Documentary Sheds Light on Central European Refugees, Holocaust Survivors

"Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home" will be shown at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center Sunday.

In the late 1930's groups of German Jewish refugees fled Europe as it was on the brink of the Holocaust and came to Chicago. A portion of this population founded the Selfhelp Home, a retirement home for elderly jews, in 1938. 

"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," said Ethan Bensinger a documentary filmaker. Bensinger has captured the last of this population's stories in his film 'Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp.' "It's been more than 70 years after Selfhelp was founded; and we are now losing the last of this generation."


Bensinger's film will be screened to a sold-out audience at the in Skokie on Sunday.

"I made the film as an educational tool for a variety of communities: for the jewish communities Central and Western European immigration during that time was an important one, but many in the Jewish community don't know this story." Bensinger told Patch, "Secondly we are reaching out to schools, churches and putting the holocaust into the perspective of genocides that continue today, such as in Sudan, Rwanda, and Syria."

Bensinger, a 30-year lawyer turned filmmaker, unknowingly began building towards a documentary in 2006, when he decided to create a digital video archive for Selfhelp. The idea grew from Bensinger watching his mother and grandmother who lived in the retirement community.

"I’ve been going there for so many years meeting my mother’s friends who were residents there, meeting my friends of grandmothers, and they started telling me their stories," he said, "They were just incredible stories of survival, perserverence, and I always fell in love with these people—they were always vibrant."

But by 2008 and 2009, only 12 of the original generation of immigrants were still alive, and Bensinger began to see the need to translate these stories into a full film.

"Now in their 90s they are really opening up—they are the final eye witnesses to the holocaust," he said "During that time many people were involved in establishing themselves in business or raising family they didn’t have the time to think abou the past and now they’re doing that."

And while those featured in the film, now largely in their 90s, had difficulties retelling painful memories of watching family members be murdered, or separated, he said they all felt compelled to speak.

"Some of them are survivors of Auschwitz, and of course they realize we say never again to something like that, but they realize this still happens and so these stories still need to be told," he added.

"Bringing these to the present; teaching young people that calling names and putting up signs back then can easily be translated to present-day bullying and prejudice is how to better community conversations."

"Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home" is sold-out for this Sunday, but you can catch again at the Skokie Theater on Sept. 9. Check out more information on the film. Like us on Facebook to leave a review.


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