If it were 2014 they’d be CNN heroes: Holocaust film at Festival spotlights an otherwise ordinary couple

by | Dec 23, 2014 | What’s Happening

Sunday, Jan. 18, 2 pm, TCC Roper Performing Arts Center

In their comfortable home in Philadelphia, attorney Gilbert Kraus and his wife Eleanor were far removed from Hitler’s tightening of control over Europe in 1939.

Yet this young couple brought 50 children to live permanently in the United States on the eve of the Holocaust, when restrictive immigration policies made it all but impossible for more than a handful to find freedom here.

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, this year’s Holocaust movie at the Simon Family JCC’s annual Virginia Festival of Jewish Film, presented by Alma* and Howard Laderberg, tells a dramatic story for the first time. Its creator and director, Steven Pressman, will be at the screening to lead a discussion after this HBO award-nominated film. Elena Baum, director of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Holocaust Commission, will introduce Pressman.

Narrated by actor Alan Alda, 50 Children is punctuated by numbers—600: the number of parents of Jewish Viennese children who applied to the Krauses, and 50: the number of spots available, 25 for girls, 25 for boys.

Pressman, learned of this rescue mission from his wife, whose grandmother was the young Eleanor Kraus. Before she died, Kraus typed her memoir—a history about this life altering experience.

As a busy investigative reporter, Pressman sat on this remarkable story and didn’t immerse himself in it until several years ago, when he could devote more time to making it into a full documentary. He has also written a book of the same name.

The Kraus’ were secular Jews who sent their children to a Quaker school, and unlikely candidates for the mission they assigned themselves. But Gil Kraus felt compelled to do something for these children and persuaded his wife to travel with him to bring some to America.

“They had to make the decision that they were going to do something terribly dangerous, maybe risking leaving their (own) children behind as orphans if something went wrong,” says Pressman’s wife Liz Perle, of her grandparents.

“People ask me how two Jews from the United States could march right into Vienna,” says Pressman. “It’s not that kind of story. At the end of the day, Gil and Eleanor did everything above board, and the Nazis were happy to have the Jews leave in large numbers.”

The challenge, and what turns into an equally important story, was how to get the children into the U. S. when the climate was less than amenable. Most Americans—including President Franklin Roosevelt—opposed a bill in Congress to increase immigration quotas for thousands of Jewish children living under Nazi rule. “Even some Jewish American leaders, fearful of a backlash and of escalating anti-Semitism, tried to dissuade the couple from their mission,” Pressman says.

The 50 children turned out to be the biggest unaccompanied group of minors allowed into the U.S. during the Holocaust. A total of about 1,000 were ultimately let in. “Compared with the 10,000 kinder transport to England, it’s a sort of depressing figure,” says Pressman. “On the other hand, 50 lives are 50 lives.”

An investigative journalist, Pressman tracked down the surviving rescued children, now in their 70s and 80s. He worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and archives in Israel to find footage and photos of them, and of rarely shown street scenes from Nazi Germany and Austria.

Nine appear in the film, though Pressman believes about two dozen may still be alive.

The children safe, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus resumed their lives in the 1940s, and rarely spoke of what they had done. True heroes, they would be worthy of a CNN Hero of the Year award if the rescue had taken place in 2014.

* of blessed memory