Survivor Stories

New book explores 50 children rescued from Nazis by US Jews

A conversation with the filmmaker/author digs into WWII-era immigration policy, perceptions of FDR and current European anti-Semitism

The Krauses and children aboard the SS President Harding (courtesy)
The Krauses and children aboard the SS President Harding (courtesy)

NEW YORK — Just when you thought you’ve heard every stripe of survivor’s story, here comes another.

Steven Pressman is a journalist, author and, now, a documentary filmmaker. His hour-long feature “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” debuted on HBO last year. A follow-up book has just been released by HarperCollins.

“50 Children” tells the remarkable story of two Philadelphia-area Jews who, at the dawn of World War II, went to extraordinary lengths fighting red tape on both sides of the Atlantic to try and save lives. (The documentary is currently available to those with access to an HBO Go password.)

The film details the hurdles Mr. and Mrs. Kraus went through to secure visas for Viennese children whose parents recognized there would be no future in the land of their birth. The obstacles the couple faced came from some surprising places. It is not recommended to watch this documentary near any easily flippable tables; the facts of this film are frustrating.

I spoke with Pressman after viewing his film. Our conversation quickly veered from the standard chat between an interviewer and a guy trying to sell his newest book, to one of larger themes. That will happen when you have a knowledgable and impassioned individual on the other end of the line. Below is an abridged transcript of our discussion.

You’re a journalist and, as is your job, you’re out there looking for good stories. How did you find out about this one? I’d never heard it before. And it seems like a story I would have heard. Where was it hiding?

This was a story that was, at least for me personally, hiding in plain sight. I happen to be married to one of the grandchildren of Gil and Eleanor Kraus. Like everything else in life, it’s about who you know!

The film itself never makes that connection, but my wife is the woman talking about her grandparents. I made a decision not to draw the connection between she and I. This isn’t a film about me discovering a story or me discovering a family connection. It’s just telling their story.

But, the behind the scenes is this: My wife and I met in San Francisco 14 years ago, summer of 2000. We got married about 15 months later. Not long after we met, Liz told me, almost in passing, that her grandparents had done this thing 70-some-odd years ago. She also had a copy of this manuscript that her grandmother, Eleanor Kraus, had written. It spelled out this whole story in considerable detail.

While Liz always knew what her grandparents had done, and other members of her family knew generally what happened, nobody had ever really talked about it. This is going to sound weird — it was never considered much of a big deal within the family.

It doesn’t speak too well of my journalistic instincts to say that the profound nature of what they had done did not hit me at the time. But about four and a half years ago that I finally went back to that manuscript and fully realized the enormity of this.

Had there been any writing about it?

There were a couple of things, but very little. For instance, the day after the children arrived in this country with the Krauses, aboard the USS President Harding, there was a story in the New York Times. It was about an eight-paragraph story announcing the arrival of 50 children from Vienna. Gil Kraus is mentioned in the story, but he’s quoted only saying “I don’t want to talk about this; we don’t want any publicity.” Boom, end of story.

At some point that first summer when the kids were here — they spent that first summer at a Brith Sholom-sponsored summer camp outside Philadelphia – there was a light feature about the kids in one of the New York papers.

And then nothing for the next several decades.

Do you think some of his hesitance to speak, and Gil’s shunning publicity, was because there was so much pushback during the process? You mention in the film that many members of the Jewish community were hesitant to help — that it was making waves. So maybe this was his way of not rocking the boat? Or was it that he was a humble man and didn’t want to talk about it?

I think both. I know for sure that there was hesitancy to publicize this. There was a great fear of backlash arising from the anti-Semitism in this country at the time.

When I was researching this story — I have to admit that I had my eyes opened. Anyone who’s Jewish knows that anti-Semitism has been around, in this country if not elsewhere, forever. But I was unaware of the pervasive and rampant anti-Semitism in 1930s America. Gil was aware of that, and I think he and others who were part of it realized that publicity both before and after was not going to be a good thing, because of how much widespread public opposition there was to allowing larger numbers of Jewish refugees into this country.

Also, for the sake of the kids — leave them alone? Let them become anonymous?

Oh, I think so. I think he definitely made the decision to let these children resume their lives as normally as possible.

Steven Pressman (Courtesy: Liz Perle.)
Steven Pressman (Courtesy: Liz Perle.)

Was there ever an attempt to go for round two, to save more children, or did they always know this was a one-shot deal?

There was a decision that once this had succeeded the Brith Sholom organization was going to try to replicate it, and it never happened, for the simple reason that the war broke out. And once the war broke out, things like the Kindertransport, the bigger operation in England, and smaller efforts like this one, just came to a halt. The avenues that Gil and the Kindertransport folks had in terms of just dealing openly with the Gestapo about getting the kids out, that came to an end once the war started.

There’s a line in the film where one of the survivors says, “At the beginning you could get out; the question was no one was letting us in.” The policy was Judenrein — get rid of the Jews, it had yet to turn to extermination camps. So, let’s be blunt about it: In 1939, part of the blame lies, to a certain extent, on the United States and their refusal to let in more refugees?

