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Jan Bruck / hw
November 29, 2012

The transportation of children, Shanghai, Therienstadt: Ethan Besinger wants to tell the personal stories behind these historic terms in a documentary film. His relationship to his own German heritage is ambivalent.

The Bensinger family before their house in Holon, Tel Aviv in 1950
Image: Privat

Ethan Bensinger looks astutely through his rimless glasses and greets a resident at the Selfhelp Home in Chicago with a smile. Most of the residents know him personally. With his brown-green jacket worn over a black T-shirt and his carefully combed hair, he looks a bit like a congressman.

But he has little to do with the discussions concerning standard electricity prices and a public infrastructure bank currently circulating in Chicago. The trained lawyer is an expert on immigration issues and spends most of his time as a professional documentary filmmaker.

Ethan Bensinger at the Selfhelp Home in Chicago
Ethan Bensinger at the Selfhelp Home in ChicagoImage: Ray Whitehouse

Edith Stern is an eyewitness who Ethan Bensinger interviewed for his film "Refuge - Stories of the Selfhelp Home." She's 91 years old, was born in Vienna, and is the only one of her family who survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and, later, Auschwitz. Stern shared her memories of that time with Bensinger. Her comments were very emotional and moving, the director says.

A network for self-help

The documentary film tells the stories of central European Jews who fled from Europe before and during the Holocaust and finally settled in Chicago. They all live in the Selfhelp Home, a retirement home in a quiet residential area north of downtown Chicago.

A group of German Jews founded the organization at the end of the 1930s as a self-help network for Jewish refugees. They collected donations, but also provided English-language courses and helped write job applications.

Over the decades, the establishment gradually became a retirement home for Holocaust survivors. Since its founding over 70 years ago, 1,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic have lived there. Ethan Bensinger's grandmother also found a home there and his mother used to work there on a voluntary basis as a therapist.


Illuminating history

"Even though I'd heard a bit about the Holocaust at home, I learned lots of new things through my regular visits," Bensinger recalls. "I noticed that the history of this group of Jews, at least in the US, hasn't been told in enough detail, like for example, that of the eastern European Jews."

Films like "Schindler's List" or books by Primo Levi garnered a lot of attention. "But in my opinion, there is nothing comparable about German Jews. Maybe with the exception of the 'Diary of Anne Frank.'"

In 2007, this observation prompted Bensinger to start recording his conversations with residents at the home using a video camera. Over the course of a year, Bensinger gathered interviews and created the "Archive of Memories" for the Selfhelp Home.

"It quickly became clear to me that I wouldn't be able to reach a wide audience with these DVDs of interviews." From then on he only had one aim: the production of a documentary film that could also be shown in schools and broadcast on television.

Ethan Bensinger talking to Selfhelp Home resident Edith Stern
Ethan Bensinger in conversation with Edith Stern, a Holocaust survivorImage: Ray Whitehouse

Bensinger, formerly a head of a law firm, had never made a film before. He wasn't sure how much work would be needed for the production and how much it would cost. Nevertheless, he hired a cutter, a producer and a composer. He asked for money from the Jewish community, but in the end he financed the film with $250,000 almost entirely out of his own pocket.

Germany, Palestine, US

Bensinger has a very personal reason for telling the stories of German Jews. His Jewish parents left Germany in 1934; his father came from Frankfurt, his mother from Berlin. They met on a ship heading for Palestine and married a year later in Tel Aviv. The Bensingers ran a successful textile business in Palestine; trade with neighboring Arab countries was their main source of income.

In 1938 their first son, Gad, was born. Ethan was born in 1949. The state of Israel was founded. The German émigrés were named "Jeckes" - a reference to their sartorial preference for formal blazers.

Rachel Bensinger's original Palestinian passport issued in 1939
Rachel Bensinger's original Palestinian passport issued in 1939Image: Privat

In Israel, many German traits of the family remained intact. "I grew up with German as my native language; I only spoke Hebrew with friends in the street," Bensinger recalls. He says that his parents always dressed as if they were still in Germany. Despite the searing heat, his father Ernst would always wear a blazer - a true "Jecke."

