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From Lawyer to Chronicler of Jewish History

Ethan Bensinger is a take-charge kind of guy. When he sees a need, he figures out how to take care of it. And while visiting relatives over the years at a Chicago home for Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, the retired immigration lawyer decided that the residents' stories of struggle and resilience needed to be recorded for posterity.

He did just that. He bought a video camera and recorded the remembrances of 30 people for the home's archives.

But Bensinger didn't stop there. The riveting stories he captured led him to a new career as a filmmaker. He directed the award-winning documentary Refuge: Stories of the Selfhelp Home.

Bensinger and mother
Ethan Bensinger with his mother, Rachel Bensinger

Voices have been missing from accounts given by the last eyewitnesses of the mass murder of more than 6 million Jews under the Nazi regime in the 1940s, says Bensinger, 64, the son of Jewish refugees from Germany.

"Here in America we best know the stories of the eastern European Jews," which were the focus of big-screen hits such as Schindler's List and The Pianist. But the story of central European Jews who fled to places like Shanghai, France and England is a "really different narrative," he says.

It's the narrative of the residents of the home Bensinger visits in Chicago, the Selfhelp Home. It was set up in 1950 as a haven for aging Jews from central Europe, particularly Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Refuge focuses on three founders of the home, now in their 90s, who came to the United States in the 1940s. It also weaves in interviews with residents of the home, academics and historians about events that led to the Holocaust.

Since its release last year, Refuge has been screened at 25 film festivals here and abroad as well as at schools, libraries and synagogues. It also aired on the PBS affiliate in Chicago.

Bensinger, who continues to travel widely to promote the documentary, finds the response overwhelming. But he still makes time to volunteer as an advocate for a ward of the juvenile court system in Chicago and to maintain his blog, Sightseeing in Israel.

And he still has strong ties to the Selfhelp Home: He often visits his 101-year-old mother, Rachel, there.

Photo: Ray Whitehouse


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