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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