The Bensingers' business ran into financial difficulties when trade with Arab neighbors became problematic after the founding of the Israeli state and the ensuing battles. So in 1954, Ernst Bensinger decided that the family would move to the United States.

"I found the move extremely tough, from my house with a garden in Tel Aviv to a dingy apartment in New York. I remember crying the whole time," Bensinger says.

Grundig radio and Rosenthal cutlery

The family lived in Washington Heights, New York, one family of the 20,000 German Jews in the district that earned the name "Frankfurt on the Hudson" among locals.

"After a container of furniture arrived from Israel, the apartment looked just how the apartments in Frankfurt and Berlin had. We even had a Grundig radio and the table was laid with Rosenthal cutlery."

Ernst Bensinger tried to continue his business in New York without success. But in 1962, he got a job offer from a giftware wholesale trader in Chicago. The family made the move west. Ernst Bensinger died six years later at the age of 60; Ethan was just 19 years old.

Rachel and Ernst Bensinger in Washington Heights, New York, in 1958
Rachel and Ernst Bensinger in Washington Heights, New York, in 1958Image: Privat

From then on, the youngest Bensinger son quickly had to become self-sufficient. He attended high school and studied law at the Illinois Institute of Technology. During his career, he specialized - not coincidentally - in immigration issues.

His German language skills also came in useful. He worked for major German companies like Siemens and T-Mobile, and founded his own law firm in 1978. After 25 years as a manager of 50 employees, Bensinger retired in 2003.

What is German?

Today, Ethan Bensinger has an ambivalent relationship to Germany. "To a certain extent, I see myself as German-Jewish. But that doesn't mean that I feel connected to the country as such today. I enjoy what is German about me, the language, the habits. But do I have the desire to visit Germany as a tourist, just to spend time there, independent from our family history? I have to say no. I can't really explain this contradiction, even to myself."

Nevertheless, Ethan Bensinger has often traveled to Germany, even together with both of his daughters Jennifer and Karen, 31 and 34 years respectively. Both of them explain that although they grew up with German culture - including heavy German cuisine and daily phrases like Schlaf gut ("sleep well") - they do not identify themselves as German Jews.

"I think it is a natural process," Jennifer says. "If we were to move to another country, our grandchildren probably wouldn't call themselves Americans."

Her sister adds that she still finds it important to travel to Germany. "When I was 16, we traveled with my maternal grandfather to Mainz, where he lived before the Holocaust. That really made an impression on me. I think it's important to see what people in Germany are like now. That's the only way of overcoming prejudices."

Ethan Bensinger with his daughters Jennifer (left) and Karen (right) and his mother Rachel
Ethan Bensinger with his daughters Jennifer (left) and Karen (right) and his mother RachelImage: Ray Whitehouse

'In for a penny, in for a pound'

For the two young women, the Selfhelp Home is like a second home. From a young age, they both visited their great-grandmother there. Now their 100-year-old grandmother, Rachel, also lives at the home where she once helped on a voluntary basis. The family regularly visits the home on Fridays to celebrate the Sabbath.

Ethan Bensinger has shown his film in numerous schools and synagogues across Chicago. Film festivals in all parts of the US and Europe have also added the film to their programs. PBS, the public broadcasting television network in the US, will also screen the film.

It is an enormous success story for the small production that Bensinger funded practically alone. "In German there is a saying: Wenn schon denn schon! (In for a penny, in for a pound)," he says, and laughs. "I could have patched together an amateur film with my video camera. But that was not my intention. I wanted to make a first-class film, from which audiences could learn about the moving fates of my friends."

But before the film goes to the next festival in Florida or London, Ethan Bensinger will travel with his daughters to Israel for 10 days. A trip to Frankfurt, his father's home city, is also on the agenda this year.

Above all, the Bensingers, whose family history began in Bodersweier close to Baden-Baden, and continued in so many other parts of the world with American, Israeli and German citizenship, want to learn as much as possible about their own history.