Holocaust Museum: Film explores last survivor generation
Holocaust survivor and Selfhelp Home resident, Hanah Messinger, formerly of Lincolnwood, appears in "Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home," a documentary that premiered Synday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Med
WHAT: Documentary film about the Selfhelp Home in Chicago and the remaining survivors and World War II refugees who live there. They escaped Nazi persecution and formed a community, thanks to Selfhelp.
DIRECTOR: Ethan Bensinger, a retired lawyer formerly of Deerfield and Skokie.
• Sept. 9, Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln, Skokie
• Nov. 8, Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway, Chicago
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:23PM
When someone drives or walks by the big building at 908 Argyle St. in Chicago, they’re not likely to take much notice.
It’s a boxed-shape structure, made of brown bricks, described as an assisted and independent living facility, and the architecture doesn’t stand out much from other older buildings in the same neighborhood.
But the Selfhelp Home and the stories of some of the Jewish elderly retirement community inside offer a testament to survival and the human spirit, a collection of memories enlightening us on the darkest of history.
Retired immigration lawyer Ethan Bensinger had no filmmaking background when he set out to open the doors to Selfhelp so the world could peer inside.
His extraordinary documentary, “Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home,” had its first public screening Sunday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.
It explores the lives of six Chicago-area survivors who remain at Selfhelp and represent a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and European refugees from World War II.
Bensinger, 62, a former Skokie and Deerfield resident, has a 100-year-old mother at Selfhelp; she and her husband came to the United States when Hitler took power. His grandmother also was a resident.
Getting to know the people of Selfhelp and their stories ignited Bensinger’s idea for a film, a project he has worked on for four years.
“When I started to visit my mom and my grandmother in the home, I got to know their friends,” said Bensinger. “I would sit with them, and their friends would start telling me about their stories — either having been in Auschwitz or Theresienstadt. One man told me about his experiences in Shanghai.”
While Bensinger didn’t immediately think documentary film, he knew these firsthand accounts should be preserved because Selfhelp didn’t have archives.
He bought a Sony camera and recorded each resident’s testimony, thinking only about creating an archive of memories for the home.
“I started to realize that the Central European experience was one that was not widely known,” he said. “The German and Austrian Czech community was a relatively small one. They had very unique experiences.”
His documentary covers two tracts that eventually come together and point toward compassion and hope.
The Selfhelp residents tell of their almost incomprehensible experiences in a world where Jews were persecuted by the Nazis.
Remarkably painful even to imagine, they are also vital history, eyewitness accounts of Kristallnacht, the Auschwitz and Theresienstadt camps, the Kindertransport rescue mission and more.
But at the same time, the film is equally concerned about postwar life. What happens to the people who have survived the worst that one can imagine and have to start anew in a different world — often without beloved family members?
That’s how the Selfhelp organization got off the ground.
The founders of Selfhelp, interviewed in the film and still involved today, were in their 20s and young immigrants themselves.
In the ’30s, they started Selfhelp as a service organization to provide help for refugees — English lessons, job-seeking assistance, a hand in finding housing.
In 1950, they bought a home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
“After the war, as refugees started streaming in, you had the younger refugees who could go into the work place, but grandma and grandpa who were in their 50s and 60s were sitting home alone,” Bensinger said.
When the home opened in Hyde Park, there were 19 residents, all of them refugees or survivors. More than 1,000 such residents have since lived at Selfhelp.
“The mission of the home was always to be a refuge,” Bensinger said, explaining the title of his film.
The founders later bought the building on Argyle and operated two homes for a time before selling the one in Hyde Park. Selfhelp eventually was opened up to others — not just survivors and refugees.
“The idea developed that a home was needed which would provide a comfortable old age for refugees,” says founder Rolf A. Weil. “You (initially) had to be a victim of Nazi persecution.”
“We felt the best way to help them was to open this home,” says his wife, Leni Weil. “It wasn’t an institution. It was a home.”
Today though, of the 150 or so current Selfhelp residents, only a little more than a dozen survivors and refugees remain.
“We are dying out,” says one survivor who wants their stories to be preserved.
That’s why it was so important for Bensinger, who invested much of his own money, to make the film. He served as director and hired a professional filmmaking team to help put together a one-hour tapestry of interviews, archive and current day footage and photographs.
The premiere drew 375 people to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and Bensinger has more showings scheduled, in schools, universities, synagogues, churches, film festivals and other venues.
“I made the film to be an educational film,” he said. “I want to teach the younger generation through the voice of this final generation.”