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

By Sabrina Völz

Ethan Bensinger (mid­dle) dur­ing a 2015 podi­um dis­cus­sion with Holo­caust schol­ar Pro­fes­sor Sven Kramer of Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty (left) and Dr. Jens-Chris­t­ian Wag­n­er, Direc­tor of the Low­er Sax­ony Memo­ri­als Foun­da­tion. | Pho­to cred­it: Christo­pher Rieckmann

When I first invit­ed film direc­tor Ethan Bensinger to come to Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg, I knew that 2015 would be a spe­cial year for Holo­caust com­mem­o­ra­tion. It marked the 70th anniver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of con­cen­tra­tion camps all over Europe, among them Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. In light of the human rights vio­la­tions around the globe and the all-too-famil­iar top­ic of geno­cide, Ethan Bensinger’s one-hour doc­u­men­tary, REFUGE: Sto­ries of the Self­help Home (2012), is as time­ly as ever. This impor­tant doc­u­men­tary weaves togeth­er expert com­men­tary, archive mate­r­i­al, and the mem­o­ries of six res­i­dents of the Self­help Home in Chica­go, which was found­ed to give shel­ter and a lov­ing envi­ron­ment to those flee­ing per­se­cu­tion. These last gen­er­a­tions of eye­wit­ness­es to the atroc­i­ties of the Holo­caust recall the expe­ri­ence of Cen­tral Euro­pean Jews before, dur­ing, and after “The Final Solu­tion.” They tell of events (The Night of Bro­ken Glass, Kinder­trans­port), places of ter­ror and geno­cide (There­sien­stadt and Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camps), spaces of refuge (Shang­hai ghet­to, Self­help Home) as well as share per­son­al insights about lov­ing fam­i­lies, sur­vival, tear­ful reunions, and healing.

In the first install­ment of this two-part inter­view, Ethan Bensinger speaks can­did­ly about his her­itage, the rela­tion­ship of the Holo­caust to his hybrid iden­ti­ty as well as his moti­va­tion for mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about the Self­help Home.

SV: At great per­son­al cost, your grand­par­ents and par­ents had the pru­dence to leave Nazi Ger­many in the 1930s. They went to Pales­tine where you were even­tu­al­ly born. What have you learned from your par­ents about those dif­fi­cult times?

EB: In Octo­ber 1933, my grand­par­ents, Ida and Her­man Bensinger, left behind the leafy streets of Berlin for the sand dunes of Pales­tine. There are sev­er­al impor­tant lessons that I learned from my grand­par­ents’ life-chang­ing deci­sion. First, their abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize adver­si­ty and to syn­the­size polit­i­cal events for what they were – a risk to their phys­i­cal and finan­cial wellbeing.

Short­ly after Hitler’s ascen­sion to pow­er in Jan­u­ary 1933, Jews were harassed on the streets of Berlin and in their busi­ness­es. Many were arrest­ed on trumped-up charges and some were sent to the new­ly opened Dachau camp. My grand­par­ents wit­nessed SA torch­light parades and heard Hitler speak at large out­door ral­lies in Berlin. They were vic­tims of the April boy­cott of Jew­ish-owned busi­ness­es and were well aware of the book-burn­ing episode the fol­low­ing month.

But under these cir­cum­stances, most Ger­man Jews believed that Hitler was a short-lived polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­non. To them, Ger­many was the most civ­i­lized soci­ety on earth, one that would not coun­te­nance the harass­ment of a seg­ment of soci­ety that held lead­er­ship posi­tions in com­merce, med­i­cine, law, and the arts. But, hav­ing wit­nessed fast-mov­ing events in Berlin, Her­man and Ida Bensinger had the fore­sight to under­stand that there was no future for the Jew­ish peo­ple in Germany.

