Zibby is joined by Ariana Neumann to discuss her award-winning first book, When Time Stopped, which is part memoir and part detective story about her father’s family history. Although Ariana thought she knew the story of the Holocaust, in researching how her own family found inventive ways to survive the horrors they faced she learned there is still so much we don’t know. Ariana and Zibby talk about some of these incredible stories, as well as how Ariana plans to help others tell their own stories and what she plans to work on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ariana. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains.

Ariana Neumann: Thank you, Zibby. It’s great to be here with you.

Zibby: I have to tell you, I have never had a book recommended more times to me. Everyone’s like, have you read this? Have you read this? Have you read this?

Ariana: That’s because my mom lives on the Upper East Side, and she’s been telling everybody about the book. Clearly, you must know some people in common. I think that’s what it is. It’s just my mom.

Zibby: The bookstore that my mom always orders books, like my anthologies or whatever, just got best seller. It was one of the top. I was like, that was totally my mom. My mom just bought too many books from that bookstore. I’m kidding, but kind of not. Anyway, When Time Stopped, this is the wrong tone for this deeply emotional Holocaust survival, mystery, detective work story. Can you tell listeners a little about what this book is about if this is the first that they are hearing about it?

Ariana: The book, it’s nonfiction, but it’s really a detective story. It’s my detective story. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a detective. I wanted to solve mysteries. I grew up in Venezuela in the seventies and eighties. Little did I know then that the mystery I was going to solve was that of my dad. It did take me quite a long time. I didn’t solve it when I was a little girl detective, but I still feel like that little girl detective. The book really is about my journey trying to fill my father’s silences or just to solve the mystery of the things that he didn’t tell me about. Really, it’s just a book about a daughter trying to figure out who her father really was and what it is that he didn’t tell that little girl about his past. What I uncover is quite incredible. When we come along and we look at our fathers, our parents, actually, not our fathers, fathers and mothers as adults, we often realize, often when it’s too late, that they were these whole, incredible people, not just our mom and dad. Often, we do so after they’re gone. We just miss out on so much. It turns out that I barely knew my father and that my father just simply could not talk about his past. That past included a family of thirty-four people. He came from a Jewish family. He was born in Prague. When they were all deported to concentration camps around the Third Reich, my father absconded and decided to hide. He decided to hide in plain sight. He did a really completely insane thing for a twenty-two-year-old Jew wanted by the Gestapo, which is, he decided he was going to go to Berlin and hide, or not hide at all, just pretend to be someone else and work in a Nazi factory for two years. That’s what I uncovered. The book, it’s really about my father and his family, but it’s also a little bit about my journey discovering all this and traveling through time to recover my lost family and get to know my dad.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, your story is so powerful. The way you write is so amazing. You’re immediately drawn in. You talk in the book about the first time when you discover it. You tell your mom that you discovered his identity card, which of course, you put in the book, which is great. I love all the visuals, by the way. So many books don’t have these. The introduction of all the elements and the objects and the cards and photos, it’s amazing because this time of history is like — you have to share —

Ariana: — Publishers often — you started your own publishing house. Publishers don’t like pictures because it increases the cost. I just think sometimes when you’re doing this kind of stuff, it’s so important to have the visuals and to picture what people looked like and what documents looked like. The little scrap of paper that can look so simple can have so much meaning in someone’s life. Anyway, sorry, go.

Zibby: Don’t say sorry. You’re right, I want to talk about all this stuff. I have this memoir coming out, actually. I’ve been asking my publisher — now you’re inspiring me to ask her again. Sorry, Carmen. In my memoir, I talk about all these people who have passed away who I loved. I really want their pictures in there. It’s one thing to describe them. Then it becomes a memorial of sorts. Anyway, whatever. I just wanted to read this one paragraph as a show of your writing and everything when you told your mom. You said, “Papi,” you were saying to your mom, “he is pretending. I have proof he is not Hans. His real name is Jan, maybe, Mami. He wasn’t born on February 9th. He is lying. He is an imposter. I don’t remember anything else from that day. The identity card with the stamp of Hitler and its photograph of my father jolted me to a sharp and unexpected focus. It brought to the fore every other tiny fissure in my understanding, all the miniscule silences and unanswered questions that had been invisible before. It was then that I first sensed that hidden beneath my father’s strengths and triumphs were shadows cast by nameless horrors so terrible they had to remain unuttered. The averted eyes, the pauses a second too long, the eschewing of reminiscence had, until then, passed mostly unnoticed. Finding the photograph in the box was the pivot.” Here, one more sentence. “It marked the exact moment when the unfilled spaces, the cracks in the narrative emerged.” Oh, my gosh, so good.

