|Gilbert and Eleanore Kraus, unlikely heroes, were able to sail home from Germany with 50 Jewish children who otherwise would have been unlikely to survive the war.|
Liz Perle was 19 when her grandfather died and 33 when her grandmother passed away.
Although Perle had a basic knowledge of what the Philadelphia couple had done just before World War II, it was not until decades later that she read her grandmother’s unpublished memoir closely and discovered that her grandparents were heroes.
“Gilbert and Eleanore Kraus simply did not talk about this at all once they resumed their lives,” said Perle’s husband, Steven Pressman, director of the documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus” to be shown on HBO on April 8. “It was not their style to do that.”
Although the Krauses’ two children knew their parents had helped rescue Jewish children from the Holocaust, it was left to the grandchildren to share the story with the public.
The Krauses were a middle-class couple with connections to the State Department, and when they learned that European Jewish families were desperate to come to the United States, in 1939 they left their children and comfortable home to travel into Nazi-controlled Austria to rescue 50 children. Through interviews with some of the rescued children and archival photographs and documents, the documentary tells the incredible story of the Krauses and their relentless effort to bring endangered Jewish children to the United States.
Narrated by Alan Alda, with Mamie Gummer reading from Eleanore’s memoir, the film often feels like a fictional adventure, as do so many Holocaust stories. Some things went the Krauses’ way and many things didn’t, but they did not falter in their quest to help. “Once he made his mind up, he was a very determined man,” Perle said about Gilbert Kraus. A painter, composer, and photographer, in addition to being a lawyer, Kraus had wrestled and played football as well as done a lot of traveling. “He was a strong man with strong opinions,” Perle said of her grandfather. Her grandmother Eleanore was much less daring, Perle recalled. “They weren’t fancy people. She liked a nice hat. She loved good clothes,” Perle said, and when it looked as if Gilbert was going alone, “my grandmother was so relieved. She was terrified.” But when her husband wrote asking her to join him in Europe immediately, Eleanore arranged for relatives to care for her children and left.
One of the major obstacles the Krauses faced was widespread American anti-Semitism. Doing his research, Pressman was astonished at the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the United States in the 1930s. He came across many public opinion polls (“That’s when scientific public opinion polling took off in this country,” Pressman said) that asked for opinions about Jews. “The results were stunning and scary,” Pressman said. The overwhelming majority of Americans were against bringing in Jewish refugees. So were 25 percent of American Jews. Jewish leaders in Philadelphia came to Kraus and asked him not to continue his efforts, but Gilbert was a very headstrong man. He refused to stop.
The children needed visas, which were almost impossible to get, and finally they required passports that had to be issued by the Nazi authorities. The film points out that before the war broke out Jews could leave Europe freely; they just could not find anyplace to go. One astonishing piece of luck was that a Jewish fraternal organization had just built a home outside Philadelphia that had 50 beds set aside for kids, so there was a place for the children to live.
A print journalist for 30 years, Pressman always thought about making a film about his in-laws. “I knew I had a really good story to tell.” Working on it for about two years, he first tracked down the rescued children, many of whom had photographs and vivid memories. He continued his research at the U.S. Holocaust Museum (which helped with the production of the film) and archives in Vienna and Jerusalem. Pressman found copies of the questionnaires families had filled out in Vienna. “I did what a good journalist does,” he said.
As a first-time filmmaker, “I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have this shown on HBO,” Pressman said. “It’s the premier platform for documentaries.” He also is working on a book to be published by Harper Collins.