Scenes From a Refugee Childhood

For a book that details a childhood turned upside down by World War II, Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood (Booklyn, 2022) opens with an unlikely reflection on optimism and good fortune. Noting that she was “the apple of her parents’ eye,” and keenly aware she was loved from early age, Halla Beloff (née Proskauer) was able to accept the various hardships she faced in her young life with a sense that everything would be all right, eventually. The book collects the intimate, subjective, and extraordinarily relatable memories of Halla, born as the only child of a Jewish couple in 1930 who managed to flee Hitler’s Germany to the uncertain yet relative safety of wartime England. Halla’s daughter, the artist Zoe Beloff, has translated these oral histories into print, richly accompanied by illustrations, including the artist’s drawings and the Beloff family photographic archive.

Delivered in the first person in accessible prose and filled with childhood anecdotes, Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood is a compilation of stories passed from mother and daughter. Told in a loose chronological narrative from Halla’s birth in Stuttgart to the family’s escape from Germany after the Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass in November of 1938), the book concludes with Halla’s marriage to John Beloff in England in 1952, and their first trip as a couple to the United States, which was, for her, the “land of milk and honey,” with wide-open landscapes and good pizza.

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From Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood (2021)

The bulk of the book details Halla’s life from approximately 1935 until 1945. As a toddler, the family moved to Leipzig, where her father Wilhelm (later anglicized to William) earned a respectable living as a salesman for a large shoe company, and her mother, Ruth, would entertain her daughter with recaps of films she saw on Saturday evenings. Halla’s early memories are typical childhood fare, such as visiting the children’s cinema and afterwards reenacting scenes with her friends’ rocking horse.

Halla’s growing awareness of the Nazi threat came through her parents’ changing mood and increasingly desperate choices. Despite their secularism, Ruth insisted Halla attend a Jewish primary school so she would not be spit on if she were accidentally revealed to be a Jew. William fled to Berlin for a period after almost being removed from his home one morning by SS officers. In one of her last recollections of normalcy in her birth country, Halla describes a trip with her mother to a small seaside resort near Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Seeking relief from the oppressive environment of the city, Halla and her mother were instead confronted with signs of “Juden unerwünscht” (Jews unwelcome). They defied the signs to visit the sea but could not escape the encroaching Nazi threat.

Halla and her family ultimately managed to flee to London, where they lived in cramped conditions and eked out a very modest living, with Ruth becoming the primary breadwinner as a dressmaker for wealthier Jewish women whom she met through a welcoming rabbi. Halla’s wartime years were split between the city and the English countryside where young children were sent for their safety during the German air raids on London. In the small town of Berkhamsted, Halla stayed with a German Jewish family. While she and the Sterns would listen to the BBC broadcasts to Germany on the radio, they never spoke German, nor did Halla’s parents. They sought to become English as quickly as possible, without looking back.

For a book that details a childhood turned upside down by World War II, Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood opens with an unlikely reflection on optimism and good fortune.

Beloff’s dreamlike drawings depicting various scenes from Halla’s memoirs bring an added dimension of poignancy and pathos to Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood. Periodically in her commentary, Halla notes her family’s deep socialist roots, which she passed down to her daughter. Beloff’s artistic style is inspired by a long realist tradition of illustrating history from below, highlighting the stories of everyday people and their travails and triumphs against the backdrop of major world events. Often overlaid with snapshots of Halla and her family, the drawings evoke the hazy memories of childhood, punctured by the seriousness of the events they document.

As a coming-of-age memoir during World War II, Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood is a document of a generation rapidly fading from living memory. The explicit intention of the book, however, is not just to archive the past, but understand how this now distant history reflects our present. And it is some of the most mundane details in this book that resonate painfully with our present. Halla’s narrative subtly emphasizes how her family was one of the lucky ones, not just because they managed to escape, but how their connections and socioeconomic status — modest as they were — provided them a chance to leave that was not afforded to others. Halla details how they visited almost every consulate they could in order to get papers to leave the country, with no success. Her father ultimately relied on the support of an estranged sister based in London, who filed an affidavit to prove that the family would not seek welfare upon arrival. The affidavit, along with heavy fees paid to the German government, allowed them to escape via airplane. The bureaucracy that underpinned the family’s escape is uncomfortably familiar to those paying attention to the current crisis at the US-Mexico border, as thousands of asylum seekers continue to be turned away for the ostensible fear that they would burden the state, regardless of the threat to their lives in their home countries.

Detail of Zoe Beloff, “Parade of the Old New” (2017–2021)
Detail of Zoe Beloff, Parade of the Old New (2017–2021)

Beloff’s recent work has been engaged with the connections between the period of her mother’s childhood and our present. Early in 2017, Beloff began a monumental project, Parade of the Old New, which served as a living document of the United States during the four years of the Trump administration. Painted on large 40 x 60-inch sheets of corrugated cardboard, each tableau provides a scene from our most recent past, from the Trump inauguration ceremony to the day Joe Biden was sworn into office. Taken together, Parade of the Old New is over 130 feet in length, providing running commentary on the unrest that has marked the last four years. 

Installation view of Parade of the Old New (2022)

Named after Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem of the same title, Parade of the Old New documents the events of the present, but consciously relies on the visual traditions of the past. Beloff evokes the anti-Nazi art of John Heartfield, whose agitprop photomontages excoriated the German turn to fascism. In homage to Heartfield’s work, which depicted German politicians as tigers and hyenas, Beloff illustrates some of the most notorious members of the Trump administration as monstrous beasts. One panel depicts ICE agents with the heads of German Shepherds, arresting undocumented workers at a Motel 6 while their leader, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, looks on, waiting to sniff out the presence of “illegals.”

Brecht’s poem warns of an old that disguises itself as the new, which can only leave destruction in its wake, writing that “what they thought was the light of dawn was the light of fires in the sky.” For Beloff, recording histories of the past is always also a warning in the present, noting in the foreword of Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood that she hopes telling her mother’s story “will inspire people to look forward and to ask what we can all do to help people fleeing persecution in this century.”

Reminiscences of a Refugee Childhood (2021) is available for purchase online.

Parade of the Old New continues at the Clemente Center (107 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 12. The exhibition was curated by Zoe Beloff in a curatorial open call.


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