Pod svícnem bývá největší tma. The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle. The phrase occurs about half-way through Ariana Neumann’s extraordinary book, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. When her father, a Czech émigré who’d built an industrial empire in post-war Venezuela, died, Ariana wondered if she’d be able to learn something of his previous life, something he’d firmly refused to talk about during her childhood and beyond. She didn’t even know he was Jewish until she was in university and someone told her that her name and her bearing were Jewish. She did know there were mysteries. She’d found his name on the Pinkas Synagogue memorial in Prague on a trip there when her father was still alive in Caracas. His name, with his birthdate and a question mark elegantly calligraphed onto the wall. When she asked him about it — “What does it mean, Papi? If your name is on the wall, they must think you are dead.”– his answer was cryptic: “What does it mean?” he said, chuckling quietly. “It means that I tricked them. That is exactly what it means.” On a later trip to Prague with him, there were moments when she realized that the past was something too terrible for him to share.
Hans Neumann’s extended family was large and accomplished. His father owned a paint factory in Prague, his mother loved the house they bought in Libcice, on the Vltava River and kept it as a haven for her sons and the wider family. Their lives were rich and purposeful. In 1933, news of anti-Jewish laws and restrictions in neighbouring Germany filtered through to the Neumanns. Two uncles had already left for the USA. They urged the rest of the family to immigrate too. They didn’t. The Germans moved into the Czech Sudetanland in 1938. The rest is history, though the personal details of this history were unknown to Ariana until after her father’s death.
He left papers, a few photographs, a collection of watches. She knew of her father’s meticulous obsession with time-pieces, how he’d spend hours taking them apart and repairing them. The papers led her to a vast network of people, the children and grandchildren of that Czech family. Too many of them perished in camps. Otto and Ella Neumann, Ariana’s unknown grandparents. Uncles. Cousins. The survivors were few but some of them had bits and pieces of papers, some of them remembered someone else who might know something of the story, and through dedicated detective work, Ariana reconstructs her father’s past, which is also a larger past: her narrative will have familiar moments for many. She learns of her father’s hiding place within a wall of the paint factory as he waited for papers that would allow him to escape transportation. How did he pass the time in a compartment a few square feet in size? He took apart his watch, carefully observing the mechanical components, and he put it together again.
The darkest shadow lies beneath the candle. This phrase inspired the act that was the means of Hans’ survival. It’s worth reading this book to discover what that was. It’s worth reading this book for the beauty of the writing, for the careful construction of its narrative, balancing a personal family story against the terrible historical events. I was reminded a little of East West Street, by Philippe Sands, in that its author also uncovers his hidden family story within the fabric of the Second World War, specifically the Nazi crimes against humanity. Both writers have a similar tenacity and drive to piece together the puzzle of their family history, knowing as they do so that significant parts might never be clear.
Sometimes I lose my bearings. I forget that time has passed. And for that briefest moment, I want to rush again to my father. I want to tear along the checkered floor of the hall to the long windowless room and, as he raises his visor and looks up from his watches, explain that I finally solved the puzzle.