A four-month mitzvah saving 50 children

Posted: April 04, 2013

When it comes to his memories as an 8-year-old in 1938, Kurt Herman can recall every detail: how his school friends in Vienna shunned him within days after Hitler annexed Austria; how his father hid at the top of a closet when Nazis searched their apartment; and how a Philadelphia couple eventually rescued him and 49 other children in what would be the largest single kindertransport to the United States.

But even Herman, now 83, was surprised to learn some of the details of the Krauses' daring exploit that emerge from a new documentary being telecast Monday on HBO.

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus is a tale of a tenacious Philadelphia lawyer, Gilbert Kraus, outmaneuvering a tightfisted U.S. State Department to find visas that did not exist; telegrams across the ocean from a husband anxious for his wife's help; a 34-year-old mother, Eleanor Kraus, leaving behind her two children, ages 9 and 13, to take the next ship to Europe; the emotional process of screening hundreds of children whose parents are desperate to send them to safety; and, just as the children are nearing freedom, a frightening encounter with Germany's and Italy's top military leaders.

"I remember she was a gorgeous woman with red fingernail polish," said Herman, who lives in Willow Grove and has long told his story to local schoolchildren. "We were fascinated by the polish - we'd never seen red before. But I didn't know all the things they had to go through."

The film, narrated by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer and documenting the risks taken by this Fitler Square couple on the eve of World War II, is the result of serendipity. In 2001 a San Francisco journalist marries the Krauses' granddaughter, and is stunned three years ago when he reads the 170-page memoir that Eleanor wrote years after bringing the children to Philadelphia in 1939.

"It's important to know that Gil and Eleanor rarely talked about this with anyone, including their family," said Steven Pressman. "My wife knew that they had saved some children. Finally I sat down and read the manuscript that told this incredible story hidden away for years and years."

Pressman, having written, directed, and produced the film (the original version, screened at last year's Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, was called To Save a Life), still calls Eleanor "an enigma to me. The paradox is that here's this woman who liked shopping and who painted her nails and yet went to Nazi Germany. She was scared, but she threw herself into the project."

Liz Perle, Pressman's wife, says that in her family, "I can't tell you what a big deal this wasn't."

Perle, who is editor in chief and cofounder of Common Sense Media, said she learned more from her grandmother about the "rules of gloves, stockings, and slipcovers" than about the most extraordinary four months of her life.

"I never saw her do charitable work subsequently. But , she didn't waver."

The idea for the mission grew out of Brith Sholom, a national Jewish service organization launched in Philadelphia in 1905. Gilbert's father, Solomon Kraus, had been an early member, and before his death in 1928 had served as its grand master. A decade later, Gilbert, too, was involved.

In early January 1939, the grand master Louis Levine, a New York real estate entrepreneur, traveled to Philadelphia to meet with Gilbert at his law office in the Bankers Security Building at 1315 Walnut St. He pitched the idea of rescuing 50 children, a challenge that played to Gilbert's sense of justice, and also to his doggedness.

"He was a stubborn son of a gun with a contrarian streak," Pressman said. "He felt passionate about the issue, but it was essentially part of his character - whether the U.S. government or other Jewish organizations were not keen on the project, his response was, 'No one's going to tell me what I can and cannot do.' "

A major hurdle was finding visas for the children when there were none. Gilbert came up with the idea of using "dead-number" visas for the children - visas that had been awarded but not used because the recipient had died, been arrested, or gone elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Eleanor was leaning on her social network to sign affidavits to host the children, should they ever get out.

"She had to go to her fancy society friends and ask for money, which you didn't do," said Perle. "But it was the right thing to do and her husband wanted her to do it. It was incredibly selfless in a woman you wouldn't think of as selfless."

Brith Sholom, which now runs the retirement home Brith Sholom House in Wynnefield, also raised tens of thousands of dollars through bowling, sporting events, and poker nights, said Joel P. Rosenberg, its national president.

In early April 1939, Gilbert Kraus set sail for Europe, where the enormity of the task hit him. He wired Eleanor to join him and Philadelphia pediatrician Robert Schless in their effort to select 25 boys and 25 girls out of the hundreds being offered by frantic Jewish Viennese parents. The Krauses and Schless attempted to pick children who could withstand the separation from their parents, or, as Eleanor wrote, were "healthy in mind and body."

For Eleanor, who titled her manuscript "Don't Wave Goodbye," the scene at the Vienna train station on May 22 was heartrending. There, parents were told they could not wave goodbye. The gesture could be construed as the Nazi salute, for which Jews could be arrested.

The group then traveled to Berlin to clear the last hurdle, finalizing the children's American visas. As the kids are ensconced in a dormitory, the Krauses face a chilling moment in their hotel elevator as they encounter high-ranking Italian and German military leaders who have just signed the Pact of Steel, formally giving birth to the Axis powers.

Ultimately, about 1,000 to 1,200 children would come to the United States on kindertransports. Pressman, who tracked down about half of those rescued by the Krauses, said most went on to lead "fairly normal lives - college, marriage, children, grandchildren." Among them, he added, was the late Peter Linhard, who became a colorful professional pool player in Philadelphia.

Herman, one of nine children featured in the new film, went on to become chief financial officer of several companies and organizations, including Sylvan Pools and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He, like some others, was eventually reunited with his family.

Herman's mother escaped the Nazis in early 1940 - the only person to get off a waiting list for the last boat the Germans let out of Genoa, Italy, to New York. Just before the invasion of France, Herman's father also escaped.

His grandparents perished in concentration camps.

Perle looks back in wonder at the exploit of her grandparents - Gilbert died in 1975, Eleanor in 1989.

"Only now do we realize the anti-Semitism of the State Department and the fear in the Jewish community that if they spoke up, fewer Jews would be allowed in.

"I can't imagine in this day and age that we could step up and do this."


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

9 p.m. Monday on HBO

Dorothy Brown is a former editor at The Inquirer. She blogs at www.UnRetiring.blogspot.com.

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