by the news that Ella was alive and in Terezín that she deter­mined to enter the camp her­self and find her. It was dif­fi­cult for a gen­tile to access the camp, but noth­ing ever seemed impos­si­ble to Zden­ka. She had, at this point, already spent years shut­tling let­ters, med­i­cines, and cur­ren­cy between the homes of var­i­ous fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends. She’d even helped Lotar obtain a false iden­ti­ty card. But the idea of pen­e­trat­ing the camp estab­lished in her a new lev­el of temer­i­ty, yet more defi­ant and dan­ger­ous. It could eas­i­ly have cost her her life.

She asked ques­tions of friends and sought advice from peo­ple engaged in resis­tance. It was dif­fi­cult and very risky for a gen­tile to access the camp, but it wasn’t impos­si­ble. Zden­ka dis­card­ed her sleek mod­ern suits and skirts, cov­ered her hair with a hand­ker­chief, found a pair of com­fort­able walk­ing shoes, and dressed in the plainest clothes on which she could lay her hands. She stitched a yel­low star onto her old­est coat. She’d been told there were two options. She should either look like one of the few locals who entered and left Terezín, employed to do laun­dry and cook­ing for the SS, or like one of those interned. She chose the latter.

Zden­ka 

The eas­i­est way in was to go just before noon and meet up with the groups of inmates who worked the fields sur­round­ing Terezín. She’d then walk with them as they head­ed back into the camp for their mid­day soup. The town had two main gates that were guard­ed on rota­tion by Czech gen­darmes and Ger­man SS guards.

Yet Terezín was self-admin­is­tered, and the peo­ple respon­si­ble for count­ing inmates in the fields or bar­racks were Jews. The field work­ers were led and mon­i­tored by a high­er-rank­ing pris­on­er and usu­al­ly returned at the time when the SS guards were on their lunch break. They entered via a gate near the gen­darmes’ head­quar­ters, which, rumor had it, was patrolled by friend­ly Czech guards. Chances were that the Jew­ish inmate in charge of the group of field work­ers wouldn’t denounce her, so Zden­ka need­ed sim­ply to blend in and avoid any con­tact with the SS.

She man­aged to locate the group of build­ings that includ­ed Ella’s dor­mi­to­ry and work­place. Zden­ka knew where to go. She chose a busy week­day and packed an old cloth bag with items that Ella had request­ed: a black sweater, a wool dress, and a small pot of mar­malade. She drove her car to the town of Bohušovice. There she bor­rowed a bicy­cle from a con­tact and cycled the remain­ing mile to the for­ti­fied town of Terezín. When she spot­ted the coun­try unit of work­ers in a field, she hid her bicy­cle in the near­by shed that she’d been told about. She donned her jack­et with the star and joined the group in their labours until it was time to go in for their lunch. She walked into Terezín with a large group of inmates who pushed hand­carts and lugged tools and sacks of pota­toes. As if she entered the camp every day, she brazen­ly smiled when she walked past a gen­darme with his bay­o­net. I don’t know why they didn’t stop her. Once through the ram­parts, she found her way toward the build­ings that housed the work­shops and even­tu­al­ly reached Ella. Zden­ka had a lim­it­ed amount of time to spare before she had to return to the fields with the agri­cul­tur­al work­ers head­ed for the after­noon shift. Oth­er­wise, leav­ing the camp that day would be impossible.

Zden­ka

Zdenka’s writ­ten rec­ol­lec­tion paints her bold adven­ture as an easy feat. The real­i­ty is that there are very few his­tor­i­cal accounts of peo­ple illic­it­ly access­ing Terezín.

I traced Zdenka’s daugh­ter in Switzer­land and she explained that many years lat­er her elder­ly moth­er had writ­ten about her encounter with Ella in the camp: Reunit­ed, we touched each other’s hands and faces over and over in dis­be­lief, we held each oth­er and talked and wept. We cried out of joy and sorrow.

Among the hun­dreds of doc­u­ments that I’ve amassed, I also have a let­ter from Ella, addressed to Otto and their sons dat­ed a few days after Zdenka’s visit:

This encounter with my beloved Zden­ka has brought me so many beau­ti­ful mem­o­ries and such hap­pi­ness it has shak­en me out of my apa­thy. Today I am back at work and hope­ful once more. I miss you all ter­ri­bly. I live for you and pray that this will only be a short chap­ter and will not be in vain. 

