Rachel Bensinger’s story is not uncommon. She left Germany as Hitler’s dictatorial grip tightened. She moved to what was then Palestine, but her life was unalterably shaped by the Holocaust — she lost 25 members of her family.
These traumas have been enormous, but they’ve not been all-consuming.
“They don’t want it to be the focus of who they are, they don’t want to be marked,” says Hedy Ciocci, the home’s administrator. “They want to be defined by who they became and what life they’ve had.”
Many became doctors, lawyers, artists, businessmen, teachers or nurses. With roots in Berlin, Prague and Vienna, many also had developed a love for the arts that the home sustains today with lectures, Sunday concerts and visits from a movie critic.
“It represents this world that they remember, that they had to leave,” Bensinger says. He describes it with the German word: gemutlichkeit — comfort or coziness.
The home actually started as an association in the mid-1930s when a branch of a New York organization called Selfhelp formed in Chicago. Selfhelp was more than a name; it was a philosophy for refugees who didn’t want to depend on public aid. Instead, they started a support group, collecting meager dues to help each other find jobs or apartments, learn English and navigate daily life.
“The mission was to create a safe oasis where they could start again,” says Ciocci, whose husband’s grandmother was an early member.
Gerry Franks, one of the home’s founders, had come from Berlin. Now 92, he still remembers being 17 years old, watching from his bicycle the hateful frenzy of Kristallnacht as Nazi storm troopers painted small crosses in the corner of windows of Jewish-owned businesses so mobs would know where to attack.
He saw a schoolmate pick up a chair lodged in an already-shattered store window and hurl it into a magnificent chandelier. “I tell you, it broke something within me,” Franks says. “I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing in this country anymore?”’ His family left soon after.