REFUGE: Stories of the Selfhelp Home, Premieres in Poland and Returns to Germany for Eleven Screenings
Ethan Bensinger, a Selfhelp Board member, and Director of the documentary REFUGE: Stories of the Selfhelp Home, returned to Europe this fall to screen his film. This was the 4th consecutive year that Bensinger has reached out to audiences in Germany, but this year he added Poland to his twenty-five day European tour.
“We were thrilled to have received an invitation from the JCC in Krakow to screen REFUGE,” said Bensinger. “The organizers of the program well understood that the eyewitness testimony related by the residents of the Selfhelp Home would provide a unique educational opportunity to the Polish community. The suffering of the Polish Jews was different; they didn’t have the opportunity to escape Central Europe on the Kindertransport or to seek refuge in Shanghai or in the United States. And, of course Kristallnacht was unique to the German and Austrian pre-war Jewish experience. To many of the audience members, these stories were new.”
His next stop was the Medienzentrum (media center) in Frankfurt, where Bensinger used the film and its accompanying study guide to facilitate a Holocaust training seminar for German high school teachers. Bensinger stated “The teachers found the study guide especially useful because it provides additional contextual resources and also directly links classroom study exercises, such as acting out roles, to the testimony provided in the film.”
While in Frankfurt, Bensinger also had the opportunity to screen REFUGE at the school that his father Ernst had attended prior to the war. “Screening and speaking at the Wöhlerschule was an extremely emotional event for me, somewhat of a closing of the circle. For most of the students this was the first time that they had the opportunity to meet a child of a former student who was forced during the Nazi period to flee Germany.”
Europa-University in Flensburg, a city in Northern Germany near the Danish border, was Bensinger’s next destination. There, at the invitation of Professor Birgit Dawes, Bensinger screened his documentary to students from Germany and several Scandinavian countries. In commenting on the film, Professor Dawes said:
Especially in a time when there is growing anti-Semitism in Germany, it is crucial that we-as German citizens and educators-remind ourselves and our students of the importance of remembering the Holocaust. As Germans, we have a particular national responsibility to hold up that memory, and educate our students accordingly. REFUGE is a crucial and most valuable contribution to that memory.
After several appearances at schools in the Hamburg area, Bensinger travelled to Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. There, utilizing his film and his own family’s experiences during the war, Bensinger spoke on the topic of the “Transmission of Transgenerational Holocaust Memory.”* “ This was my 3rd visit to Lüneburg, a town with a very dark past”, said Bensinger. “It is here that the Nazis “euthanized” hundreds of children during the war. And, in previous years I screened REFUGE in a classroom building that was built by the Germans as an army barracks. Today Lüneburg is trying to come to grips with its past. Standing tall among those former Nazi barracks is a Daniel Liebeskind designed classroom building whose architectural details evoke the images of the Holocaust.”
Bensinger’s last stop on his journey was his mother’s hometown Fulda, where his screening coincided with the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht. “ I was especially moved by the fact that many of the students who had seen the film earlier in the day, took the time to attend the commemoration at the former synagogue that evening. Evidently, something had resonated with them,” said Bensinger.
Bensinger believes that in light of the recent immigration of almost one million refugees, Germany can learn from the origins of Selfhelp, and how a community came together to care for its own. This was reiterated by a student at Leuphana University who said:
It was impressive to see how the lives of the refugees continued upon arrival in the United States. In school we learned about the concentration camps and how the people had to suffer. But we never learned anything about the life of the Jews after they left Germany.
Along with presenting his film in Europe, Bensinger is a second-generation speaker on behalf of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.