Thursday, August 21, 2014

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus

This HBO Documentary presents the incredible story of a young American Jewish couple who traveled to the heart of Nazi Germany in 1939 to save fifty Jewish children from certain death.

 Using interviews from the Kraus's granddaughter and some of the children (now elderly adults) rescued or the children of  those saved, this documentary weaves a narrative that tells how the Kraus's came to save these children from certain death.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus had a comfortable life in America, with a family of two young children, nine year old Ellen and eleven year old Stephen. Like many people around the world, they had watched the rise of Hitler and the growth of antisemitism in Germany and Austria.

Although American newspapers were filled with articles about the loss of basic civil rights German Jews  were experiencing. the United States government remained indifferent. It was nearly impossible to bring refugees, even children into America at this time.

Gilbert Kraus was a forty-two year old business lawyer who was determined to save at least some Jewish children from the clutches of the Reich. Raised as a secular Jew, Gilbert and his wife, Eleanor, sent their two children to a Quaker school in Philadelphia. Liz Perle, a granddaughter of the Kraus's, says they do not understand the motive behind their actions, but they are still proud of what they did.

Gilbert told his wife of his intentions and then set out to find a legal way to bring the children to the U.S. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt was popular with the Jewish American population, he knew that a large influx of Jewish immigrants would not be popular with the American people. According to Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandes University, saving Jews was not popular with Roosevelt.

Gilbert met with George Messersmith, the Under Secretary of State and told him that they were prepared to go to Nazi Germany to rescue the children of Jews. The United States had a quota system for refugees and Messersmith told Gilbert that the number of people who had applied for asylum from Germany and Austria would fill the quota for the next five years.

As conditions worsened in Austria and Germany, approximately 10,000 Jewish children were sent to England in what came to be known as the Kindertransport.

Originally Germany was ambivalent about Jews leaving the country - after all that is what they wanted - to rid themselves of their Jewish population. But that attitude was gradually disappearing and it was becoming increasingly difficult to leave Germany.

Meanwhile, when Gilbert compared the lists of Jews applying for asylum and those actually being granted it, the numbers did not match. In fact, he discovered that the quotas were not being filled as people either did not use their visas due to illness, lack of money or the decision to travel to Palestine. Could these unused visas be used for Jewish children?

Gilbert approached Messersmith about this idea and while he did not say yes he also did not say no. In March of 1939, Eleanor began preparing affidavits from people who would sponsor the Jewish children and six weeks later she had fifty four affidavits.

This period of time in America was difficult because there was much antisemitism in the country. There were over one hundred organizations in the U.S. that openly promoted antisemitism including Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin whose talks often focused on the evils of usury. Because of popular resistance to Jewish immigrants, even the Jewish community in America did not support the Krauses mission to bring Jewish children to America. They feared a public backlash and a rise in antisemitism.

The documentary interviewed Marsha Rozenblit, Professor of Modern Jewish History, University of Maryland. Rozenblit states that at this time no one in Germany or Austria believed that the Nazi's would outright kill the Jews. Many people thought that eventually this would pass.As we now know, it did not.

In April of 1939, the Krauses prepared to travel to Germany to see if they could get fifty Jewish children out of Austria. War seemed imminent. Eleanor was advised against traveling with Gilbert who needed someone to help him. In the end, they decided to ask their children's pediatrician, Dr. Robert Schless to accompany Gilbert. Schless would give each child a physical examination and help determine those children best suited to be assigned visas.

When Gilbert was in Vienna, he decided that he needed Eleanor to be there and she met him in Paris. They then took the Orient Express to Vienna where they met Schless. Using a list that the Nazi's obtained of all the Jews in Vienna, the Krauses began interviewing boys and girls who might be suitable to emigrate to the United States. Social and financial backgrounds were not considered. However complications with the affidavits arose, as the American consulate did not know about the plan to use the unused visas. In May, 1939 Gilbert went to the American embassy in Berlin to meet with Mr. Raymond Geist. Berlin was filled with Nazi stormtroopers. Geist would try to set aside fifty visas for the children. In addition to the visas, each child had to obtain a German passport from the Nazi government. The time when the German government was agreeable to allowing Jews to leave Germany was quickly passing. In the end, the Gestapo gave them the fifty passports.

The children and their families arrived at the Vienna train station. The faces of the fathers reflected their deep sadness, while the mothers remained hopeful. The parents were warned not to wave to their children as Jews were forbidden to give the Nazi salute and a wave misinterpreted as a salute could get them arrested.

The children traveled by train to Berlin to get their visas and then spent ten days on the USS President Harding, arriving in New York on June 3, 1939.

Since almost all Jewish children sent to Nazi concentration camps were exterminated, the pictures of some of the children the Krauses saved take on a special poignancy when we see them as elderly adults, knowing they likely would not have survived had it not been for Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. In fact, as the documentary relates, one of the children originally chosen, Heinrich Steinburger, fell ill just before the Krauses and the children left Vienna. He was too sick to travel and remained behind, his place taken by the brother of another child already chosen. Heinrich Steinburger perished three years later at Sobibor, an extermination camp in Poland.

The Krauses went back to their life in America and rarely spoke of what they did. The story became public when journalist Steven Pressman learned about it from his wife, Liz Perle, granddaughter of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. Perle had in her possession an unpublished manuscript written by Eleanor detailing their efforts to save the children.

Pressman began his research in 2010 and was able to collect a great amount of information from the families of the rescued children as well as never before seen film footage. 50 Children is narrated by Alan Alda and actress Mamie Gummer who voices Eleanor Kraus. The HBO documentary was aired on April 8, 2014, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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