The Museum of



The Screening Room
Stories of the Selfhelp Home


In the late 1930s, following the ferocious anti-Jewish violence of Kristallnacht, a determined group of young German Jews left behind everything that was dear and familiar and immigrated to Chicago. Here, these refugees set out to create a supportive community for themselves and others fleeing Nazi persecution, eventually establishing the Selfhelp Home for the oldest among them.

REFUGE is a one-hour documentary that reaches back more than seventy years to give a voice to its last generation of victims of Nazi persecution and tell the story of this singular community that has provided a safe haven to more than one thousand Central European Jewish refugees and survivors. REFUGE weaves together historical narrative, archival footage and deeply personal testimony to explore the lives of six Chicagoans against the context of the Nazi cataclysm and how a small group of them came together to care for their own. The film illuminates the lost world of Central European Jewry prior to World War II--middle class, educated, cultured--and the remarkable courage, resilience and character of its final generation at Selfhelp.

In their own words, these refugees and survivors, now in their late eighties and above, speak vividly of loss of family and of place, of separations, and of decisions that meant the difference between life and death. They describe the myriad paths to survival: fleing to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, hiding in the French countryside, being taken in by English families as part of the Kindertransport, and as slave laborers in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. And of those, who perished—husbands, parents, siblings, children. Yet, theirs are also stories of renewal, of finding love and creating new families, and of starting again in a new land.

The film moves back and forth between these stories and examines how the trajectories of their lives came together at the end at Selfhelp. And it reaches into the near future, when the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, those who have animated Selfhelp and given it its unique mission and meaning, will be gone.

About the film's director, Ethan Bensinger:

In 2007 Ethan Bensinger created for the Selfhelp Home an archive of personal interviews with thirty residents who had been victims of Nazi persecution. Today, this archive can be found at Selfhelp, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and online, courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.

That project inspired Ethan to film a one hour documentary that highlights the diverse experiences of six of those Selfhelp residents and three of the home’s founders, before, during, and after WWII.

Ethan’s parents and grandparents were forced to flee the Nazi regime in the 1930s for a new life in Palestine. Ethan was born after the State of Israel was founded and then moved with his family to America in 1955. His family’s experience led Ethan to his chosen profession as an immigration lawyer, and for twenty-five years, Ethan served as the Managing Director of the Chicago office of a global immigration law firm. Since his retirement from law, Ethan has been involved in volunteer and philanthropic endeavors. He has also taken his interest in history and archaeology to write his blog, Sightseeing In Israel, a virtual tour of some of the most interesting “off the beaten track” sites to explore when traveling to Israel. With his film REFUGE, Ethan has turned his love of gathering historical narratives into a new career in filmmaking.

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