‘When I was first given it, I just thought, “OK, so this was my father’s box. I need to know what’s in it,”’ she says. ‘But I hadn’t appreciated how rare it is, even among Holocaust survivors, to have such a trove of documents.
‘I think he was a little paranoid, so he kept all these papers,’ she continues. ‘But if you had spent two years in the middle of the Nazi empire as a Czech Jew, fearing that your cover was going to be blown at any second, that is going to change your psyche and make you paranoid.’
Ariana and I meet in New York City, where her mother has lived for 35 years, and where Ariana, 49, and her British husband Andrew, a criminal barrister, keep a modest apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She is slight and pale, with a mane of wavy brown hair, and is wearing a ring that was made from a copper pipe by her grandfather Otto for his daughter-in-law Zdenka, on a chain around her neck. Zdenka was instrumental in smuggling food and home comforts into the concentration camp Terezin, north of Prague, where Otto and his wife Ella were held for several years before being transported to the infamous extermination camp Auschwitz.
‘The detective part of this, solving the puzzles, was just wonderful, and the “getting to know my grandparents” part was 100 per cent amazing,’ says Ariana. ‘But, of course, finding out how they died was awful and heart-wrenching.’
hough she’d had a career in newspapers, Ariana never seriously considered writing a book – ‘I didn’t think my writing was quite good enough,’ she shrugs – and her investigations into her father’s story were ‘just for me and the kids’ (she and Andrew have three teenage children aged 18, 16 and 14). But, in 2016, in the course of her research, she tracked down a cousin in California, who ‘knew his family was from the Czech Republic, but had no idea that they had died in the war or that they were Jewish’, she says. ‘As I started telling him the stories, he said: “Will you please write this down for all of us?”’
Ariana also ‘uncovered these amazing, beautiful stories and so many wonderful, courageous, remarkable people who had helped my family, and I figured the stories were worth telling’.
Growing up an only child (her father – more than 20 years older than her glamorous, Catholic, Venezuelan mother Maria – had a son from a previous marriage who was 23 years her senior), she had no idea that one entire side of her family was Jewish either. ‘As I look back on it now, I think: “How could I not have known?” but religion was really not a topic of conversation in the house,’ she says.
She remembers, as a child, climbing into her parents’ bed after having a nightmare, and hearing her father screaming in the night in a language she couldn’t understand; her mother reassured her that he had nightmares too. Otherwise, her father’s past was simply not a topic of conversation, even with her mother. ‘I think it was just too big,’ she says today. ‘When they were separating, my mother went to see a therapist who said: “The person who really needs therapy is Hans, but ironically it would destroy him to talk about it, because whatever happened to him is just too overwhelming.”’
Hans was born on 9 February 1921 in Prague, where his father Otto owned a paint factory with his brother Richard. The family was Jewish, but secular and liberal. Nonetheless, they were alarmed by the ongoing restrictions in Germany, which dehumanised Jews and stripped them of their civil rights as the 1930s rolled on. In 1933, Jews were banned from working in state-sector jobs in law, farming, publishing and journalism; in 1935, the Nuremberg laws forbade Jews from citizenship and prohibited marriage or sexual relationships between Jews and Aryan Germans. By 1941, Jews in Nazi-occupied areas were forced to surrender all stocks, bonds, jewellery and precious metals; they were only permitted to keep wedding rings and gold teeth. In September 1941, all Jews in Bohemia, in the West of Czechoslovakia, were forced to wear a yellow Star of David to identify themselves.
‘They’re minute laws, and what are you going to rebel against?’ Ariana asks me rhetorically. ‘The fact that you have to turn in your radio? That you can’t have a dog any more? That you can’t practise your trade, or that your children can’t go to school and are not allowed to play outside? Or the fact that you have to hand in your jewellery? You weaken people, and they lose their sense of self.’
In 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution brought the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia, Ariana visited Prague with her father, who had not been back to the city of his birth for over 40 years. He was characteristically controlled and buttoned-up until they visited an unremarkable, unkempt group of buildings at the end of a set of train tracks, where Hans clutched the wire mesh fence and sobbed silently, but explained nothing. Many years later, Ariana discovered that it was the old Bubny station, where Hans had last seen his parents, separated from them as they were ‘processed’ and herded on to transport to Terezin.
Her father, having narrowly escaped being sent to the camp, was aware that the clock was ticking for him too, and embarked on an ambitious plan – to hide in plain sight. Nobody, he reasoned, would look for him in the centre of Berlin. With the help of his girlfriend Mila, 21-year-old Hans doctored Mila’s identity card, replaced her picture with his own, and created Jan Sebesta.
The fake ID of Jan Sebesta that saved his life
In the spring of 2018, Ariana re-enacted her father’s train journey from Prague to Berlin. ‘That was really difficult,’ she admits. ‘I know that Berlin is a vibrant, wonderful, inclusive city now, but I got there and I had to really fight this urge to turn around and take the next train back. I felt that I really couldn’t cope with being there, imagining how terrified he must have been.’
On reaching Berlin in 1943, with help from his schoolfriend Zdenek, her father sought out work as a chemist in a paint factory and found accommodation close by. The factory was run by loyal Nazi party members and was crucial to the German war effort. During his time in Berlin, ‘Jan’ was also forced to become a volunteer fireman, barely escaping with his life while putting out blazes in the aftermath of the RAF’s heavy bombing raids on the city.
There were close shaves, including when his factory boss asked the Gestapo for clearance to promote him, which involved an investigation into his past. Fortunately, Jan Sebesta had never had a criminal record, been involved in student protests or expressed opinions critical of the Reich. More fortunately, the question was never posed as to whether the fictitious Jan Sebesta had ever truly existed. ‘Jan’ was even deployed by the factory on a mission to Prague for a week, to visit some suppliers, and, the boss said, to let him see his old friends. Hans, however, faked an illness on arrival in his home town and hid in an apartment for fear of being recognised.
In the spring of 1945, after being temporarily blinded by chemicals in the factory, and with the Third Reich crumbling, Hans returned to Prague. There, he married Mila, who’d been critical in his survival, and restored the family’s paint factory to productivity. But the Communists were seizing power in Czechoslovakia, and several countries, including Venezuela, were offering refugee status. In February 1949, Hans, Mila and their infant son Michal left Europe for Caracas.
Mila and Hans’s marriage did not last, though they remained close friends; Ariana recalls meeting her in Caracas as a child. By the 1960s, Hans had done well for himself, not only making money in paint and, later, food, but also helping to found venerable cultural institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art.
Ariana’s mother, she says, has only read certain sections of the book. ‘It’s very emotional for her, because even though they divorced, she was married to him for a very long time and they loved each other deeply. I think it’s difficult when you discover that someone so close to you had all these secrets.’
Hans’s life, however, will never be secret again. Ariana will be donating the family’s artefacts to a museum; she has four separate institutions competing to archive and displays the results of her extensive investigations.
And the stories of her father keep coming. ‘I gave a talk in Boston yesterday and a woman in the audience started talking about my father, and I realised she had met him in Venezuela,’ she says. ‘This woman said: “I completely understand why all these people were so kind to your father and I don’t think it’s because they were brave. I think it’s because your father was so engaging and you just wanted to be around him and you wanted to help him.”
‘There was definitely something engaging about my father,’ laughs Ariana. ‘But I also like to think people helped him because they were brave and doing the right thing.’