Berlin Posts

Ariana Neumann “When Time Stopped”

…it was during a period he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.

How could time have stopped?

‘Because,’ he said, ‘and you will understand this when you are older, sometimes you feel that everything around you has come to an end. You feel that you are completely alone, that time is frozen and that you are invisible. At first, you might feel exhilarated by the sense of freedom, but then you’ll be frightened that you are lost and you will never be able to go back.’

He explained that when he first felt this, he had been isolated and afraid and had prised open his watch case to verify that time was indeed passing. The rhythm of the watch might have been imagined. Sound was not enough, he needed to see and touch it. It was the first time that he had dismantled a mechanism. The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.

It was then that he had comprehended the importance of time.

Ariana Neumann was raised in Caracas, Venezuela as a Catholic. Her father, Hans Neumann was an established businessman who was also seen as a patron of the arts. Ariana was Hans’ daughter by his second wife. Ariana had a fairytale upbringing. Living in a large home, stuffed with beautiful pieces of art. She had loving parents and had everything that she desired. It is evident in the book trailer which is based on a series of home movies.

Ariana Neumann’s debut book When Time Stopped is a memoir about uncovering the truth about her father’s past. Despite the idyllic childhood he gave her, there were certain topics that were taboo. One of these were questions about his past. It was during a “spying” game that nine-year-old Ariana had created with her friends that one of her friends/spies reported that they had witnessed her father carrying a cardboard box into the library. Later in the day she decided to investigate for herself. Ariana found the box. Ruffled through its contents. Found it contained only a slim collection of papers. Most written in a language she could not comprehend. Then she spotted an identification document with an unrecognisable name — Jan Sebesta– and a young man’s photograph, an unmistakable likeness to Hans, and stamped below it was also a picture of Hitler. She was startled. She ran to her mother distraught at her discovery. Her mother placated Ariana and told her not to worry. Yet it shook Arian’s world realising that her father was not who he was. After that the box disappeared. She never saw it again. Until her father passed away and she was clearing his drawers. She then discovered the box once more. This time it was stuffed with more papers, mostly in languages she could not read. Equally puzzling were the nightmares her father had when he would scream aloud in a language Ariana could not understand.

Berlin identity card dated October 1943 found by Ariana Neumann as a girl. It had a photo of her father Hans Neumann as a young man on it, but the name stated was Jan Šebesta.

When Time Stopped is a memoir that reads like a well told mystery story as Ariana uncovers the truth about her father. A beloved father who was exceedingly busy and built an extraordinary business empire established first in the paint industry. A father who was so immersed in his work that even his own daughter had to seek an appointment with his secretary in order to have some time alone with him. A father who threw himself into his work that he was effectively able to compartmentalise his life and seemingly not let anything deter him. It was this father whom she had persuaded to visit Prague as part of a business delegation in the early 1990s. She had accompanied him. At the time he had let his mask slip briefly when broke down at the fence of Bubny station.

Hans Neumann’s deportation ticket. He absconded and did not show up at Bubny station in Prague as ordered.

When Time Stops is a fascinating account of how Ariana uncovers her father’s past, discovers he was a Holocaust survivor, who had lost twenty-five members of his family in the pogrom conducted by the Nazis. He had managed to escape by extraordinarily living in Berlin, under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, as a Christian. He was convinced that “the darkest shadow lies beneath the candle”. From there he fled to Venezuela with his older brother. Unfortunately his parents and extended relatives perished in the gas chambers. The Neumann’s had a thriving painting business in Prague. They were Czech Jews whose lives had been upturned with the invasion of the Germans in March 1939.

While researching for this book, Ariana Neuman discovered that she had relatives spread acrosss the world. She contacted them. Also discovered that there was a list of Jews who had perished during the war posted on the walls of a synagogue in Prague. She found her father’s name that had a question mark against his death. When she called and asked him about it, he merely said, “I tricked them”. Ariana also discovers that her paternal grandparents had been sent to a concentration camp that ordinarily operated as a labour camp so rules governing its administration were relatively “freer” than the other camps. Hence her grandparents while being incarcerated inside were able to send letters and parcels to their sons and at times receive illicit parcels containing packets of food and bare essentials. Extraordinarily it is the emergence of these letters after more seventy years that for the first time reveals to many the manner in which these camps operated. They had a well-defined economy and administrative structure. Ariana’s grandparents letter shed light on these internal mechanisms as well as some of the despicable horrors, many of which they were unable to recount, yet alluded to them. Ariana stumbled upon these parcels while investigating into her past. As she reached out to newly found relatives she discovered that they had similar boxes of papers as she had. These contained letters and pictures. Using the services of a Czech translator, Ariana painstakingly translated and read all the correspondence. Then filled in the gaps with her research. Result is this book. This extraordinary memoir.