The sec­ond les­son that I learned from my grand­par­ents was that of courage – to have the courage to make the irre­versible deci­sion in mid­dle age to aban­don a wealthy lifestyle, a home, a busi­ness, friend­ships, and fam­i­ly for a sim­ple life in the desert in an unde­vel­oped region of the world. This coura­geous deci­sion not only involved aban­don­ing assets and rela­tion­ships, but also one’s her­itage and iden­ti­ty as a Ger­man. My grand­par­ents had lived a life in Frank­furt and Berlin as upper mid­dle class, assim­i­lat­ed Jews with a large home in the best of neigh­bor­hoods, house­hold staff, fine fur­ni­ture and art. They attend­ed the opera and sym­pho­ny more often than they attend­ed a syn­a­gogue. Her­man and his broth­ers ran a suc­cess­ful tex­tile busi­ness with offices in Berlin, Frank­furt, Lon­don and Danzig.  Her­man was a proud Ger­man, a vet­er­an of World War I, whose roots in Ger­many dat­ed to the ear­ly 1700s. To leave that behind, a mere 10 months after Hitler’s rise to pow­er, was noth­ing short of courageous.

The third les­son that I learned from my grand­par­ents’ expe­ri­ence was their abil­i­ty to quick­ly adapt to their new sur­round­ings. Ida and Her­man moved into a three-room cin­der block home in a new­ly estab­lished sandy neigh­bor­hood of Tel Aviv. The large house and gar­den that they had left behind in Berlin was a mere mem­o­ry. In time, they adapt­ed well to their new sur­round­ings – the heat, the scor­pi­ons, and Mid­dle East­ern cui­sine. Final­ly, they were safe and hap­py. And fore­most, they lived their lives freely as Jews.

SV: Although you and your imme­di­ate fam­i­ly didn’t have first-hand expe­ri­ence of the Holo­caust, you were cer­tain­ly affect­ed by it through the loss of mem­bers of the extend­ed fam­i­ly, grow­ing up in Pales­tine, lat­er mov­ing to the U.S., and hear­ing the sto­ries of sur­vivors. In his book, The Holo­caust in Amer­i­can Life, his­to­ri­an Peter Novick has argued that the Holo­caust has become the “the cen­tral sym­bol of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty.” How has the Holo­caust shaped your iden­ti­ty? And do you agree with Peter Novick’s assessment?

EB: Let me be blunt in answer­ing the ques­tion of how the Holo­caust has shaped my iden­ti­ty – it’s part of my DNA. I am not your typ­i­cal Amer­i­can Jew in that I am an Israeli as well. As such, a lack of a safe haven for the Jew­ish peo­ple dur­ing the Holo­caust has under­scored for me, since a very young age, the need for a secure and demo­c­ra­t­ic Israel. In oth­er words, the Holo­caust is always in the back of my mind as we con­tin­ue to fight for the legit­i­ma­cy of the only state that Jews can call their own. It is the only way we can tru­ly give mean­ing to the words “nev­er again.”

And, in addi­tion to this genet­ic imprint, over time the Holo­caust has even more deeply affect­ed my psy­che. Yes, though my par­ents and grand­par­ents were for­tu­nate to have left Ger­many in the ear­ly 1930s, through research I have learned that we lost more than 40 mem­bers of our fam­i­ly in the Shoah. For me, a mere list of names has not been enough. In recent years, I have been able to gath­er bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion of fam­i­ly mem­ber vic­tims as well as detailed infor­ma­tion as to the cir­cum­stances of their depor­ta­tions to the death camps. This con­tin­u­al search for answers led me to vis­it Auschwitz for the first time in Feb­ru­ary 2017. There, I walked in the foot­steps that fam­i­ly mem­bers had tak­en from the train ramp to the gas cham­bers and had the hon­or, togeth­er with 19 stu­dents from my mother’s home­town Ful­da, to lay memo­r­i­al stones on the foun­da­tions of the cre­ma­to­ri­ums. Sad­ly, the search for answers con­tin­ues as I inves­ti­gate the mur­der of three mem­bers of our fam­i­ly dur­ing the Nazi regime’s euthana­sia pro­gram, known as T4.

Last­ly, the Holo­caust has shaped my pro­fes­sion­al life. For almost thir­ty years as an immi­gra­tion attor­ney I worked to ensure that peo­ple had access to the free­doms that we cher­ish in Amer­i­ca. Lat­er, I became an edu­ca­tor; screen­ing my film to audi­ences around the world, and more recent­ly as a “sec­ond gen­er­a­tion speak­er” on behalf of the Illi­nois Holo­caust Muse­um and Edu­ca­tion Center.

