When much of the world closed its eyes to the terrors of Nazi Germany, one American couple risked everything to save Jewish children from an unimaginable fate.
50 CHILDREN: THE RESCUE MISSION OF MR. AND MRS. KRAUS tells the dramatic, previously untold story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who followed their conscience, traveling to Nazi-controlled Vienna in spring 1939 to save a group of children. Amidst the impending horrors of the Holocaust, they put themselves in harm’s way to bring what would become the single largest-known group of children allowed into the U.S. during that time.
Several years before he began filming in 2010, first-time filmmaker Steven Pressman received Eleanor Kraus’ unpublished memoir from his wife, Liz Perle, who was the Krauses’ granddaughter. Written decades earlier, the manuscript spelled out in rich detail the Krauses’ amazing mission.
50 CHILDREN: THE RESCUE MISSION OF MR. AND MRS. KRAUS weaves together excerpts from Eleanor’s journals, archival footage of Vienna and Berlin under Hitler’s rule and rare photographs of the children who would be rescued. In addition to interviews with Holocaust historians, including Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Krauses’ granddaughter, much of this bittersweet tale is told by some of the surviving children, who are now in their 70s and 80s. They include:
Kurt Admon, currently residing in Netanya, Israel
Paul Beller, currently residing in Morris Township, NJ
Robert Braun, currently residing in Fairfield, Ct.
Elizabeth Davis, currently residing in Melbourne, Fla.
Kurt Herman, currently residing in Philadelphia
Klara Lee, currently residing in Atherton, Cal.
Helga Milberg, deceased, who lived in Tucson
Fritzi Nozik, currently residing in Melbourne, Fla.
Henny Wenkart, currently residing in New York City
In January 1939, Gilbert Kraus, a Jewish lawyer from Philadelphia, told his wife Eleanor that he’d been contemplating going into Nazi Germany to bring Jewish children back to the U.S. “‘This is really crazy,’ I told Gil,” wrote Eleanor in her journal. “‘No one in his right mind would go into Germany right now.’”
Many Americans were already aware of the increasing brutality of the Nazis, but few were willing to do anything about it. America also had rigid immigration laws that made it all but impossible to bring large numbers of Jewish refugees into the country, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to support a bill in Congress that would have allowed thousands of children into the country. The Krauses also faced resistance from Jewish leaders who feared their rescue mission might lead to more anti-Semitism in the U.S.
Determined to try, Gilbert met in Washington, D.C. with Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith, explaining that Brith Sholom, a Jewish fraternal organization, had recently built a home outside Philadelphia that had 50 beds for use by children. Meanwhile, the Krauses needed 50 affidavits from American families willing to assume responsibility for them. Eleanor took on this challenge, collecting affidavits from friends and acquaintances while ignoring those who worried about rocking the boat.
In Vienna, the Nazis had tightened their grip after folding Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. Helga Milberg, who was rescued by the Krauses, remembers her father’s disbelief that such a thing could happen in Vienna, where “people are too intelligent.” But when Hitler rode into town, he was cheered by throngs of Austrians, and swastika flags were proudly flown everywhere. Jewish children were soon banned from attending school or playing in public parks. The Nazis began to carry out a policy known as “judenrein” – the removal of every Jew living in Austria. The problem was where they would go. As Henny Wenkart, one of the rescued children recalls, “Everybody could get out. Nobody would let us in. Everyone could have been saved.”
After Gilbert arrived in Vienna, followed shortly by his wife, his mission was made known within the city’s Jewish community, and hundreds of families clamored for the chance to send their children to the safety of America. The selection process involved interviews with the Krauses and Dr. Robert Schless, their German-speaking pediatrician, who had crossed the Atlantic with Gilbert. The 50 children were chosen on the basis of physical and mental health; social and financial status were not factors.
The American consulate in Vienna, however, had no remaining visas, so the Krauses took a train to Berlin in a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. embassy there. Though Gilbert arranged for 50 visas to be set aside, each child’s passport had to be issued by Nazi authorities. Along with the affidavits obtained by Eleanor, Gilbert himself had agreed to be personally responsible for the children, an act that even now brings tears to the eyes of Robert Braun, one of the rescued children who lived with the Krauses as a young boy.
Back in Vienna, following a nerve-racking encounter with the Gestapo, the Krauses finally secured 50 passports. On the rainy night of May 21, 1939, parents brought their children to the Vienna train station without knowing if they would ever see them again.
The parents could not even wave goodbye as the train pulled away, because Jews could be arrested for any gesture that might be mistaken for a “Heil Hitler” salute.
The Krauses and their charges returned to Berlin, where the children received their visas from the American embassy. They continued on to Hamburg and boarded the S.S. President Harding for the ten-day voyage to America. After arriving in New York on June 3, 1939, the 50 children spent the summer at the Brith Sholom home outside of Philadelphia before moving in with relatives or foster families.
Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus quietly resumed their lives, rarely discussing what they had accomplished.
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Steven Pressman, director of the '50 Children' documentary, is now the author of a book available from Harper: 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany. Order the book here for a deeper portrait of this incredible rescue mission, based on extensive research, interviews conducted with nearly a dozen of the surviving children and members of the friends and family, as well as Eleanor Kraus’s unpublished memoir.
50 CHILDREN: THE RESCUE MISSION OF MR. AND MRS. KRAUS is a presentation of HBO Documentary Films in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; written, directed and produced by Steven Pressman; editor, Ken Schneider; original score by Marco D’Ambrosio; directors of photography, David Sperling and Andrew Black. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.