DIRECTOR TELLS STORY OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS
Studio City Film Festival Presents “REFUGE: Stories of the Selfhelp Home”—February 7
CHICAGO—Studio City Film Festival will screen a new documentary by local director Ethan Bensinger on February 7. “REFUGE: stories of the Selfhelp Home” reaches back more than 70 years to tell the story of the last generation of Holocaust survivors and a little known Chicago community that has provided a home to more than 1,000 Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors from Central Europe
REFUGE will be shown at 2:30 p.m., Thursday, February 7, at the Complete Actors Theatre, 13752 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.
REFUGE interweaves deeply personal interviews with Selfhelp’s founders and residents and expert commentary by well-known historians to explore the lives of six Chicagoans against the context of the Nazi cataclysm and how a small group of them came together to care for their own The film illuminates the lost world of Central European Jewry prior to World War II--middle class, educated, cultured--and the remarkable courage, resilience and character of its final generation at Selfhelp in Chicago.
These refugees and survivors, now in their late 80s and above, speak vividly of loss of family and of place and of decisions that meant the difference between life and death. Several of the elderly survivors personally witnessed Kristallnacht (known as “Night of the Broken Glass”), the coordinated series of attacks by the Nazis against Jewish communities throughout Germany and Austria in 1938. Others speak of finding refuge in England through the Kindertransport, escaping to the United States and Shanghai, hiding on estates and in castles in France, and deportation to the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps.
“Each one saw his or her role in history and realized that they were the last eyewitnesses to these events and their stories had to be told,” REFUGE Director Ethan Bensinger said. Bensinger, who lives in Chicago and Bonita Springs, himself comes from a German-Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and eventually settled in Chicago in 1955. The documentary grew out of a project by Bensinger to interview the last remaining survivors and refugees at the Selfhelp Home.
“Many of the stories are heartbreaking. They speak of loss of family, of place, of separation. But they also tell of renewal, of resilience, of finding love and creating new families, of starting again in a new land.”
“These eyewitnesses teach us and future generations that strength in the face of adversity often comes from a sense of community built upon shared experience,” said Rick Hirschhaut, Executive Director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Selfhelp was founded in the late 1930s by a handful of young Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to the safety of Chicago. Through prescience, pooled resources and a strong spirit of volunteerism, Selfhelp provided housing, food, English classes and job placement services to other displaced Jewish émigrés and later, after the war, to Holocaust survivors. They put people up in their own homes and reached deep in their pockets to give those who came with nothing the basics of what they needed to start new lives in a new country.
In 1950, Selfhelp opened up a residential home for the oldest refugees and survivors, whose atmosphere reproduced some of the home life and cultural experiences that they had lost. To date, more than 1,000 refugees and survivors have spent their last years at the Selfhelp homes in Chicago’s Hyde Park and Edgewater communities.
Three of the original founders, now in their late 80s and 90s, still sit on the board and participated in the making of the film. In the documentary, they express their concern for the home’s future, when the last survivors and refugees, who give Selfhelp its unique mission and meaning, will be gone.
“Our film explores a community that will not exist for much longer,” Bensinger said. “Within 10 years or so, there will be no Jewish victims of Nazi persecution living at Selfhelp. Out of the 30 refugees and survivors I originally interviewed, less than a dozen are still alive today. As a filmmaker, I feel obligated to give a voice to these last eyewitnesses to life as it was before, during and after the war, so that future generations understand the consequences of intolerance, injustice and unmitigated hatred.“
Since its premiere at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in June, the film has been accepted to 12 film festivals and won "Best Documentary" and "Best in Fest" awards at the Sycamore Film Festival in Sycamore, Illinois. In November, Public Television in Ohio aired REFUGE, and the Chicago PBS-affiliate WTTW-Channel 11 will broadcast it in April. Upcoming screenings include Holocaust museums in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Miami, as well as at the Chicago History Museum.
Most recently, the film was featured in a project by the German national broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, in conjunction with the Moses Mendelssohn Center and the German Foreign Office to trace the remnants of the German-Jewish community around the world. The English-language website of "Traces, German-Jewish Heritage in the World," may be found at http://www.dw.de/top-stories/usa/s-31860.
For more information about “REFUGE” and to view the trailer, please visit us online at http://storiesofselfhelp-film.com/