When Time Stops is about Ariana discovering that the stray remarks fellow students made at school and university questioning her Catholic upbringing and at times bluntly saying she was a Jew were all true. They knew. She did not. It is more than just the passionate love of her father’s for his 297 clocks that he so carefully cared for. He had his own workshop in a windowless room where he tinkered with his precious watches, some of them going back a few hundred years. Yet of all the beautiful pieces he owned, it was an ordinary dull gold one that he was most fond of as it reminded him of the time piece his own father possessed. A link that the daughter put together after her decades of investigation into her past.

While being an fascinating account of a life, When Time Stops is also a horrifying read for the many parallels it has with modern life. Many countries today are questioning the citizenship of their people and creating scenarios that are eerily similar to those described in this book. It is worth reflecting upon. How much of the past needs to be shared and kept alive through memories as a lesson to future generations on the horrors that humans can inflict upon their own? How much of the past that is kept alive is actually used by future perpetrators as case studies? It is a tricky balance to achieve in this grey and gloomy world. Having said that When Time Stopped is worth reading for it stands out as a very well written memoir, balancing extensive research with the personal stories.

*The pictures used in this blog post have been published in the book and on The Israel Times website.

9 March 2020

“She Came from Mariupol” by Natscha Wodinwas ( an extract)

Sie Kam Aus Mariupol by Natscha Wodinwas ( published by Rowohlt Verlag) which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Leipzig Book Fair Prize is by the daughter of deported Ukrainian labourers to Germany. Natscha Wodinwas is based in Berlin.

The following translated English excerpts were sent by Rachel Hildebrandt, translator and publisher, Weyward Sisters Publishing. The English translation of She Came from Mariupol is as yet unpublished.

These passages are being published with permission.

(p.38) The more research I did, the more atrocities I encountered about which hardly anyone seemed to be aware. I was not the only one who was learning about these for the first time. None of my German friends, many of whom I considered enlightened, historically knowledgeable individuals, had any idea how many Nazi camps had once existed within the boundaries of the former German Reich. Some of them guessed around twenty, while others estimated two hundred, a few up to two thousand. According to a study by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the number is actually closer to 42,500, not including the smaller and the satellite camps. In an interview with ZEIT published on March 4, 2013, the American historian Geoffrey Megargee, who had contributed to the study, remarked that the horrific number of camps confirmed that almost every German had to have known about the existence of these camps, even if they had not comprehended the extent of the camps or the conditions within them. It was the old story: Nobody knew a thing, despite the fact that with over 42,500 camps the entire country must have functioned like a single gulag.

****

 (pgs 248 to 251) The large-scale deportation of the Ukrainians to Germany was accompanied by a pervasive propaganda effort on the part of the occupiers. At every turn, the Soviet citizens were called to report for work duty in Germany. They were promised paradise there. The brainwashing occurred everywhere: during the opening programs at the cinemas, over all of the radio stations, in the workplaces, at the train stations, in the theaters, on public squares and streets. Large, colorful posters depicted happy Ukrainians working at progressive German workbenches. Smartly dressed Ukrainian domestic servants were pictured whipping up German Sunday cakes. Ukrainian women were especially popular as maids. In 1942, Hitler ordered that half a million of them be employed in German households, which resulted in many German women losing their jobs. The press circulated daily pleas, like this one:

UKRAINIAN WOMEN AND MEN

The Bolshevik commissioners have destroyed your factories and workplaces, and are cutting you off from work and bread. Germany is offering you useful, well-paid employment. In Germany, you will find excellent work and living conditions, and you will be paid according to the tariff and based on your productivity. We take especially good care of the Ukrainian workers. So that they can live in conditions that are suitable to them and can retain their cultural distinctness, separate settlements are being constructed for them. They will provide everything that you would need to live: cinemas, theaters, hospitals, radio stations, swimming pools, etc. The Ukrainians are living in bright, nicely furnished rooms, and they are given the same things to eat as the German workers. Furthermore, the factory canteens cook the specialties of all nations, which is why the Ukrainian workers will find Wareniki, Galuschki, Kwas, etc. on the menus.

