Chuck Olin, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who achieved acclaim in the late 1990s for his film chronicling the little-known story of an all-Jewish fighting unit during World War II, has died. He was 68.
Olin died Jan. 20 in Stinson Beach, northwest of San Francisco, of complications related to a rare disease, amyloidosis.
During his nearly 40-year documentary and corporate filmmaking career, Olin won a local Emmy for “Palette of Glass,” a 1977 film documenting artist Marc Chagall’s creation of “The America Windows,” a stained glass tribute in honor of the country’s bicentennial, for the Art Institute of Chicago.
But his best-known film may be “In Our Own Hands: The Hidden Story of the Jewish Brigade in World War II,” a 1998 documentary that offered a rare look at the British army unit made up of men from what was then Palestine. It was the only all-Jewish fighting force in the war.
Deemed a “thorough, well-researched documentary” by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “In Our Own Hands” featured on-camera reminiscences of eight veterans of the Jewish Brigade, which was formed in late 1944 and had about 5,000 members.
One veteran, speaking on-camera of his anger toward the Nazis, which fueled his desire to join the unit, said that he had “to go there and kill as many Germans” as he could.
After the war, former Jewish Brigade members formed clandestine hit squads to find and assassinate Nazi officers and collaborators who were in hiding. “Perhaps it’s not a nice word, but that’s what we were, executioners,” one Jewish Brigade member said in the film.
Members also established an underground railway that moved refugees across Europe toward Palestine, and they amassed weapons for use in a potential war of independence.
“What I’m most grateful for, and proud of,” Olin later said of the film, “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.”
A Chicago native, Olin received a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard College but returned home after graduating in 1959 to join the family business, Goldenrod Ice Cream.
He went on to create a hand-packed premium brand called Vala’s Ice Cream, which became known in Illinois for the phrase “world’s most expensive ice cream” and its prize-winning packaging: black, with gold trim and orange and magenta stripes. But he left the ice cream business after elder family members resisted his efforts to develop the brand nationwide.
He launched his film career in Chicago in the late 1960s as a member of the Film Group, which produced award-winning films that chronicled the era’s social turmoil -- films such as those on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Black Panther Movement and the death of Panther leader Fred Hampton.
Of filming Chicago policemen clubbing demonstrators in Grant Park during the Democratic convention, Olin later told the Chicago Sun-Times: “That really was a politicizing moment for me.”
In 1974, he founded his own production company, Chuck Olin Associates, to make documentary and corporate films.
“Almost all of his films were related to human rights and social justice issues,” Olin’s brother, Richard, told The Times on Thursday. “He had a tendency to see something that had to be communicated and frequently sort of set the profit motive aside and said: ‘This is worth doing.’ ”
Among Olin’s films is “Out of the Silence: The Fight for Human Rights,” which was shot in Czechoslovakia and Guatemala in the late 1980s and early ‘90s and chronicled the evolution of the modern human rights movement around the world. Olin later raised funds to translate and donate copies of the film to more than 200 human rights groups worldwide.
“Laced through my career has been an interest in the underrepresented,” he told the Baltimore Jewish Times in 1996. “Being highly educated, I like doing films about people who are unlike me.”
A resident of Stinson Beach for the last six years, he most recently was working on “Requiem for a Blue Lagoon,” a film about efforts to save nearby Bolinas Lagoon.
In addition to his brother, Olin is survived by his second wife, Nancy; his son, Christopher; a stepson, Peter Bensinger Jr.; and five grandchildren.