Transgenerational Transmission of Holocaust Memories and Survival: An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Ethan Bensinger (Part II)

By Sabrina Völz

Ethan Bensinger speak­ing to a group of stu­dents in an upper-sec­ondary school in Lüneb­urg, Ger­many. | Pho­to cred­it: Sab­ri­na Völz

The fol­low­ing is the sec­ond part of an inter­view with film direc­tor Ethan Bensinger in which he answers ques­tions about the chal­lenges of mak­ing his prize-win­ning Holo­caust doc­u­men­tary, REFUGE: Sto­ries of the Self­help Home,  edu­ca­tion­al projects, and fight­ing anti-Semi­tism today.



SV: After per­son­al­ly inter­view­ing 30 res­i­dents of the Self­help Home in Chica­go in 2007, what cri­te­ria did you use for choos­ing the sur­vivors for your film?

EB: One of the chal­lenges in mak­ing this film was to keep the sto­ry­line with­in 60 min­utes to com­ply with pub­lic tele­vi­sion broad­cast guide­lines in the U.S. and to per­mit schools to screen REFUGE with­in one or two class ses­sions. This had to be bal­anced against the need to treat the expe­ri­ences of the Cen­tral Euro­pean Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as com­pre­hen­sive­ly as pos­si­ble. Thus, in describ­ing emi­gra­tion from Ger­many, I made a direc­to­r­i­al deci­sion to lim­it tes­ti­mo­ny to Jews seek­ing refuge in Shang­hai and the Unit­ed States, rather than the broad­er sto­ry of their flight to Pales­tine and South Amer­i­ca. The his­to­ry of emi­gra­tion to these two coun­tries could indeed be made into a sep­a­rate doc­u­men­tary. This deci­sion then deter­mined the num­ber of inter­vie­wees I could pos­si­bly have in the film. A sim­i­lar deci­sion was reached regard­ing expe­ri­ences in Auschwitz as it was impor­tant not to present sto­ries that were duplica­tive. This per­mit­ted me to choose sur­vivors who were the most artic­u­late and whose nar­ra­tives were par­tic­u­lar­ly descrip­tive and com­pelling. Thus, the group of inter­vie­wees once again became small­er. Last­ly, only one per­son in the group went into hid­ing dur­ing the war, so she was the log­i­cal choice to tell this story.

SV: I can imag­ine that mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary with­out much for­mal train­ing was a hur­dle and that lis­ten­ing to the sto­ries of the sur­vivors cut to the bone. What was the most dif­fi­cult aspect of mak­ing your documentary?

EB: There were sev­er­al dif­fi­cult aspects in mak­ing this doc­u­men­tary. The first I addressed above; the need to lim­it the sto­ry­line and the num­ber of inter­vie­wees. Each of the 30 res­i­dents had an impor­tant sto­ry to tell, but time did not per­mit it. But then, once we select­ed our group of inter­vie­wees, the next hur­dle was to edit their tes­ti­mo­ny to extract the essence of their expe­ri­ences. Each want­ed to con­tribute so much to our project, but again it was impor­tant for them to remain suc­cinct and with­in time para­me­ters. Leav­ing com­pelling sto­ries on the edit­ing room floor was dif­fi­cult. Fur­ther­more, even though I con­duct­ed hours of pre-inter­views, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sur­vivors’ emo­tion­al re-telling of their sto­ries in front of the cam­era often reduced the entire crew to tears as well.

SV: You have trav­elled the globe show­ing and talk­ing about your film. How has your film been received? Is the recep­tion of REFUGE: Sto­ries of the Self­help Home in Ger­many dif­fer­ent from the recep­tion in oth­er places?