Germany is waiting for you! Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are already working in free, happy Germany. What about you? During your stay in Germany, we will take good care of your family back home.

(reprinted from a Ukrainian newspaper)

The propaganda was initially effective. Not all of the so-called Ostarbeiter were forcibly deported. At the beginning, many of them reported voluntarily. Gradually the truth about the downright nightmarish work and living conditions in the German Reich trickled back home. At first, letters conveyed hidden messages, for example, in the form of flowers drawn in a letter from a sixteen-year-old to his mother. The flower was the agreed-upon signal that things were not going well for him. As time passed, more and more deported Ukrainians returned from Germany, physically destroyed and shoved off back home, because in their condition they were no longer useful. Their stories quickly cut off the hopeful rush of those volunteering for work duty: a serious problem for the German war industry, since the German men were at the front and no longer there to fill the workplaces.

Meanwhile, the war was requiring a sharp, unrelenting increase in productivity. Germany’s victory would rise or fall on the imported slave laborers from all over Europe, especially from the Soviet Union and particularly from Ukraine. Hitler appointed his model Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel as the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment. The son of a Frankish postal worker and a seamstress, who was later described at the Nuremberg trials as the “greatest and cruelest slaver since the pharaohs,” Sauckel issued the order to “finally shake off the last dregs of sentimental humanitarianism.” And with this command, the human hunt began. Ukraine was the favorite region of operations for the hunters. The Ukrainians, who composed the largest percentage of the “Ostarbeiter,” were perceived as the Slavs of the lowest possible value. The only groups under them in the racial hierarchy were the Sinti, the Roma, and the Jews. They were attacked on the streets, in cinemas and cafes, at streetcar stops, in post offices, anywhere where they could be easily caught. They were hauled out of the homes in raids, dragged from the cellars and sheds where they had tried to hide. They were driven to the train station and transported to Germany in cattle cars. A countless number of them disappeared without a trace with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Able-bodied young men were particularly desirable – entire freight trains full of Ukrainian teenagers rolled daily toward the Reich. After a while, though, the forty- and fifty-year-olds were taken, and eventually, the elderly and weak. The populations of entire villages were deported, including the grandmothers with their grandchildren. The emptied villages were then burnt to the ground. At first, the minimal slave laborer age was twelve, but then it was dropped to ten. And not only that, but in the summer of 1942, all young people in Ukraine between the ages of eighteen and twenty were forced to serve two years of compulsory service in the Reich. Up to ten thousand future forced laborers were shipped to Germany on a daily basis, and according to Fritz Sauckel’s orders, all of these people had to be fed, housed, and treated as cheaply as possible in order to yield the highest possible productivity.

25 February 2017 

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016

Nell Zink, “The Wallcreeper”

The WallcreeperNell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014. (It has recently been followed by Mislaid.) The Wallcreeper is a slim novel, about Tiffany and Stephen who met when they were colleagues at a pharmaceutical firm in Philadelphia USA. They married within few weeks and relocated to Berlin, Germany. Tiffany learns, “I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies…would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then to Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” The Wallcreeper  is also about birding, open marriage, environmental activism and later, environmental sabotage too.

From the opening line of the novel you are hooked to the story. “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the marriage.” The novel continues in the same calm, confident, feisty and forthright tone. The former bricklayer and secretary, fifty-year-old Nell Zink was published for the first time last year at the insistence of Jonathan Franzen. She had written a fanzine to him a few years ago. Upon reading her prose that she began sending him regularly, he persuaded her to stop writing for an audience of one and consider a larger readership. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, had already been accepted by a small press called Dorothy that specialises in women’s writing. So Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, was represented by Franzen’s agent and got Zink a six-figure advance. Both the novels have received a resounding reception in USA and are soon to be available in India too.

