Journalist Ariana Neumann grew up in Caracas as the only daughter of a successful businessman. As a child, she had no idea she was Jewish, and knew nothing of her father’s exploits during the second world war. It was only after stumbling upon a box of old papers after his death that she discovered he had escaped deportation from Prague to a concentration camp by assuming a non-Jewish identity and hiding in plain sight in Berlin.
Black-and-white photographs are embedded in the text – of her father’s name, for example, inscribed among a long list on a wall in the Pinkas synagogue in Prague, with a question mark where the year of his death should be – and Neumann tells stories through them, finding in the pictures an intimacy with him that has deepened as her understanding of him has grown. She says that she was fearful “of the darkness that would confront me” as she embarked on her journey to find the truth. Perhaps that is why there are so many references to light in her account of her early life. But she has borne witness, which is everyone’s duty. We have heard of many of the atrocities recounted in these pages before. But we must go on hearing them. This is a very fine book indeed.
But it is November, there is thick fog and the fog turns to heavy rain. The shoe polish washes out of Otto’s hair and down his face. The guards pull him out of the line, batter him with their guns and send him first in line to the gas chambers. ‘Now my father was gone,’ writes Hans. ‘They had murdered him.’ This remarkable, beautifully written book is full of sadness but it also full of great beauty and joy. And it is a portrait of two remarkable people. One of course is resourceful, brilliant Hans. The other is his daughter, the author of this extraordinary memoir, and the woman who, to find her father, has also found herself, and her family.
At this point, she lets her father step in and tell his own story. Among the papers he left on his death was the memoir he had spoken of wanting to write. Where his youthful poems were trite and lovelorn, these prose reminiscences, written in maturity, are thrilling. They recount his narrow escapes from RAF bombing raids, his work as a firefighter and his guilt at working on behalf of the German war effort – guilt he appeased with acts of sabotage and espionage. Charm, intelligence and lies got him through the war. And afterwards he moved to Venezuela, to establish a new (more diverse) family business in Caracas, where – such was his influence and popularity – there’s a street named after him.
One of the key strengths of Neumann’s memoir is her dogged research into astonishing details of daily life in the camps — thanks partly to letters her grandparents smuggled out but also from accounts written by those who knew them. The story of her grandfather, exhausted, condemned to death by the failed shoe-polish hair dye in the November rain, came from an eyewitness in the same transport. This book is chillingly sad, but overall optimistic, and by no means simply another Holocaust story.