EB: We are thrilled with the recog­ni­tion that the film has received world­wide. In the Unit­ed States, for the third year in a row, REFUGE will be broad­cast nation­al­ly on our Pub­lic Broad­cast Sta­tions in com­mem­o­ra­tion of Holo­caust Remem­brance Day. We have been priv­i­leged to screen the film in such diverse places as Chi­na, Croa­t­ia, Eng­land, and of course through­out Ger­many. I must say that in Ger­many, stu­dents have been most recep­tive to the eye­wit­ness accounts in the film. We often heard that in class stu­dents had been pre­sent­ed with dry sta­tis­tics and sto­ries of the war but had nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to expe­ri­ence sur­vivor tes­ti­mo­ny. Addi­tion­al­ly, on many occa­sions we were told by Ger­man stu­dents that the film was so impact­ful that they were anx­ious to engage in dis­cus­sion of their family’s wartime expe­ri­ences at home. We also found Ger­man stu­dents to be espe­cial­ly polit­i­cal­ly astute. They were keen­ly aware of polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ried for the demo­c­ra­t­ic future of Amer­i­ca in light of the posi­tions tak­en by then can­di­date Trump. To them, the nar­ra­tives in the film under­scored their con­cern for the future of Europe and the Unit­ed States.

SV: Although the world has not entire­ly learned the lessons of the past – as recent events around the world would seem to indi­cate – I would imag­ine that you hope your film edu­cates peo­ple about the Holo­caust and affects the view­ers per­son­al­ly. To assist with that task, the film’s web­site pro­vides a free study guide for edu­ca­tors. Can you tell us about it and about inter­est­ing projects or activ­i­ties that cre­ative teach­ers and their stu­dents have done with REFUGE: Sto­ries of the Self­help Home?

EB: The study guide was devel­oped by a Holo­caust his­to­ri­an as a mul­ti-func­tion­al tool to be ini­tial­ly used pri­or to a class screen­ing of REFUGE. It is divid­ed into chap­ters to pro­vide stu­dents with detailed biogra­phies of the six inter­vie­wees in the film togeth­er with in-depth his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences to the events they describe and inter­ac­tive links to resource mate­r­i­al. For post-screen­ing pur­pos­es, each sur­vivor sto­ry is accom­pa­nied by learn­ing objec­tives as well as key ques­tions to pro­mote stu­dent under­stand­ing of sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments of the sur­vivors’ accounts and to pin­point impor­tant edu­ca­tion­al goals to be achieved. This is fol­lowed by a vari­ety of enrich­ment activ­i­ties to stim­u­late class dis­cus­sion and crit­i­cal think­ing, stu­dent group and part­ner activ­i­ties, and research projects.

An inter­est­ing class project, rel­e­vant to cur­rent world­wide debates on immi­gra­tion, dealt with Self­help res­i­dent Horst Abraham’s abil­i­ty to find refuge in Shang­hai. Look­ing at the ques­tion of immi­gra­tion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War more broad­ly, the teacher asked the stu­dents to research the sto­ry of the Ger­man ship, St. Louis, and its return to Europe after not receiv­ing per­mis­sion to dis­em­bark its Jew­ish pas­sen­gers in Cuba or the Unit­ed States. Address­ing the ques­tion of America’s 1940’s refugee pol­i­cy as well as iso­la­tion­ist and anti-Semit­ic trends in that coun­try, the teacher asked the stu­dents to write a news­pa­per edi­to­r­i­al tak­ing a posi­tion for or against the entry of the Jew­ish refugees into the Unit­ed States. The stu­dents were not to con­sid­er the fact that many of the refugees per­ished in the Holo­caust upon the ship’s return to Europe.

Sev­er­al oth­er class projects are worth men­tion­ing. The first was a class debate as to whether Rab­bi Leo Baeck, head of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in There­sien­stadt, was right in not shar­ing his knowl­edge of the exis­tence of the gas cham­bers in Auschwitz with vic­tims being trans­port­ed there from There­sien­stadt. One half of the class was to take Rab­bi Baeck’s posi­tion and the oth­er half that of the­olo­gian Paul Tillich, who believed that every per­son has a right to know their fate. Using the study guide, the stu­dents were expect­ed to first thor­ough­ly acquaint them­selves with the expe­ri­ences in There­sien­stadt of Edith Stern and Han­nah Messinger.

