According to Bay Area journalist Steven Pressman, his wife's grandparents, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, never seemed like heroes. "They didn't talk about it," he says. "They just lived their lives." But in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the two pulled off a daring rescue mission that saved 50 Jewish children in Vienna by spiriting them to the United States. The story of the rescue was largely forgotten until Liz Perle, one of the couple's granddaughters, received an unpublished manuscript that her grandmother had written. Now it's the subject of a documentary that will premiere on HBO tonight, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. In addition to Pressman and Perle, much of the film's crew are Bay Area natives.
"When I first looked at [the manuscript]," Pressman says, "I thought it couldn't possibly be true, that these two Philadelphia Jews would be traipsing around Nazi Germany saving children. But when I dug into it, it turns out it really did happen the way that Eleanor said it did." Gilbert Kraus, a lawyer, discovered a quirk in the United States immigration law. Even though the US maintained strict quotas, it sometimes happened that it issued visas to immigrants who ended up not using them. Kraus was able to snap up those unused slots and repurpose them to bring Jewish children, 50 in all, to the United States.
"Word spread like wildfire through the Jewish community in Vienna," says Pressman. "It fell to Gilbert and Eleanor, along with a pediatrician they brought with them, to select the children. But it was hardly an exact science." The Krauses also had to secure the cooperation of the Nazi Party, which had recently merged Austria into Germany.
The children came to the United States by ship, and landed in New York harbor on the same day that the Cuban government turned away the SS St. Louis, which was filled with hundreds more European refugees. From New York, the children either joined family members already living in the United States or were adopted into foster families.
What drove the couple to assume such a risk to their own lives to save strangers? Pressman admits it's a difficult question. "They were very secular Jews," he says. "They were probably good Roosevelt Democrats, but I don't know that much about their politics. They were both born here in the United States." So what drove them to do it? "Gilbert wanted to do something that nobody else could accomplish. He was very stubborn—in a good sense. Eleanor is more of an enigma. She was very prim and proper lady who observed the rules of social decorum for the 1930s. She was afraid. But she went ahead and did it."
50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus debuts on HBO on April 8. It is narrated by Alan Alda and features Mamie Gummer reading from the memoir of Mrs. Kraus.