Chuck Olin, filmmaker of Jewish subjects, dies at 68

When copies of “In Our Own Hands: The Hidden Story of the Jewish Brigade in World War II,” were offered for sale after a screening at the 1998 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, they sold out immediately.

The documentary was “a wonderful film that was made at the right time for a festival audience to understand the importance of the connection between European refugees and the founding of the Jewish state,” said Janis Plotkin, the film festival’s director at the time. “Too few films do that.”

The film’s director, Chuck Olin of Chicago and Stinson Beach, died at 68 on Thursday, Jan. 20, of a rare blood disease called amyloidosis.

Olin was born in 1937 and grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He graduated from Harvard in 1959 and joined the family business, making premium ice cream. After Olin helped then-unknown director Philip Kaufman make a movie, he decided to make a career change.

First he became a producer, and then he founded his own company, Chuck Olin Associates, working mostly on documentary films.

Many of his films had Jewish subjects, including “Is Jerusalem Burning? Myth, Memory and the Battle of Latrun,” which examined the battles over Latrun in the 1948 War of Independence, and how misconceptions over what happened there affected the future of the state of Israel.

In “Gift,” Olin worked with Marc Chagall to create a film about a mosaic that the artist made for the city of Chicago. And in the Emmy award-winning “Palette of Glass,” Olin also collaborated with Chagall to capture the artist’s work on a stained glass project that he did for the Art Institute of Chicago.

But in Jewish circles, Olin was perhaps best known for the film about the Jewish Brigade, which was screened at Jewish film festivals throughout the country. The film featured interviews with members of a group of Jews who trained in pre-state Israel and fought the German army. In his director’s statement, Olin said that he was proud to have brought this story to life.

“What we thought would be a typical war story became, in their words, a film less about fighting, more about humanity. A statement of Jewish identity. Of creativity and imagination. Of chutzpah and daring. In the end, a very personal story at a fateful time in history, one having much to do with the survival of a people.”

He continued, “What I’m most grateful for, and proud of, is that we managed to save this little-known chapter in Jewish history at the last possible moment, when it could still be told by those who lived it.”

Olin, who with his wife, Nancy, purchased a home in Stinson Beach six years ago, split time between California and Chicago. He most recently was working on a documentary about the efforts to save the Bolinas Lagoon.

In addition to his wife, Olin is survived by son Christopher of San Francisco; stepson Peter Bensinger Jr. of Chicago; brother Richard Olin of Long Boat Key, Fla.; and five grandchildren.

Donations can be made to “Facing History and Ourselves,” 200 E. Randolph St., Suite 2100, Chicago, IL, 60601, or to the Stinson Beach Fire Department, Stinson Beach, CA 94970.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."