I would take excep­tion to Novick’s claim that the Holo­caust has become the “cen­tral sym­bol of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty.” Even though the author was Jew­ish, his the­sis paints the moti­va­tions of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty with a broad brush. There is mer­it to the old say­ing: “get three Jews into a room and you’ll hear three dif­fer­ent opin­ions.” We are a diverse peo­ple by back­ground, edu­ca­tion, pro­fes­sion, and polit­i­cal belief. Many Amer­i­can Jews trace their ancestor’s entry into this coun­try to the great migra­tions of the 1840s, 1870–1890s, and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. For them the Holo­caust is per­haps more abstract and their Judaism more clear­ly defined by mem­ber­ship in Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions such as the B’nai Brith, coun­try clubs, Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, and syn­a­gogues. On the oth­er hand, the Holo­caust is more cen­tral to those Jews who have a more defined famil­ial link to this tragedy.

That being said, the per­mis­sive­ness of the Trump pres­i­den­cy has giv­en rise to a dra­mat­ic rise in anti-Semit­ic inci­dents in the Unit­ed States. Bomb threats to Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters and schools, ceme­tery des­e­cra­tions, and graf­fi­ti mark­ings on syn­a­gogues have become com­mon­place. These echoes of the 1930s seem to be gal­va­niz­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, though dif­fer­ent sec­tors con­tin­ue to argue/discuss appro­pri­ate respons­es. Novick speaks of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community’s “col­lec­tive vic­tim­iza­tion” as a polit­i­cal goal. I would have tak­en umbrage to that pri­or to these most recent events. Jews are tar­gets for being Jews, and only col­lec­tive­ly can they stand to ensure their com­mu­nal voice is heard by local and nation­al law enforce­ment agencies.

Final­ly, since the pub­li­ca­tion of Novick’s book over 17 years ago there has been an edu­ca­tion­al move­ment which per­haps has “Amer­i­can­ized” the Holo­caust. What I mean is that there is now a far greater aware­ness of the Holo­caust by the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion by virtue of the open­ing of Holo­caust muse­ums and edu­ca­tion cen­ters in many parts of the coun­try, the man­dat­ed teach­ing of the Holo­caust by many states, Con­gress’ man­date of a nation­al obser­vance, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of books and films on the sub­ject. Noth­ing demon­strates more clear­ly Amer­i­cans’ quest for infor­ma­tion on this sub­ject mat­ter than the sta­tis­tic from the U.S. Holo­caust Muse­um: Of its two mil­lion annu­al vis­i­tors, 80 per­cent are non-Jews.

SV: In the ear­ly years after WW II, Holo­caust sur­vivors were main­ly silent about their expe­ri­ence. Today, Holo­caust remem­brance is fos­tered through sur­vivor tes­ti­mo­ny, muse­ums and memo­ri­als around the world, doc­u­men­taries, Hol­ly­wood and inde­pen­dent films, mem­oirs as well as his­to­ry books. Which of these has influ­enced you most as a per­son and a filmmaker?

EB: Read­ing Eli Wiesel’s book Night and vis­its to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holo­caust Muse­um in Jerusalem, served as my emo­tion­al and edu­ca­tion­al foun­da­tion to the Holo­caust. How­ev­er, my first-hand encoun­ters with Holo­caust sur­vivors at the Self­help Home, where I filmed REFUGE, influ­enced me most as a per­son and film­mak­er. I first began to hear sur­vivors’ sto­ries about 20 years ago when I joined my moth­er, a vol­un­teer and then a res­i­dent at Self­help, dur­ing her “Kaf­feeklatsches” with oth­er res­i­dents at the home. It was then that I first heard har­row­ing sto­ries of forced fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion; the hunger, thirst and death in cat­tle cars; the inhu­man­i­ty of the camps, and wit­ness­ing death first-hand. One can read sta­tis­tics, view per­son­al arti­facts and pho­tographs at muse­ums, and attempt to under­stand suf­fer­ing in the pas­sages of a book. But it is not until you sit face-to-face with the last eye­wit­ness­es to the Shoa and hear their trem­bling voic­es, sense their emo­tion­al strain and wit­ness the tears stream­ing down their faces, that the immen­si­ty of hav­ing endured this hor­ror tru­ly becomes reality.


More on Ethan Bensinger and his doc­u­men­tary next week.

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