Contributed by Ethan Bensinger, Director of “REFUGE: Stories of The Selfhelp Home”
This is the fifth annual year that I have been invited to screen REFUGE in Germany at schools and other venues. In November, during a period of two weeks, I traveled to eight schools in Frankfurt, Fulda and Lüneborg, screening our documentary and facilitating discussions with students. It was gratifying to have been able to share the story of Selfhelp and the experiences of its remarkable residents with more than 1000 students in the 10th to 12th grades.
This year, I also returned to speak to the students and faculty at Leuphana University in Lüneburg. The venue for the screening was especially noteworthy, as it was held in a new building designed by the American/Israeli architect Daniel Liebeskind, which replaced a classroom building that was originally constructed as an SS barrack. Lüneburg has had a dark past during the Nazi period, but has done a remarkable job in addressing this time in history. It was an honor to have been invited to screen REFUGE and make post-screening remarks in that academic setting.
In commemoration of Kristallnacht, it was a privilege to have been invited by the German foundation “Initiative Geschichte und Errinerung (Initiative for History and Remembrance) to screen REFUGE at the FilmForum movie theater in Höchst, a town near Frankfurt. We had an excellent turnout and an important discussion about the traumatic events of the “Night of Broken Glass” and how the burning of synagogues, destruction of Jewish businesses and imprisonment of 30,000 Jewish men, sparked the flames of the Holocaust. A number of participants during the Q&A shared that they were particularly moved by Leni Weil’s and Gerry Frank’s recollections of those dark days.
Our discussions with students and adults alike were overshadowed this year by the continued electoral success of the right-wing political party “Alternative für Deutschland,” the dramatic increase of Anti-Semetic incidents throughout Europe, and the near catastrophic event in Halle. Halle is a town in the eastern part of Germany where a well-armed terrorist attempted to storm a synagogue with 80 worshipers on Yom Kippur. In our discussions, I commented that it was only a steel door to the entrance of the synagogue that prevented a massacre of Jews in Germany–potentially the largest since World War II–and that this event was not a mere warning as some German politicians had said. I thought that it was important for the audience to understand that today, German Jewish lives are once again in danger.
For the vast majority of the students, the eye-witness testimony of Selfhelp’s residents, was the first time that they heard the words of a survivor. The tears that they shed during the screening of the film reflected the indelible affect that Edith Stern’s and Hannah Messinger’s testimonies had on them. I was especially touched by the students at the Ernst-Reuter School 1 in Frankfurt who took up a collection for Selfhelp’s residents.
At most schools, the student’s questions during the discussion period reflected their fear that with the events in Halle and other Anti-Semetic incidents, Germany was returning to the days of the Third Reich. We spent a significant amount of time discussing what steps should be taken so Germany does not move forward in that direction, and the students agreed that Holocaust education was in great part the answer. It is this that motivates me to return to Germany time and again.
This year, as in past years, I left with a feeling of confidence that Germany is in good hands with this young generation. The students are worldly–they understand the direction that Hungary and Poland is taking and they are very well aware of the news coming out of the United States. They fear for their own country, but are resolute in doing something about it.
Students & Teachers Moved by the Film Respond
During Ethan’s visit and screening, students at the Ernst Reuter 1 school in Frankfurt were moved by the film, and made a collection for the home. They donated $68.00 to the residents. The photo shows two teachers counting the single Euros that each student placed into a collection tin.
This charitable act comes in contrast to the rising tide of Anti-Semitism in Europe, the attack on Yom Kippur worshipers in the German town of Halle and the increased popularity of the German political party AfD.
REFUGE is a one-hour documentary that reaches back more than 80 years to give a voice to the last generation of Central European, Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees. The film explores the lives of six Chicagoans against the context of the Nazi cataclysm, and the resourceful community that came together to create a singular place those fleeing persecution could call home. Warm, moving and deeply personal, REFUGE interweaves remarkable testimony, archival footage and expert commentary.
More about the Director, Ethan Bensinger…
In 2007, Ethan Bensinger created for the Selfhelp Home an archive of personal interviews with 30 residents who had been victims of Nazi persecution. Today, this archive can be found at Selfhelp, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and online, courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.
That project inspired Ethan to create a one-hour documentary that highlights the diverse experiences of six of those Selfhelp residents and three of the home’s founders, before, during, and after WWII.
Ethan’s parents and grandparents were forced to flee the Nazi regime in the 1930s for a new life in Palestine. Ethan was born after the State of Israel was founded and then moved with his family to America in 1955. His family’s experience led Ethan to his chosen profession as an immigration lawyer, and for 25 years, Ethan served as the Managing Director of the Chicago office of a global immigration law firm. Since his retirement from law, Ethan has been involved in volunteer and philanthropic endeavors and serves as a “second generation” speaker on the behalf of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. He has also taken his interest in history and archaeology to write his blog, Sightseeing in Israel, a virtual tour of some of the most interesting “off the beaten track” sites to explore when traveling to Israel.