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‘Golden individuals’ share stories of the Holocaust

Ethan Bensinger

Ethan Bensinger

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‘Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home’

10:30 a.m. Dec. 19

Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Ave., Highland Park

Admission is free.

(847) 432-0216 or visit

Updated: December 14, 2012 3:40PM

Ethan Bensinger is an immigration attorney, not a filmmaker.

But after getting to know the Holocaust survivors in Chicago’s Selfhelp Home, where his 100-year-old mother is a resident, he decided to try his hand at directing a documentary.

Bensinger personally funded the project, hiring a professional cinematographer, editor and composer, and spent the past four years working on “REFUGE: Stories of the Selfhelp Home,” which he will present the morning of Dec. 19 in the Highland Park Library. The film has already been picked up by PBS and Germany’s international broadcast service Deutsche Welle.

“I thought I knew a lot about the Holocaust,” said Bensinger, who was born in Israel after his parents escaped Nazi persecution in Germany before immigrating to America in 1950. “But listening to them made me realize they knew it as it could be known by those who have lived through it.”

Part of Bensinger’s film is devoted to the history of Selfhelp of Chicago, a refugee service created after Kristallnacht, a nationwide property-destroying pogrom in Germany organized by the Nazis. The group built the Selfhelp home, 12 years later. It has since provided shelter for more than 1,000 survivors of the Holocaust.

Only a dozen survivors remain there, all in their 90s or older. Bensinger selected six to provide the real subject of the film: personal histories that illuminate some of the key elements of the history of the Holocaust in Central Europe, as opposed to the more familiar history of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

The stories of sisters Marietta Ryba and Edith Stern, for example, shed light on the Kindertransport progam that rescued nearly 10,000 Jewish children in the months before the start of World War II. Marietta was young enough to qualify. Edith was not. As a result, she and the rest of their family were consigned to concentration camps in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

Horst Abraham was able to escape to Shanghai with its large colony of refugees. He could only secure three entry passes, however, which meant his parents escaped but his sister remained in Germany — where she was murdered in Auschwitz. Paula Tritsch, now 102, survived after being hidden by a French family in much the same way that Anne Frank and her family were sheltered.

As important as he believes their stories to be, Bensinger thinks it’s equally important to document the quality of their survival — their spirit and resilience.

“It was their character that first attracted me,” he said. “The courage and strength they have shown in light of the adversities they have faced. I have seen other Holocaust survivors to be traumatized to the point were they are unable to speak about their experiences, even to their families, some of them so withdrawn that they can’t enjoy life.

“The people who tell their stories in this film have not been traumatized by their experiences. Despite what they had to go through, they really grab on to what life has to offer. I found them to be treasures. These are golden individuals.”

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