Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939 was not a place to be entered lightly. But American Jews Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus were determined to do it, and leave the country with 50 Jewish children. The pair, an ordinary couple, never intended to become heroes. Though plagued by anti-immigration policies and opposition within the Jewish community itself, their mission was successful, paving the way for some of the families of the children to immigrate as well. Documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” airing on HBO April 8, reveals this untold saga of Holocaust bravery. Jspace caught up with director Steve Pressman to find out more about this incredible story.
Jspace: What is story of your documentary?
Steve Pressman: The film is about a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who traveled into Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939 in order to rescue a group of 50 Jewish children and bring them back to the United States. It is a small, very unknown, Holocaust rescue story that has really never been told before, so it was quite an experience researching the story. My connection to the story is that Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who were the Philadelphia couple who carried out this extraordinary rescue mission, were my wife’s grandparents.
How did you find out about the story?
Eleanor Kraus, fortunately for all of us, some years later sat down and wrote out an account of what she and her husband Gilbert had done in 1939. It was never published, I don’t think it was ever intended to be published, but fortunately she did write it. The manuscript was a just a typewritten sheaf of papers that sat around the house for years.
They didn’t share it with anyone as far as I can tell, they didn’t talk about this story, but she did leave behind this memoir, and my wife showed it to me and I have to admit that the very first time I looked at it, maybe 10 years ago, I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to it. I can’t, all these years later, say why, given how extraordinary this story was. I guess I was just focused on other things and what I was doing professionally as a journalist.
And then much more recently, about three years ago, I went back to that manuscript and really for the first time looked at it in much more detail. This was an incredible story that was hidden in plain sight because this manuscript really did tell the whole story. That’s when I made the decision to turn this story in to a film.
How was it to track down the pieces of this story and find the children that are still alive?
That was a great part of this whole experience. I started a few years ago and all I had in addition to Eleanor’s manuscript was a list of 50 children. The reason I had that list was because folks at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington had already done a bit of the research into this story after they became aware of the manuscript. They discovered that some of the original records for this rescue mission were still on file with the archives of the Vienna Jewish community that went all the way back to the ‘30s.
Long story short, I had 50 names and I was able to find a number of them who were still alive after all these years. I did that the way we all find things these days, I googled people’s names. It was a 21st century solution to a 75-year old problem of how to find people 75 years later.
As you can imagine, that’s not such an easy thing to do particularly with women because women marry and this was a generation of women who for the most part would change their names. A lot of the kids were simply not possible to find, there was just no trace of them. I was never able to completely account for all 50, but fortunately I was able to identify at least half.
That was really an extraordinary part of this project because almost all of them knew nothing about the couple that had saved them. They certainly remembered that they had been rescued, and remembered the broadest outlines of how that had happened. Some of them had vague memories of being brought to see the Krauses and being interviewed by them in 1939, but as you can imagine, all these years later, they didn’t recall the specifics.
It was quite something because I relied on them to talk about their very moving and emotional experiences about leaving Vienna, but in turn, I was able to bring to them some details about the Krauses that they were not aware of. That was stunning for me and it was a very moving experience for all of us.
It sounds like once the children got to the US, they largely didn’t stay in touch with the Krauses or with each other.
That’s right. If this happened today, I joke that there’d be a Facebook page for these kids and they’d all stay in touch and swap pictures. This was a different time; these were kids who fortunately, and somewhat miraculously, were reunited with their parents. I can’t say for sure exactly how many because it’s a little hard to track everyone, but a for a number of these kids, their parents did manage to get their visas and come to the United States. Some kids were not so lucky and had one or both parents wind up as victims of the Holocaust.
But the point is, these children spent that first summer in the summer camp and then they all went to live with other relatives living in the United States or foster families and carried on with their lives.
For the most part, none of them really knew about each other or what had happened to them. That was the other really wonderful, really fulfilling and satisfying thing for me in making the film. Not that they physically met each other, just that through the film itself they were able to find out what had happened to some of them. And I think that was very gratifying to them to know that so many of them wound up leading very productive, wonderful, healthy lives with children and grandchildren and probably great grandchildren.
With so many stories of people stepping up and saving Jews during the Holocaust, what makes this particular story stand out?
I think what makes this a little different is that it’s telling the story of an American couple who really did something that very few people in America did. It was almost impossible to bring children into this country during this period, for a number of reasons, most of which had to do with the immigration laws in this country that were very rigid. The comparison is often made with the Kindertransport to England—10,00 children were allowed into England in 1938 and 1939 from Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia. That compares with only 1,000 children who were allowed in the United States during the entire Holocaust, all through the ‘30s and the ‘40s.
In terms of this film, 50 children is obviously a drop in the bucket but I think the difference here is that this film takes a look at two Americans who really had no business succeeding in what they set out to do. Everything was stacked against them: the US laws, the US government, and policy.
I was particularly surprised when I found out that other Jewish community leaders and organizations were opposed to the Krauses going through with their mission, in part because they were worried about an anti-Semitic backlash given the very prevalent ant-Semitism that existed in this country during that time.
So against all those odds, this Jewish couple goes into Nazi Germany and brings back 50 children. Yes there are lots and lots of great uplifting stories of people who stood up and were rescuers and heroes, but unfortunately not many of them were living in the United States at the time and did what the Krauses did.
I think for that reason, this film adds a new, somewhat unique perspective on the ability of people against all odds to step forward and do the right thing—in this case, save the lives of 50 children.