My grand­fa­ther was him­self deport­ed to Terezín six months after my grand­moth­er in Novem­ber 1942. Lotar, Zden­ka, and my father Hans, who hadn’t yet received his depor­ta­tion notice, did what­ev­er they could to ensure that sup­plies were still smug­gled in to their par­ents in the camp.

I know from var­i­ous sources that Zden­ka took the enor­mous risk of enter­ing Terezín once more. Under­stand­ably, her mem­oirs dwell on her emo­tion­al response to the sit­u­a­tion, and it’s not clear pre­cise­ly when she made the run again. It must have been dur­ing the ear­ly autumn months of 1943, when get­ting parcels through was becom­ing impos­si­ble, that Zden­ka entered the camp for a sec­ond time.

Once more, she dressed like an inmate and tagged along with the coun­try unit work­ing in the near­by fields. She searched for Otto and found him in the Han­nover bar­racks on his shared wood­en bunk. She’d stitched hid­den pock­ets into her shirt and skirts, with­in which she car­ried tins of shoe pol­ish — to keep Otto’s hair dark to ensure that he looked younger than his fifty-three year —mon­ey, and oth­er small items of val­ue. Above all, she brought my grand­fa­ther love and, with it, hope.

When you look care­ful­ly at the cop­per pipe ring, you notice that the geo­met­ric draw­ing on the top is com­posed of two let­ters jux­ta­posed and inter­twined. They are ZN, Zdenka’s ini­tials. A cousin explained to me that her father, my uncle Lotar, had explained tear­ful­ly that Otto had made the ring in Terezín. Grate­ful to Zden­ka for the parcels, for the let­ters, for what felt like uncon­di­tion­al love, Otto had stolen some met­al and mod­elled it him­self. He must have loved Zden­ka very much. Per­haps it was dur­ing her brave incur­sion into the camp that a grate­ful Otto gave her the ring. Maybe he sent it out with one of their trust­ed couri­ers. Either way, this sim­ple, essen­tial sym­bol of grat­i­tude did make it out. It‘s a token of beau­ty that emerged from the hor­ror there. Zden­ka kept it and wore it through­out the war. After­ward, she decid­ed to return it to my fam­i­ly. Decades lat­er, it has made its way to me. It’s the only thing that remains that belonged to my grand­fa­ther Otto. When I hold it, as my fin­gers trace the relief that forms the let­ters, I imag­ine my grandfather’s fin­gers as they worked the cop­per, deter­mined, des­per­ate, and yet full of love.

Zden­ka and Otto Neumann

Some things are beau­ti­ful despite lack­ing any fea­ture that might appeal to the aes­thete. They have a soul, a pow­er, an intrin­sic sto­ry. You have to look care­ful­ly to find the his­to­ry that shaped the object, because often what is left to us is just a shell, mean­ing­less with­out its context.

Rings have been used as tal­is­mans for cen­turies. Our mythol­o­gy abounds with rings that pro­tect or empow­er the wear­er. Jew­ish leg­end relates that King Solomon pos­sessed a mag­i­cal ring that ren­dered him all-know­ing and ward­ed off demons. Enchant­ed rings still fig­ure large in our pop­u­lar cul­ture, from Wag­n­er to Tolkien to CS Lewis; rings that are cov­et­ed, that spark adven­tures, that con­jure mag­ic, that per­mit trav­el between worlds.

This lit­tle piece of cop­per pipe is my tal­is­man. It hangs on a neck­lace that I wear every day. I’m not sure about super­pow­ers or demons but it serves to remind me of my roots, of my family’s resilience. It acts as anchor and inspi­ra­tion. It even, every so often, allows me to trav­el in time.

Above all, it reminds me that the great­est beau­ty comes from the sto­ry within.

Ari­ana Neu­mann was born and grew up in Venezuela. She has a BA in His­to­ry and French Lit­er­a­ture from Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty, an MA in Span­ish and Latin Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture from New York Uni­ver­si­ty and a PgDIP in Psy­chol­o­gy of Reli­gion from Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. She pre­vi­ous­ly was involved in pub­lish­ing, worked as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for Venezuela’s The Dai­ly Jour­nal and her writ­ing also appeared in The Euro­pean.

She cur­rent­ly lives in Lon­don with her hus­band, three chil­dren, a bas­set fauve de Bre­tagne, a bor­der ter­ri­er and a res­cue mutt.

When Time Stopped is her first book.