When you write for an audience of one, it is inevitable that the writing is imbued with a rawness and a sense of intimacy that is refreshingly confident. It a no-holds-barred style of writing. Surprisingly Nell Zink’s novels are churned out rapidly in a period of three weeks. They are well structured, with no flabbiness to the prose and bring in pithy observations on issues such as science, ethics, environment, feminism, freedom, the institution of marriage etc. On marriage, Nell Zink writes, “Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out. It either works or it doesn’t. Do what you want.” She is an eclectic and voracious reader judging by the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel. Otherwise how else do you account for a casual reference made yoking together Stanislaw Lem and The World of Apu in one paragraph? ( The World of Apu is a 1959 Bengali film drama made by noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was based on the 1932 Bengali novel, Aparajito, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.) She writes as people would speak when sure that their statements are being made in confidence. The one-liners that are embedded throughout her story come across as off-the-cuff perceptive comments that seem to have been carried over from the spoken word onto paper and fixed. This probably occurs due to the speed at which she thinks and writes prose. It is an incredible form of writing.

The cover design for the book is stupendous showing a wallcreeper feather. Yet I cannot help but think the design is Burial Ritesvery similar to another fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This profile of Nell Zink in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz published on 18 May 2015 is fabulous. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/outside-in . Some other links worth reading are:

Robin Romm, review of The Wallcreeper, NYT, 17 Oct 2014  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/nell-zink-wallcreeper-review.html?_r=0

From the Guardian, January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/nell-zink-jonathan-franzen-clear-distinction-taking-career-seriously-writing-seriously

The Paris Review, December 2014:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/08/purity-of-essence-one-question-for-nell-zink/

An interview in  Vice, June 2015: http://www.vice.com/read/nell-zink-is-damn-free-585

A profile in The Literary Hub, May 2015: http://lithub.com/the-mislaid-plans-of-nell-zink/

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is not necessarily only for the story, but the style too.

Nell Zink The Wallcreeper Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2014. Hb. pp.168 

4 September 2015 

 

Freda Bedi, “Rhymes for Ranga”

Rhymes for Ranga_coverSarah and I discovered a fabulous book of poems for children — Rhymes for Ranga by Freda Bedi. These were written in the 1930s and 40s by an Englishwoman for her eldest son, Ranga. These are simply told, easily understood by children and stupendous to recite. They may have been written many  years ago but do not sound dated. There are rhymes echoing the pride of the birth of a new nation, Mahatma Gandhi, about cattle, seasons, the national flag, pets, a lovely one on the birth of Jesus ( “Mariam’s song”), festivals of India like Basant and Diwali. Some describe India so well — “Sherbets in thumbs_ranga-7Summer”, “The Kite Song”, “Gulairee”, “Pir Panchal”, “Kashmir Birthday”, “The Land of Nowhere” and “The End of the World”.  The charming watercolour illustrations by Anna Bhushan accompanying the poems are perfect. Each page has been well designed with the illustration matching the text.

Freda Bedi was born in Derbyshire, England and met her husband Baba Bedi at the University of Oxford in 1931.thumbs_ranga-17 Her eldest son Ranga, for whom these poems were written, was born in Berlin, Germany and six months later, in 1934, the family came home to India. ( She had two more children – a daughter, Gulhima, and a son, Kabir Bedi, the actor.) Freda took active part in India’s freedom movement and was the first British woman to serve a six-month internment in Lahore jail in 1943. She remained in India all her life, and went on to work with Tibetan refugees in the 1960s, and converted to Buddhism. In 1965, Freda became the first European woman to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, Sister Palmo, or Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo. She died in 1977. When the book was published in 2010, Mid Day published an article containing some black and white photographs from the family album: http://www.mid-day.com/articles/a-bedi-good-rhyme/91679 ( Fiona Fernandez, “A Bedi good rhyme”, 15 August 2010 ).

While creating a rich imaginative space for Indian children especially through poetry that is closely linked to their reality is sadly lacking. Rhymes for Ranga is one big step in filling that vacuum.

Freda Bedi Rhymes for Ranga Random House India, New Delhi, 2010. Hb. pp. 90. Rs 399.