Ariana: That was really the moment for me. I think that was the moment where — when you grow up as a kid, you just presume whatever is around you is normal. Then all of a sudden, you realize that, actually, that wasn’t normal. Not everybody had a dad who had to pretend to be someone else.

Zibby: You found your father’s card. You realized everything was not as it seemed. You decide to go on this hunt later for all the truth. You use all your detective skills and find out these incredible stories, one of which, by the way, I read in the essay you wrote for the Jewish Council about the ring with the Z on it. Oh, and you actually have it on, wow. That story was amazing. I didn’t know that anybody had ever been able to sneak in and get out again. It’s unthinkable to me that you could get into a camp, deliver goods — I also didn’t even realize that there could be effective-enough communication that they knew what the people needed, even with the hair dye to make your — who was it?

Ariana: My grandfather.

Zibby: Your grandfather look younger and all of that. That story is amazing.

Ariana: I think we know very little — I mean, we know very little. I thought I knew about the Holocaust. Then as I started researching, you realize that there were all these things that actually were possible that you didn’t know. It did require enormous amounts of courage. This woman who was married to my uncle, when she discovers that my grandmother is in Theresienstadt — Theresienstadt was a particular type of camp. It was a ghetto. It wasn’t like Auschwitz, which was a murder camp. Maybe it was a little bit easier to get in and out of there. It was also originally a fortress. It didn’t have the barbed wire. It had just guards. Obviously, these camps were all run by Jewish elders. They had contacts in the outside. You couldn’t really communicate with the prisoners, but you could have some idea as to what it was that people needed. If you had white hair, the Nazis would consider you old. If they considered you old, they thought you were useless. If you were useless, then you might as well be dead. My grandfather knew that he had to use hair dye. Actually, every single man in my family, by the time they’re thirty, they have white hair. Actually, that includes my husband, who’s obviously . Maybe we’re genetically attracted to .

Zibby: I was going to say maybe you need some DNA tests on your husband or something. I don’t know.

Ariana: Exactly. That’s all I need. My grandfather, in 1943 in Theresienstadt, knew that he needed hair dye because he had white hair. He was in his early fifties. He was a really strong man, but he looked old. He was malnourished. He would be sent to Auschwitz. He didn’t want that. There’s this remarkable woman who’s a gentile, so she’s not Jewish. She decides that she’s going to sneak into the camp and actually — the first time she sneaks in, she goes in to see my grandmother. It’s 1943. It’s August. They’ve just realized that my grandmother hasn’t been sent to a camp called Sobibor, which is where they thought she had been sent. It was a good thing that she wasn’t sent because that transport was all shot on arrival. My grandmother fainted in the transport. Ironically, that sort of saved her life for a little bit. Because she fainted, they carried her off the train, and they left her in Theresienstadt. A few months later, my family get news that she is in there. This remarkable woman, she’s called Zdenka. She’s beautiful and strong and bold. She’s a lawyer. She drives her own car. She’s just this fabulous soul. I’ve never met her, but I met her daughter who’s equally wonderful. Zdenka sneaks into Theresienstadt. She sews a yellow star on her coat and figures out a way to do it. She joins the people that were working in the fields in the morning. Then when they come in for their measly soup at lunchtime, she walks into the camp with them, finds my grandmother and spends a few minutes with her, brings her a shawl and brings her some supplies and brings her, actually, what she really, really needed, which was hope.

I’m super lucky that Zdenka sets up a system of contraband, so I have letters from my grandmother from the camp describing this moment when Zdenka sneaks in, when she looks up and, after three months of being just incredibly depressed because she finds herself in these absurd, horrendous circumstances, she sees her beautiful daughter-in-law who’s come over just to show her how much she loves her, really. That gives her this hope that then I find throughout all the letters, this hope that it’s all going to be okay, that she’s going to be reunited with those that she loves. Then Zdenka again sneaks into the camp in 1944 to bring — by then, they couldn’t find hair dye because it was the war and it was difficult to find things. She brings shoe polish for my grandfather. The system of contraband was failing. Not everything works perfectly all the time, especially in wars. Zdenka figures that if she doesn’t take it in herself, my grandfather’s not going to get his hair darkened, so she sneaks in again. She’s this incredible character. To me, she’s actually the hero of the book. My father and all my family, they didn’t have a choice. They either went or they chose to stay outside and be brave, maybe, but it was to save their own skin. It’s this incredible woman who had a choice. She could’ve turned away. She could’ve chosen a much easier life. She was beautiful. She was wealthy. She had the whole of Prague at her feet. She chose to marry my uncle, who was a shy, lovely Jewish boy. She chose to marry him in 1939. Not that many people were doing that.