In anoth­er school, the teacher asked the stu­dents to express their emo­tions in the form of a poem from the per­spec­tive of a child expe­ri­enc­ing the Velo­drome D’Hiver roundup of French Jews in 1942. Each stu­dent was expect­ed to first research the wartime expe­ri­ences of Self­help res­i­dent Paula Trisch, who went into hid­ing in France to pro­tect her­self and her young son.

Most recent­ly, in a town not far from Ham­burg, stu­dents were asked to “adopt” a char­ac­ter in the film and, by using the study guide, thor­ough­ly acquaint them­selves with the sur­vivors’ biogra­phies. Each stu­dent was then required to make a detailed and empa­thet­ic class pre­sen­ta­tion of that person’s life uti­liz­ing either a poster, a video, Pow­er­Point, or podcast.

SV: With recent events in the Unit­ed States, includ­ing the grow­ing anti-Semit­ic threats to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters and insti­tu­tions, van­dal­ism to Jew­ish ceme­ter­ies, and oth­er hate crimes, Pres­i­dent Trump and his admin­is­tra­tion have been heav­i­ly crit­i­cized. Do you think that the crit­i­cism is jus­ti­fied? Isn’t fight­ing anti-Semi­tism a mat­ter for us all? What can we, in your opin­ion, do as indi­vid­u­als to put a stop to the madness?

EB: Anti-Semi­tism has been a scourge on civ­i­liza­tion for mil­len­nia. Even in coun­tries where there are no Jews, there has been a hatred of Jews. But as much as we need to be con­cerned about the grow­ing num­ber of anti-Semit­ic inci­dents, I think we need to force­ful­ly address the broad­er anti-immi­grant and anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ments in Amer­i­ca and Europe as well.

I spoke ear­li­er of the per­mis­sive­ness of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion empow­er­ing right-wing ele­ments in the Unit­ed States. In the Unit­ed States, there has been a marked increase in hate crimes against the Mus­lim and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties since Mr. Trump’s elec­tion in Novem­ber 2016. There is no doubt that there exists a causal rela­tion­ship between his cam­paign rhetoric, the pro­posed trav­el ban, the far-right sen­ti­ments of some of his advi­sors, and these events. This is not the time for Jews and Mus­lims to idly sit by. A con­cert­ed cam­paign, includ­ing peace­ful demon­stra­tion, must be had to send the pres­i­dent a mes­sage that his behav­ior can­not be coun­te­nanced. Social action groups in mosques and syn­a­gogues and well-estab­lished orga­ni­za­tions, such as the Anti-Defama­tion League, should play a part in such a cam­paign. Also, each com­mu­ni­ty must influ­ence its elect­ed lead­ers to strength­en hate crime leg­is­la­tion, ensur­ing such acts are con­sid­ered felonies (in the Unit­ed States) car­ry­ing jail time. The media must con­tin­ue to play an impor­tant role in attempt­ing to influ­ence Mr. Trump’s actions, ensur­ing that hate crime leg­is­la­tion is strength­ened, and that fed­er­al and state fund­ing con­tin­ues to be allo­cat­ed toward edu­ca­tion­al resources address­ing intolerance.

Though I have spo­ken about Amer­i­ca, of course, we have wit­nessed a sim­i­lar trend in Hun­gary, Greece, Poland, and France. Per­haps a sim­i­lar com­mu­nal response will be effec­tive in some of those coun­tries. How­ev­er, there is also a dis­turb­ing trend in many Euro­pean coun­tries to min­i­mize or re-write the his­to­ry of the Holo­caust and, in some instances, rhetoric to remove memo­ri­als to this tragedy. How­ev­er, to counter these trends, edu­ca­tion­al efforts must be strength­ened to ensure that the truth lives on and that mem­o­ries sur­vive. I have found Ger­mans to be recep­tive to these efforts and am very pleased that I con­tin­ue to be warm­ly received at schools through­out the coun­try in my attempt to teach the his­to­ry and lessons of the Holocaust.

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