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.