- When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father's War and What Remains, by Ariana Neumann. Simon & Schuster. $32.99.
- The Happiest Man on Earth, by Eddie Jaku. Pan Macmillan, $32.99.
These two books deal with the experiences of Jewish men during the Second World War; one Czechoslovakian and one German. Both were highly skilled in different technical areas, something that helped both of them survive the slaughter of millions of Jews.
When Time Stopped is told by the daughter of Hans Neumann, who did not speak to his family of his experiences during the war. He lived for many years as a successful businessman in Venezuela, only occasionally showing what seemed to be irrational fears of being attacked on the streets, and suffering terrible nightmares. He discouraged his daughter from learning his native language, and she did not know that he was Jewish.
Ariana Neumann painstakingly reconstructed his wartime experiences after his death, and When Time Stopped is arguably as interesting in recounting the process of assembling the past as what is revealed. Papers, visits, translations, photographs, archives; the immense work of sifting through these elements to produce a memoir is detailed as the daughter tries to give birth to her father's history.
The gradual disintegration of the Neumann family, the theft of their business, the endless restrictions placed on Jews (no bicycles, no public transport, no education, no visits to the theatre or cinema, no pets) make for harrowing reading. The eventual slaughter of millions is encapsulated in the fate of the majority of Neumann family members.
Hans Neumann moved to Berlin, to hide in plain sight, using his expertise in chemistry to obtain a job in a factory vital to the German war effort. This seems incredible, but, as the author explains, "The Gestapo were looking for Hans Neumann in and around Prague. They would never think of looking in the German capital; no one on the run chose to go there to hide." The sickening, daily anxiety of living under a false identity, where a single slip would cost his life, turned a boy who was seen as somewhat feckless and given to playing practical jokes and writing love poetry, into a work-focused, necessarily very controlled man.
The title is given a particular meaning through the author's frequent observation of her father fixing watches. This demanding, meticulous task seems to relate to the stolen time that Hans experienced, living as someone else in Berlin. Timepieces have an important place throughout this memoir. Ariana Neumann has written a remarkable work of historical and familial research, both moving and thorough.
Eddie Jaku's The Happiest Man on Earth is told in the first person by an originally German Jew who is just about to turn 100. It is an amazing story of survival, but more than that, a humbling example of how a man who has experienced the very worst can be positive and seek to contribute to society.
Jaku addresses the reader as "friend", and the book is written directly and accessibly. He is telling his own tale, from his own memory. He recounts the restrictions placed on Jews, who had been a vital part of the economic and cultural life of his native Leipzig for many years. The author is unable to attend the nearby Gymnasium school because he is Jewish, and has to attend a distant college under a false identity, where he received "the best possible engineering education".
Eddie Jaku's journey through Buchenwald, Auschwitz, slave labour (where his precision engineering expertise meant he had a slightly better job, even though he had a sign hung around his neck saying that he should be killed if he made mistakes) and near starvation are recounted. His sister, who also survived, had to work standing with her feet in icy cold water, lest a spark from the bullets she was making ignite in the factory. The author eventually settles in Australia, after some time as a refugee.
After these experiences, it would be understandable if an individual were to have a very dark view of humankind. Eddie (he asks the reader to call him that) has a remarkably positive view of life, and directly urges us to "make yourself a friend to the world". Apart from successful business enterprises, he has helped to found the Sydney Jewish Museum. He did not tell his children of his experiences directly, as he didn't want to "burden them", although one of his sons attended a talk he gave at a synagogue, and learnt the story of his father's survival. It is impossible to read this book without feeling inspired, but also perhaps a little ashamed at all the whingeing one does over minor inconveniences on a daily basis. That the author is with us today is little short of a miracle.
Both these books are important histories of a time of appalling brutality. One unfolds slowly, bringing the difficult process of reconstructing a life to its centre. The other is like sitting with the author, hearing him speak directly. Both these approaches result in fascinating and profoundly moving accounts.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.