Ethan Bensinger: born 1949 in Israel,
lives in Chicago
Ernst Bensinger, born 23.3.1908 in Frankfurt,
died 1968 in Chicago
Address in Frankfurt:
Westendstraße 89, Bettinastraße 50
School in Frankfurt: Wöhlerschule (1914-1920) and Merton-Schule
Hermann Bensinger, born 1874 in Bodersweier in Baden, dies 1952 in Israel
Ida Bensinger, née Hergershausen, born 1886 in Mainz, died in Chicago
Business: Draper’s Shop Bensinger & Co in Kaiserstraße 56 (until 1925), Kaiserstraße 71,
1933: Grandparents emigrate to Palestine, their son Ernst Bensinger followed 1934
Fanny (Rachel) Bensinger, née Kamm, born 16.7.1912 in Fulda, died 2014
1934: Emigration to Palestine, her parents followed in 1938
1954: Family Bensinger moves to the USA,
first to New York, later to Chicago
The Hessian State Archive, Wiesbaden
Information and photographs by Ethan Bensinger
“Flucht, Zuflucht und ein Film”, by the Deutsche Welle
Research and Text:
By Angelika Rieber
Refuge – that is the title of Ethan Bensinger’s film about the Selfhelp Home in Chicago. Originally, Selfhelp started as self-help organization for German immigrants in the mid-1930s. Today it is a retirement home. Ethan Bensinger’s mother, a former volunteer in the organization, lived there until her passing at the age of 102 in 2014.
In 2007 Ethan Bensinger started to create an archive collecting the biographies of the home’s residents. They form the basis for his documentary: Refuge – Stories of the Selfhelp Home.
Bensinger & Co in Kaiserstraße
Ethan Bensinger’s family originates from Frankfurt. His grandfather Hermann came to Frankfurt from Bodersweier in Baden in 1899 and started a flourishing family business: the “Manufakturwaren- und Textilhandel Bensinger & Co” (selling manufactured goods and textiles) with branches in Berlin, London and Danzig. His brother’s widow, Ida Bensinger, née Regensburger, and their son Fritz, who lived in Berlin during the 1920s, co-owned the company with him. The premises in Frankfurt were first located in Kaiserstraße 56 until 1925, then in Kaiserstraße 71 and finally in Moselstraße 27.
Ethan Bensinger’s grandmother, Ida Hergershausen, originates from Mainz. Hermann and Ida married in 1907. One year later the couple’s only son, Ernst, was born.
At first, Ernst attended the nearby Wöhlerschule, which was located in Lessingstraße in Frankfurt at the time. Later, he went to the Mertonschule, an upper commercial school. Afterwards, Ernst did an apprenticeship in the Seidenhaus Eduard Schott, went as trainee to the USA, attended business classes and thereby prepared to assume the management of the company at some point. Ernst’s task was to gain sales experience in Europe, to improve his language skills and to establish new contacts. Hence, he was not just travelling through Germany but also through Belgium, the Netherlands, England and Switzerland. Every now and again he returned to Frankfurt, where he lived in Bettinastraße after his parents had moved to Berlin. In 1929, Ernst’s father, Hermann Bensinger, moved their home and the company’s headquarters to Berlin.
From the leafy streets of Berlin to the sand of Palestine
After the national socialists came into power, the Bensingers very soon realized that they didn’t have a future in Germany. Already in 1933, Hermann and Ida Bensinger left their former home country. In 1934 Ernst Bensinger also decided to immigrate to Palestine. He travelled over Poland and Romania to Konstanza and from there on the steamship “Pologna” to Jaffa.
On this ship he met his future wife, Fanny Kamm, who originated from Fulda. They married one year later. Life in Palestine was on the one hand fascinating and exciting for them, on the other hand everything felt unfamiliar. „From the leafy streets of Berlin to the sand of Palestine“, that was what Ethan wrote as commentary on a picture showing his grandmother in the middle of a development area near Tel Aviv.
The couple Rachel, as Fanny called herself now, and Ernst Bensinger had two sons: Gad who was born in 1938 and Ethan who was born in 1949.
In 1938 Rachel’s parents, Willy and Thekla Kamm, also decided to follow their daughter to Palestine. Aunt Ida Bensinger, co-owner of the family’s company, was able to flee from Germany as well. She lived in Paris in 1938. In order to receive her relocation goods, she had to sign several declarations until her belongings were finally released by the customs investigation office.
Ethan Bensinger’s closest relations, his grandparents, survived because of their immigration to Palestine. Fritz Bensinger was also able to flee to Canada. Several relatives such as the great uncle Max, however, were not able to flee. Max Bensinger, was arrested in November 1938 and was interned for six weeks in the Dachau concentration camp. He was deported from Frankfurt to Theresienstadt in September, 1942 and killed in Auschwitz in January 1943.
At first, business was going well in Palestine. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, however, trade with the Arab neighbors collapsed. The family therefore decided to move to the USA after Hermann Bensinger had died in 1952. The Bensingers first lived in New York. Ethan’s mother was not happy about this decision. She missed the house with a garden near Tel Aviv and now had to live with her family in a dark apartment in the American metropolis. The district in which the Bensingers lived was Washington Heights, which at the time was dominated by German-Jewish immigrants. It was also called „Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson“, since a lot of inhabitants came from Frankfurt. Ethan therefore grew up in an environment in which the German culture and language played an important role. He spoke German with his parents and grandmother and the apartment most likely looked similar to the ones they had before in Frankfurt and Berlin with the antique furniture, Grundig radio and the Rosenthal-dinnerware.
In 1962 the family moved again, this time to Chicago. Ernst Bensinger died there six years later at the age of only 60 years.
Ethan was 19 years old at the time. He studied law, became a successful lawyer, head of a law firm and an expert on questions regarding immigration. His German language skills helped him with his professional work. And the Selfhelp Home became a homey place for him. His grandmother and later his mother, who formerly had volunteered there, moved to the home.
Ethan Bensinger thereby came to speak to the home’s residents. He listened to their stories and wrote them down. He became aware of the fact that the culture of memory within the USA mostly reflected the perspective of Eastern European Jews. Most of the home’s residents, however, originated from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Their histories did not start with the Wehrmacht’s attack on Poland and the Soviet Union, but with their gradual discrimination and exclusion from society since 1933.
Therefore, his movie takes a look at the experiences of these people and tells their story. Ethan Bensinger worked on that film for five years and has been screened in schools, churches, synagogues and cultural centers since then. The documentary has also been shown at European film festivals.
Now, Ethan Bensinger is happy to be able also to show his movie in Frankfurt, at the Wöhlerschule, the high school that his father formerly attended, as well as at the Emma and Henry-Budge-Stiftung, a retirement home, which aims at enabling Christian and Jewish people to grow old with dignity.
Ethan is not in Germany for the first time. Repeatedly, he has felt pulled towards the country in order to find out more about his family history, to show his movie and to be able to speak to pupils in his parent’s former hometown. His two daughters also accompanied their grandmother to one of her visits to Germany. Ethan Bensinger feels connected to Germany, his parent’s country of origin, to the German language und to the cultural habits but he cannot imagine only traveling to Germany as a tourist.