By Peter L. Rothholz/JNS.org
Journalist Steven Pressman first learned of the 50 children rescued by Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus in 2002 from his wife Liz Perle, the Krauses’ granddaughter, who had possession of a formerly hidden and unpublished manuscript written by Eleanor decades earlier.
That manuscript spelled out in detail the Krauses’ mission to rescue Jewish children shortly before the outbreak of World War II, launching Pressman on an extensive quest for more information that took him to Europe and to archives in Jerusalem and Washington, DC.
A first-time filmmaker, Pressman started collecting footage in 2010 and is now set to reveal the Krauses’ story in his documentary, “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which will debut this Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 8, on HBO.
When the President Harding ship of the United States Line arrived in New York from Hamburg on June 3, 1939, among her passengers was a group of 50 unaccompanied Jewish children from Vienna, rescued from Hitler’s persecution of the Jews by the Krauses, a remarkable couple from Philadelphia.
News of pogroms against the Jews of Germany and Austria became ever-more alarming after Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, and Gilbert Kraus felt it was necessary to do whatever he could to help bring them to safety. But American immigration laws at the time were highly restrictive, and quota limitations meant that waiting times for a U.S. visa were as long as five years. While the American Jewish community did make tepid efforts to ease these restrictions, they were not successful. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the U.S. at the time, and even many Jews did not want the immigration laws to be eased.
Gilbert Kraus (then 42 and a successful lawyer) and his wife were unwilling to stand idly by. Armed by the example of Britain, which admitted 10,000 Jewish children, they hoped to work within existing U.S. immigration laws to improve the situation. To strengthen their position, the Krauses first secured the support of the members of B’rith Shalom, a Philadelphia Jewish fraternal organization to which their family belonged, and obtained assurances of affidavits of support for a modest group of just 50 children.
Kraus was eventually referred by the U.S. State Department to the American Embassy in Berlin, where he made a personal appeal. In spite of the obvious risks faced by a Jew traveling to Nazi Germany, he left for Berlin in the spring of 1939 to meet with the Jewish leadership there and to plead with the American Charge d’Affaires, Raymond Geist. Using his lawyerly skills, Kraus argued that some U.S. visas already issued had not actually been used; some recipients went elsewhere, while others had died or were unable to travel. This line of reasoning convinced Geist, who agreed to re-issue 50 of the unused visas in favor of the “Kraus children.”
Advised by the Berlin Jewish leadership that the need was greater in Austria, Kraus immediately left for Vienna. He sent for his wife (who had to leave their two children, ages 9 and 13, behind) and also asked his friend, Dr. Robert Schless, a Philadelphia pediatrician, to join him there. In Vienna, the Jewish community invited Jewish parents to bring their children to be selected for possible immigration to America. Dr. Schless then examined each of the children assembled, and selected the top 50 that were both physically healthy and emotionally stable enough to withstand the journey as well as the stress of separation from their parents and their home.
Narrated by Alan Alda and the actress Mamie Gummer (as the voice of Eleanor Kraus), Steven Pressman’s gripping film weaves together never-before-seen archival footage as well as photographs and keepsakes of the rescued children, nine of whom share some of their experiences in the film.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the rescue is the quick and seemingly easy adjustment the children made to their new home. All of them spent several weeks in a guest house on the property of Camp B’rith Shalom in Collegeville, Pa., after which—according to Henny Wenkart, one of the 50 children—most were reunited with their parents or other family members and “scattered.”
Now 84 and a Harvard Ph.D., Wenkart recalls a night when she and her friends watched the young male and female counselors in the neighboring recreation hall “throwing one another around.” The children were not surprised—“after all, we were told America is a violent country,” Wenkart says.
It was only later that they learned the counselors were jitterbugging. Similarly, Erwin Tepper, then 7 and now a retired radiologist, remembers being served a dessert of sliced bananas and jello. Not having ever seen or tasted jello, he was convinced it was a preservative which had to be scraped off before eating!
“50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus” was written, directed and produced by Steven Pressman; Editor, Ken Schneider; Directors of Photography, David Sperling and Andrew Black; Original Musical Score, Marco D’Ambrosio; Narrator, Alan Alda; Voice of Eleanor Kraus, Mamie Gummer. It will air on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 8, on HBO, and is presented in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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