Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home

By Sabrina Völz

SelfhelpHomeDirec­tor Ethan Bensinger’s Refuge: Sto­ries of the Self­help Home appeared in 2012. The next three years saw this 60-minute doc­u­men­tary on Holo­caust sur­vivors amass­ing one award after anoth­er. In April 2014, it was show­cased on pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tions across the Unit­ed States mark­ing Holo­caust Remem­brance Day, and the Deutsche Welle has pro­filed a num­ber of their web­sites deal­ing with Ger­man-Jew­ish émi­grés around the world.
I had the hon­or of view­ing this five-year project of labor and love at a film screen­ing, com­mem­o­rat­ing the 20-year anniver­sary of the part­ner­ship between sis­ter cities Chica­go and Ham­burg in the Hanseat­ic city’s town hall this past Decem­ber. And some­how I have the feel­ing that even after three years the film’s jour­ney is far from over.
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Refuge chron­i­cles the lives of six Jew­ish Holo­caust sur­vivors in their nineties and beyond who fled Nazi per­se­cu­tion and even­tu­al­ly found them­selves in the land of the free. Since its found­ing in the late 1930s, Self­help Home has pro­vid­ed over 1,000 Cen­tral Euro­pean Jews in Chicago’s Hyde Park and Edge­wa­ter com­mu­ni­ties with assis­tance. Apart from shel­ter, food, lan­guage train­ing, and assis­tance with job hunt­ing, this non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion and lat­er res­i­den­tial home for the elder­ly became – as the documentary’s title sug­gests – both a refuge and com­mu­ni­ty, pro­vid­ing Jew­ish émi­grés and Ha-Shoah sur­vivors with Gemütlichkeit and a touch of their lost, beloved homeland.

In con­trast to Hol­ly­wood films on the Holo­caust, Refuge is nei­ther high-bud­get nor plot-dri­ven, but its non-fic­tion nar­ra­tives told in thick Ger­man accents cut to the bone. Orga­nized the­mat­i­cal­ly, Bensinger focus­es on the effects of the Holo­caust on body, mind, and spir­it as well as on some espe­cial­ly grue­some aspects of the Holo­caust such as the Kinder­trans­port and the There­sien­stadt ghet­to. Refuge is filled with ten­der mem­o­ries of hap­py child­hoods and unex­pect­ed reunions as well as with trau­mat­ic rec­ol­lec­tions of a beloved sister’s last words and the unbear­able choice to save one’s own life by abort­ing anoth­er. Indeed, trau­ma comes in many forms and endures a life­time. Even dur­ing med­i­ta­tions on hap­pi­ness, the tragedy of lost futures seeps through. Nev­er­the­less, these remark­able white-haired eye­wit­ness­es are cer­tain­ly not vic­tims, even as they mourn in their own ways while rebuild­ing their lives.

As a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Jew­ish Amer­i­can with Ger­man roots, Bensinger, a retired lawyer, seeks to pre­serve the expe­ri­ences of a dying gen­er­a­tion and hon­or Self­help Home’s lega­cy. He hopes that his film will edu­cate peo­ple all over the world and serve as a cat­a­lyst for the few remain­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors to break their silence. The clock is tick­ing. The time has come. Let us not be com­pla­cent. Geno­cide is not a mat­ter to be filed away in the dusty archive of his­to­ry; it is, unfor­tu­nate­ly, still very much among us. Refuge is a film meant to be shared with others.

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