In the late 1930s – with the violence and destruction of Kristallnacht foreshadowing the devastation of European Jewry – a determined group of German-Jewish refugees left behind well-established lives and most of their possessions and immigrated to Chicago. Here, these newcomers set out to create a supportive community for themselves and others fleeing Nazi persecution, eventually establishing the Selfhelp Home. Over time, Selfhelp has brought together over 1,000 Central European elderly refugees and Holocaust survivors under one roof. REFUGE: STORIES OF THE SELFHELP HOME is a one-hour documentary that reaches back more than 75 years to tell the stories of this last generation.
Through revealing interviews with Selfhelp’s residents and founders, and expert commentary from historians, REFUGE examines the range of experiences before, during and after World War II, and how Chicago’s newly arrived German Jews came together as a community to create a singular place those fleeing Nazi persecution could call home.
Prior to Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Selfhelp’s founders and future residents shared similar beginnings as middle class German, Austrian and Czech Jews who enjoyed good jobs and vibrant cultural and social lives. But as legal restrictions and anti-Semitic hostility rapidly increased, the future of these Jews became uncertain.
Those who didn’t or couldn’t leave before the onset of the war found themselves trapped by the Nazi regime. The film features the deeply personal stories of these eventual residents of Selfhelp, who spent the war years surviving by any means necessary – fleeing to the Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, hiding in the French countryside, taken in by English families as part of the Kindertransport, or as prisoners in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Vividly, they speak of separations, of deportations, of selections and of decisions that meant the difference between life and death.
Other Central European Jews, like Selfhelp’s founders, were able to obtain coveted affidavits of support and exit visas and made their way to the safety of the United States. In Chicago they worked hard to help each other – offering English classes, working multiple jobs, taking other émigrés into their homes and donating what little money and possessions they could spare to help those even less fortunate. Eventually, these efforts became focused on creating a home for elderly refugees and Holocaust survivors – a particularly vulnerable part of the community.
The film moves back and forth seamlessly between these stories and examines how the trajectories of residents and founders diverged during the war and came together again around Selfhelp.