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Alumni Spotlight: Ariana Neumann '88

 

Ariana_Neumann '88

 

The canon of Holocaust literature runs deep. Readers remain fascinated by this point in our collective history and the millions of silenced voices; perhaps it is our familiarity with what happened during this horrifying time that gives us the appetite to learn more, as if another perspective might hold the key to how mankind could have allowed this to happen.

Some voices, however, refuse to be silenced. Hans Neumann’s is one of them.

Hans’s story is a detective story, a thriller, and a family saga, with his daughter Ariana Neumann ’88 at the helm. And while Hans’s story spans nearly a century, Ariana’s begins in 1979, with a curious 8-year-old girl who is obsessed with Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys who forms a detective club with her cousins and discovers an ID card, with her father’s photograph, a stamp with Hitler’s profile, and a name which was not her father’s. 

So began a decades-long journey of discovery that culminates in the wonderful book When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (Scribner, 2020), which has won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award for Best Memoir, has been shortlisted for the Wingate Foundation Literary Prize, is on the New York Times Best Seller list, and has received countless excellent reviews from the likes of Michael Palin, John le Carré, and the New York Times Book Review. Written with the pace and twists of the best of thrillers, the book is a glorious family saga that follows Hans from his home in Prague to assuming a new identity in Berlin, where he hid in plain sight, and across the sea to Caracas, Venezuela, where he spent the next five decades of his life. Ariana didn’t even know her father was Jewish; she had gone to a Catholic school before attending TASIS.

When Time Stopped

“This whole thing wasn’t originally meant to be a book,” she said. “It was very much a personal journey. I’ve spent my whole life trying to solve the mystery of my father.” While Ariana’s father told her nothing about his experiences while he was alive, he left her a box of letters, documents, and objects that were the starting points for her research. She found the box on her first trip to Caracas after her father’s death, a few months after the Twin Towers fell and the birth of her first child. It took nearly a decade to be in the head space to take this story on; it’s as if Ariana knew the immensity of the task ahead.

In 2010, Ariana started asking questions. And she began to discover an incredible story of a man who somehow survived by pretending to be someone else, of a family that lost 25 of 34 family members in the Holocaust, and of the incredible reach of kindness during that dark time. “It is incredibly unusual because most Jews who escaped hid or were able to go further south or west. Very, very few decided to go to Berlin to hide in plain sight,” she said.

Hans was 22, incredibly bold, and a bit of a prankster. “Once I decided I was going to solve the mystery, I had to learn everything about this younger version of my father,” Ariana said. “Stepping into that persona of detective allowed me to leave aside a little bit of me as the daughter, of me as the granddaughter of these people who had horrendously difficult lives.” 

Boxes began arriving, filled with letters and files and history, from her grandparents’ home in the Czech countryside and from long-lost cousins and aunts. She had everything translated and began piecing together a daunting story. Ariana contacted everyone she could with varying results. In her book, she writes, “Memories, like misfiled documents, are not always where you expect to find them.”

Ariana would spend hours speaking to people, often without success. “We have these narrative threads we weave through our lives and tie them together in ways that are magical but not always logical,” she said. “It’s difficult to figure out what you have to ask—you have to let people reminisce and talk. But if you let people connect the dots they need to connect, eventually you will remind them and discover something. Memories are not linear; they are just a mosaic.” 

Part of what motivated Ariana was her anger at what had happened. “It was such an injustice that all these lives, not only my family’s, but all these other lives, were cut short," she said. "I felt that if I put them into a book and immortalized them in that way, they would get a little bit of their life back...just a tiny iota of a life, but somehow it felt like a victory against these horrendous people that silenced so many.”

Keeping the story factual was important. Ariana was determined to keep the depictions of the cities and the camps true to what they were, and her father’s telling of his time in Berlin was taken directly from his journals. “I couldn’t fictionalize the history,” she said. “You think of the numbers and you’re horrified, but it’s the individual stories that are largely untold, the tiny little daily battles that they fought, the tiny daily horrors that you miss when you read the history books.”

The story extends to the time after the war, when her father arrived in Venezuela in 1949 to a place that was open and accepting of refugees, and a place where he thrived. In his lifetime, Hans founded and headed several companies and cultural organizations, including the Zulia Contemporary Arts Museum Foundation. “He was incredibly grateful to his country,” Ariana said. “He wanted his philanthropy to focus on ideas, art, and education.” Despite the atrocities he witnessed, he was able to give back to a place that gave him a new life.

Her father’s new life included a new wife, Ariana’s mother, and then Ariana, who grew up among a legendary collection of modern art and parties that included intellectuals and cultural leaders. Things between her parents were beginning to deteriorate when Ariana was 13 and her best friend was sent to boarding school in England; Ariana decided she wanted to go to boarding school, too. Ariana’s mother, who had been to boarding school in England herself, refused to let Ariana even consider the UK, so they decided on Switzerland, visiting a dozen schools before choosing TASIS. “I liked the freedom of being at an American school, and Lugano is so beautiful, and the campus is just stunning," she said. "And my father was adamant that my school had to have computers, and TASIS taught computer science in 1984. He was always thinking of the future and potential.”

I had always felt like an outsider everywhere, and TASIS was completely embracing of everyone, no matter where you came from, and no matter what you believed in.

Ariana attended TASIS from September 1984 until graduation in 1988. “The culture Mrs. Fleming created at TASIS was so open and international," she said. "I’m a bit of a mutt—I’m Venezuelan, but I don’t really look Venezuelan, and I’m Catholic, but I’m not really Catholic as it turns out I’m half-Jewish,” she said with a laugh. “I had always felt like an outsider everywhere, and TASIS was completely embracing of everyone, no matter where you came from, and no matter what you believed in. As long as you were open, kind to others, and wanted to learn, you were fine,” she recalls. “There are very few times in my life where I haven’t felt like a mutt, and one of them was at TASIS.”

Ariana is still in touch with many of her classmates, some of whom she was able to see during her book launch events in the US early in the year. A particularly lovely story involves Ariana’s senior year English teacher, Marnie Stetson, who won an advanced reader’s copy of her book through a Goodreads contest and saw Ariana at her launch in New York City. “She had seen my name, tried for the book, and got it!" said Ariana. "She came to hear me speak, and it was really, really lovely.” Ariana is also still in touch with her history teacher and advisor, Steve Loesche, and her very first ESL teacher, Howard Stickley. 

“TASIS really resonates with me,” she said. “I describe it in the book as a place where I was really happy, and I was. It was a wonderful place to be.”

There is great bravery in Ariana’s writing, which is emotional without being overly sentimental, despite the closeness of the story. “It makes you realize that we’re in control of so little that you have to focus on that little bit of light, that little bit of happiness and joy," she said. She cites a letter of her grandfather’s that talked about food that had fallen to the ground, but he snatched it up and ate it anyway. “That’s what life is about. You focus on the solutions, not the fact that it’s covered in dirt. You can have beauty in the same place where you have the most terrific darkness.”


The original version of this article appeared in the 2020 TASIS Today.

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