Gloria Tessler reviews a remarkable online exhibition about refugees.
Imagine as a child, being told you are going on a journey from which you may never return. You are asked to choose one toy – just one – that would represent all the memories of your lost childhood. What Would You Bring is a new online exhibition with animated films and illustrated journeys enabling you to walk through the memories of five Jewish refugees and share the journey of a doll, a teddy bear, a teacup, or even a grandfather’s blessing.
The exhibition was conceived and produced by the UK-based Reboot network, originally released for this year’s World Refugee Day. It is based on the idea that as increasing numbers of people are displaced by fear of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations, the objects they bring with them are the threads that connect them to each other and weave a universal human story.
This moving and original venture tells the stories of what the refugees featured in this exhibition managed to salvage from home. To make it interactive, Reboot network member and illustrator Lisa Brown has designed an empty suitcase and invites anyone to fill it with images, photographs and words of their own to describe what their families brought with them, allowing each of us to imagine what we would bring with us if we were forced out of our homes.
Take John Hajdu’s teddy bear which he brought from his Budapest home. The animated film by Christopher Noxon and Rebecca Ode records his own voice describing how the Nazis forced his family out of their home and into a designated yellow star building. He was seven years old, an only child from a middle-class family. ‘Hungary had entered the war in 1941 and everything changed,’ he said. The anti-Jewish laws were passed and my father was taken to a labour camp.’ After the massive round-up of Jewish men in 1944, his mother, too, was taken, but John’s aunt grabbed him and rushed him across the corridor where they were hidden in a cupboard by a courageous non-Jewish neighbour.
‘I needed something to remember my happy childhood’, he said. He had a big teddy bear and a small one; but could only take the small one. On film, John describes the constant fear that the Nazis would return. They lived in crowded conditions – 20 to a flat – and were only allowed out for two hours a day, mostly spent queueing for food. They had to survive on very little food and were not allowed eggs, rice or butter. Constant bombardments by the Soviet army forced them into the cellar. One night the building collapsed and he thought – ‘My God, are we going to die? Are we going to be buried alive? Or suffocated?’
The advancing Soviet troops freed them in January 1945, just moments before the building was blown up by the retreating Germans. John’s mother, Livia, was liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp by the U.S. Army. But her relief at being reunited with her husband and son was short-lived. Her husband, believing her dead, had formed another relationship. Utterly devastated, Livia divorced him and she took John back to Budapest where they tried to start a new life. But in October 1956, the Hungarian uprising was brutally quelled by the Soviet army. John and Livia made their dangerous escape to Austria, avoiding tanks, minefields, border guards, and then walking 25 miles to Innsbruck, and finally London.
In London, John went on to have a successful career in the hotel industry, becoming director of international sales for one of Britain’s largest hotel companies. Active in Haringey’s municipal life, he was awarded the MBE in the 2020 New Year’s Honours for services to Holocaust Education and Commemoration. And John still has his teddy, which goes with him whenever he gives talks to schools.
A suitcase filled with rare family china was all that Aurora Zinder’s family could salvage from their escape from Odessa in Russia. She had survived under Soviet rule but her father died fighting the fascists in Ukraine in 1942. However, rising antisemitism in the USSR finally forced her family to flee to New York. The journey was fraught with danger as the family had to avoid corrupt and avaricious customs officers eager to snatch the family treasure. The family china became an important metaphor for memory and the meaning of their lost homeland. Aurora’s escape and her feelings about the saved family china is brought to life by artist Jacqueline Nicholls, featuring the journey of tea and teacups as her mode of expression.
To have a doll as your best friend might be a common story for children who are bullied at school. On her eighth birthday, Viennese born Hedi Argent was given a large doll, which she called Susie. Hedi’s grandmother made a set of clothes for her just like Hedi’s. An only child, Hedi was bullied at school for being Jewish. ‘No-one played with me. So the doll was my playmate. Not my baby, just a friend’, she said.
Her lawyer father’s offices were requisitioned and they were forced out of their home. There was no money left. Six weeks before the outbreak of war Hedi’s family secured visas for England, but her parents told her she could only take one toy. Susie was too big to fit into the suitcase, so instead, she took Little Susie, a smaller but identical doll.
Hedi was terrified all the way to England. Little Susie became very important to her and stood for the loss of everything they had left behind. The LA-based filmmaker Srivens Luyo, himself a refugee from Latin America, guides us through her story.
‘I still whisper the prayer my grandfather used to say to me when I was a child,’ recalls Avishai Mekonen, who was five years old when he was woken up before dawn by his parents and told they were leaving Ethiopia for Jerusalem.’ I say it in the morning. I say it when I go to bed. It makes me feel safe.’
In the early 1970s, Emperor Haile Sellasie was overthrown by a communist dictatorship and it became dangerous to be Jewish. Many were tortured and killed. ‘So we kept our faith hidden and prayed in secret,’ said Avishai. ‘I remember asking my mother – Is there a place where we wouldn’t be called Falasha – (outsider) – where we do not have to hide who we are?’ On their escape, his mother took a buna (coffee maker), and his father the Torah prayers in Amharic with him.
Just before their departure, his grandfather put his hands on his head and blessed him in Amharic. They walked 400 miles in a group of 100 and it took one month to leave Ethiopia, hiding during the day and walking silently at night. When they reached Sudan they pretended to be Muslims escaping the war. But whenever Avishai was frightened, he remembered his grandfather’s prayers. ‘They made me feel safe.’ When they reached Sudan they were sent to a crowded refugee camp where thousands were dying around them. But one day someone took his precious blanket, which made him very sad, but then he remembered his grandfather’s prayer.
Desperate to escape from the camps, his family paid a truck driver to take them to a nearby town, but suddenly Avishai was kidnapped. Fortunately, he escaped after three weeks. He remembers little about that experience, only the month he spent in hospital, where constantly repeating his grandfather’s prayer gave him hope. The family eventually reached Israel via Operation Moses. In 48 days over 80,00 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Sudan to Israel, but 4,000 others died on the way. ‘I left all trauma and darkness behind me and had hope,’ said Avishai.
About six years before the Iranian Revolution took over in the 1970s chemical engineer Saeed Sassooni moved his family from Tehran to Shiraz, home of the legendary 13th and 14th-century poets Hafez and Saadi. Saeed had a successful foam processing factory, but he foresaw the looming threat of Islamic theocracy, which spelt danger for Jews. He asked his wife Violet to pack a few small bags to accompany him on a business trip back to Tehran with their two young daughters, Tannaz and Torreh. But then he urged the reluctant Violet to take the children to Israel on the few available El Al flights, while there was still time. She had placed a small carpet at the bottom of her suitcase. On arrival in Tel Aviv, she was shocked to find the bags were lost. Her concern was treated with indifference by the airport staff, but the suitcase was eventually returned to her, along with the carpet, which has remained in the family to this day.
Soon after, Violet took the family to Los Angeles, and Saeed, who remained in Iran to run his business, began shipping family heirlooms to her in LA, including his books and carpets. Saeed joined her in America one and a half years later, and over the next 25 years the rest of their belongings, including the family silver, trickled back to them. Violet was perhaps luckier than most. She is now in possession of the family heirlooms which remind her of happier times from her past.
Her story and that of Avishai are illustrated by the artist-poet Sophie Herzheimer. ‘I am interested in objects as holders of history and memory – also as metaphors for ourselves,’ she says. ‘I have used the emotional power of paint, with colour and brushwork, to convey love, energy and movement.’
The project was created and produced by UK-based Reboot network member Juliet Simmons with Noam Dromi. Reboot’s CEO David Katznelson is the executive producer.