AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Having downloaded this book to my Kindle, I was reluctant to start reading it. I didn’t want to read a memoir of the devastating and no doubt horribly familiar experiences of the author’s Jewish father during the Second World War. I felt that I couldn’t bear to revisit the events of the Holocaust, which we have become well-versed in: I’d visited the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, I’d watched enough documentaries, I couldn’t bear to read about the horrific events again.

However, I’m really glad that I did start reading this brilliant memoir, which is undeniably moving, but also reads like a thriller and paints a vivid picture of a charismatic, audacious young man, and the universally brave people close to him.

Growing up as an only child in a glamorous, moneyed family in Catholic Venezuela, Ariana Neumann initially had no idea that her father, a successful businessman and philanthropist, had a mysterious past. Except sometimes he woke up screaming and shaking in the night, and he spoke Spanish with a heavy Eastern European accent – and as child Ariana happened upon a document showing a picture of her father as a young man, but giving an unfamiliar name. Neumann’s mother knew very little either, telling her only that her husband Hans had had a bad war.

Hans was a workaholic and not prone to personal revelations. At home, in his rare free time, he would spend hours pouring over his antique watches, fiddling with their mechanisms to ensure they kept perfect time, and alluding during his lifetime only obliquely to his youth in Czechoslovakia.

However, on his death he bequeathed to his daughter a mysterious box containing documents and unfamiliar objects. Ariana, intrigued and grieving, was determined to uncover the past.

For my father the past was lost, imperfect and irremediable, unlike his watches with their mechanisms that he could always repair with patience and time and the right tools … And yet he had retained and left me mementos of experiences that he had tried to leave behind.”

Her painstaking research brought her into contact with hitherto unknown relatives from all over the world, and shone a light, not only on her father’s past, but on that of her uncle Lotar, who had also survived the war, as well as other family and friends. One of these is Zdenka, Lotar’s non-Jewish wife, who nevertheless – in an act of almost unbelievable bravery – stitched a Star of David onto her jacket and twice smuggled herself in and out of a concentration camp to bring much-needed supplies to her husband’s relatives.

The story of Hans and his survival rests on a mixture of extreme chutzpah and good fortune. I won’t summarise it here, because it will ruin the read, but his actions parallel and even exceed those of Zdenka in their audacity. A remarkable man, and a courageous and determined family.

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