Zibby: Wow. For people listening, you’re wearing the ring that your grandfather ends up hammering out himself and doing as a thank you note, essentially, the most beautiful thank you note in the history of the world, perhaps.

Ariana: It’s incredible. It’s a piece of copper. It’s the only thing he could get his hands on. People listening won’t be able to see it. It’s not necessarily the most beautiful thing in the world when you look at it, but I think when you hear the story behind it and you hear that it’s really a way of saying thank you to this woman who was so brave that she kept them alive for this long, it acquires a whole new beauty to it. It was fashioned by hand. It was a copper pipe. It was probably a pipe that was destined for plumbing. It’s really not a fine thing. It’s not made of silver or gold. He made it with his own hands. It’s the only thing I have of his, the only thing that I have that he — aside from the letters, really. It’s the only object that I have that I can hold and that I can wear around my neck that my grandfather, who I never met, actually not only touched, but made. I sometimes — obviously, because I’m chatting to you. Also, it’s a tricky day today because we have to let go of our dog. It makes me sad. Whenever I need a little bit of extra strength and a little bit of grounding and I don’t want to feel sorry for myself or I feel like I need a little bit of that extra boost that comes from the people that came before you, I wear the ring. It’s a bit like those rings that give you superpowers that you read about in comic books. My son’s obsessed with Marvel and all these superheroes. It’s a little bit like that. It’s a ring that gives me superpowers. When I’m wearing it, I feel like I can fly.

Zibby: That’s so beautiful. It’s almost unbelievable that you can have that object in your possession. The likelihood of it happening is so slim. It’s a total miracle. It’s a miracle.

Ariana: I know, but there were so many miracles in the story. It didn’t start off as a book.

Zibby: Yeah, I was going to ask you. I’m sorry.

Ariana: It all started as a very personal journey of discovery. I wanted to solve the mystery of my dad. I also finally, when he died — he never spoke about this, but when he died and left me this box with the same ID card that I found as a child, I figured it was his way of saying, okay, you have permission. He never really, I think, wanted to overwhelm me with the stories. I think he felt they were maybe a little dark. He left them there so that I could piece it all together. I completely lost my train of thought. Sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s okay. When you spent all this time — first of all, how long did this journey take you to discover everything?

Ariana: Obviously, I found the ID card when I was nine. There were little moments throughout my life in my twenties where I got little snippets of the story, but very, very few. It wasn’t until my father died in 2001 that I finally felt I had permission, and I had a bunch of documents. I was just having kids. My father died three weeks before my eldest son was born.\

Zibby: I can’t believe, by the way, you cremated your father on 9/11, the days of the attacks, oh, my gosh.

Ariana: I know. I had my stepdad in New York. He worked at Merrill Lynch right in front of the — it was a horrific day for so many people. I’m lucky that my stepdad is actually still with us. It’s just incredible. I felt, in 2001, that I finally had permission, but it was completely the wrong time. I was having kids. I thought I had to be positive. You can’t really research the Holocaust and then go upstairs and read The Gruffalo to your kids. Maybe some people can, but I felt I couldn’t. I felt I’d burst into tears. Then slowly, at the same time, because I was having children, I wanted to know where I came from and what it was that I needed to pass on to them. If I don’t know where I come from, how do I know where I want to go? How do I know what it is that I need to tell my children? Slowly, slowly, I started becoming a little bolder and asking more questions. It wasn’t really until about 2009, ’10 that I really start asking more questions, that I get letters translated, that I get documents translated. The whole thing probably takes me about ten years, but it doesn’t become a book until 2017. Actually, it becomes a book because I start telling these stories as a way of coping with all the sadness, but also as a way of keeping these people, all these beautiful people that helped my family and these beautiful people that were my family that I couldn’t meet, as a way of keeping them alive. I start telling everyone I meet this whole process.

I end up telling this man. It was January the 2nd. It was 2017. It was someone that had met my father. He was eighty-nine at the time. We were at a restaurant on the Upper East Side called Antonucci’s, which is this lovely Italian restaurant. This eighty-nine-year-old man said, “It has to be a book.” I said, “Yeah, whatever. My husband always says it has to be a movie.” He said, “No, it really has to be a book.” Actually, that started a whole process where I ended up speaking to a scout who lives in Connecticut who put me in touch with my agent who was in London and who said, “This is an incredible story. Have you ever written anything?” I said, “Yeah. When I was in my twenties, I wanted to be a writer. I’ve written a few essays, but they’re not really good enough.” She said, “Show them to me.” That’s how it became a book. Pretty quickly after, it was a proposal. I had written about seventy pages. Then Scribner bought it. It’s completely surreal that it’s a book. To me, it’s completely surreal that it’s a book. I still pinch myself because it didn’t start off its life like that. It’s allowed me to do what I always wanted to do, which was be a detective and a writer.

Zibby: There you go. Do you ever feel like you want to help other families? Has this started an interest?

Ariana: Yes. It’s interesting. I’ve volunteered, I still have to go and interview people, at the Association of Jewish Refugees in England. A lot of them actually don’t tell their stories when they’re in their fifties and sixties and seventies. It’s only when they’re older and they find perhaps a little bit more, I don’t know what it is, whether it’s time or whether they just think, okay, faced with death, what am I leaving behind? that they start telling these stories. The Association of Jewish Refugees provides a way — it’s actually called My Story. These people, these Holocaust survivors or these Jewish refugees can actually tell their stories. I’m really looked forward to doing that. I get a lot of letters of people saying, can you help me? How did you structure it? How did you do it? I love doing that. I love solving mysteries. I’m not sure I’m going to become a genealogist, really, but I’d like to become storyteller and a detective, or keep on being a detective. Absolutely, it’s helped me realize that I love writing. I love writing not so much — well, I love writing because I love writing, but I never thought it was good enough. All of a sudden, I realize that it’s not so much about whether the writing is good enough. It’s about the stories that you tell. It’s about the importance of those stories or the connection that the reader feels with those stories.

Zibby: Your writing is also really amazing. The combination of a great story to tell and telling it well, that’s why it’s hard to put down. It’s engrossing and amazing. The thing that keeps hitting me over and over is how many stories like this there are. Sometimes when I try to wrap my head — I’ve read a lot of Holocaust stuff over the years, and many, many, many books about it. It never ceases to inspire me, the lengths people will go to for the people that they love and the strength that they have inside them, like what you said about the magic power of the ring. I’m like, really? It was hard for me to have a birthday party for my son last night? Are you kidding me? Seriously? When we think about all the things that go on, it helps put things in perspective. Let me just say it that way.

Ariana: There are some incredible stories out there. The other thing that I’ve realized now, because I’ve been doing research on a second book, is how little we know of those stories and how the stories that we’re told have so much to do with the way countries tell histories, for example. When you have stories that span different countries, often, they go untold. If it’s not an American story, it doesn’t get told in American history. If it’s not a German story, it doesn’t get told. Often, you lose these stories because they’re not in the country’s narrative or in the family’s narrative. There’s so much out there. I think we all have incredible stories to tell. If you look back at our family, especially that generation, the people that grew up and lived through the twentieth century, there was such tumult, such opportunity to be brave and to be heroes, to be heroic. I think we really need to remember to ask our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents, if they’re still around, to share a little bit of that with us. If we don’t, often, it’s tough to bring up the Holocaust in the middle of Sunday lunch with your grandchildren. I think we just need to give older people permission to share those incredible stories which are so inspiring with us.

Zibby: Wait, what is your next book?

Ariana: I don’t know. I’m sort of torn, actually. I’ve been doing a lot of research on this incredible story of refugees that get put in a boat, but I need to figure out how to handle it. That might be book three. I’ve been researching a lot on it. It’s tied in. It’s about how we treat the other or who we perceive as the other when in reality, actually, everyone is the same. There is no other.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? It seems like such a simplistic question after all of this meaning-of-life discussion and survival and whatever. Now I’m talking about craft and quick tips for writers.

Ariana: Believe in yourself. The first thing I would say is just believe in yourself. I have all these degrees in literature. I did a lot of nineteenth century. I’d read Balzac. Then I read lots of twentieth-century French writers. I read Duras and Modiano. I’d just think, no way am I ever going to write like that, and I’m right. I’m never going to write like that, but it doesn’t matter. I still have to write. Just believe in yourself and do it. I didn’t write my first book until I was in my mid-forties. I want to write a lot more. My middle child, who is studying English, is a writer. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to write. I tell her, “Listen, it’s really tough to make a living from writing, but it doesn’t matter.” Just write. Do what you love. Believe in yourself. It doesn’t matter if you get noes and noes and noes. Keep on doing it. Just write from the heart. I think if you write from the heart and you’re honest in your writing, then you connect to readers. Good things happen at some state. You just have to be patient and keep on writing. Again, keep on believing in yourself even when other people don’t.

Zibby: Thank you, Ariana. I know you have so much going on today, so many different emotional stressors on every part of your life. Thank you for taking the time to go back in history and discuss this book and your family and everything. Once again, now it’s inspiring more people. It’s amazing just to keep it going. It’s really, really special. Thank you.

Ariana: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s been a huge joy.

Zibby: Thanks. Take care. Buh-bye.


WHEN TIME STOPPED by Ariana Neumann

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