‘When I first decided to turn this story into a film, I always knew that more than anything else, this was an American story. Both good and bad’

Absolutely. When I first decided to turn this story into a film, I always knew that more than anything else, this was an American story. Both good and bad. You had these individuals who were determined to do something when others around them weren’t doing it, and they succeed on this small scale. Bad in the sense that this story really does not hold the United States in a very positive light.

I always thought that what’s significant about this story, and hopefully what makes this story a little different from so many other Holocaust rescue stories, is that it fully addresses the incredible obstacles that were on this side of the Atlantic Ocean — not on the other side.

But this was that policy of Judenrein where the Nazis wanted every Jew to leave. Let’s not forget that wanting every Jew to leave meant leaving all possessions and wealth behind.

No one’s making claims that the Nazi government was in any way sane or fair about this, it’s just that there was a way to save these Jews. Is why it would have been more difficult to get the parents out, because they had assets?

In this particular case, I know that folks like Gil Kraus were interested in focusing on children. They obviously knew that adults were equally in need of getting out, but I think they just felt that given the obstacles regarding immigration in this country, it was going to make it essentially impossible for them to try to bring adults in, and they thought, at least initially, that perhaps it would be easier to overcome those immigration rules in order to bring the children. As it turns out, Gil still had to come up with this creative way to get the visas for the children. So, even children were not easily allowed into this country.

That’s the most heartbreaking part of this movie, is the kids — now they’re senior citizens — reflecting on the last moments they saw their families. That wasn’t the case for all 50 of them, some adults were able to get out in time, but for many of them, that was the case. And their parents knew; they knew what they were doing. These were people with a lot of foresight, but perhaps they had friends and neighbors and loved ones that said “You’re crazy; how could you do this to your kids? You’re abandoning them, and throwing them across the seas.”

Not only friends and others — among the 50 children themselves, there were parents — one of the two parents, in two or three cases that I know of, a couple are referred to in the film where one parent would say, “I can’t do this; I can’t send my child away.” And the other parent would say, “We’re going to do this, because we’re going to die here.”

And you’re right; again, this is before the death camps, but bear in mind this is all happening only a few months after Kristallnacht. And all of these families, all of these children and their families had lived through Kristallnacht in Vienna. They saw synagogues go up in flames. They saw thousands of men sent off to Dachau. Whether or not anyone could have foreseen Auschwitz, they certainly knew at that point that there was no turning back.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus (Courtesy: PerlePress Productions.)
Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus (Courtesy: PerlePress Productions.)

You have a book out that’s a book version of this film, basically?

I made the film, and I had all this research, and I had so much detail about this. Of course, 98 percent of that doesn’t make it into an hour-long film. And so once the film was done, I was able to sit down and essentially write the fuller story with all the backstory, explaining who the Krauses were. A lot of people have come up to me who have now read the book as well as seen the film, and they said, “At first, I was a little reluctant to read the book, because I’d seen the film, and I sort of knew the story.” But their sense is that the book is very, very different because, in addition to there being so much more, there’s such a broader sort of historical context that I was able to convey in the book, that I simply wasn’t able to address in the film.

And certainly able to discuss the children more individually.

The children, their families. And getting to the American focus of this story, really drilling deeply into what was happening in Washington, D.C., in Congress, at the State Department, within the Roosevelt White House. Immigration policies. All that kind of stuff that is, again, just alluded to in the film but with considerably more detail and context in the book.

As you’ve been traveling around in this country, telling this story, to those who have a very rosy picture of the Roosevelt administration, this may come as a bit of a rude awakening about certain aspects of his policy. Have you encountered any sort of reluctance to accept what you’re saying, or people who get very defensive about FDR? Are people trying to rationalize his decisions for you?

’70-some-odd years later, there is still, particularly within the Jewish community, a real sort of conundrum — almost a conflict — about attitudes toward Franklin Roosevelt’

All of the above. 70-some-odd years later, there is still, particularly within the Jewish community, a real sort of conundrum — almost a conflict — about attitudes toward Franklin Roosevelt. The film makes the point, too.

Older Jews still revere Franklin Roosevelt. He was a hero to Jews. Until you start getting into the detail. There is this kind of revisionist take on Roosevelt all these years later, and lots of historians have written about this. A couple months ago a scholar named Richard Breitman wrote a book called “FDR and the Jews,” which also revisits this debate about Roosevelt and his relationship specifically to the Holocaust. So, I knew that I was venturing into controversial waters with my references to Roosevelt.

But instead of people coming up to me and challenging me on Roosevelt, I think a lot of them have felt almost vindicated. A lot of folks thanked me, because for so many years most Jews thought FDR was this great hero. Turns out he wasn’t, at least when it came to this specific aspect. He’s still a very controversial figure in terms of what he did do and didn’t do. At any kind of public screening, there’s always an FDR question.

The things that come to my mind are “never bombed the tracks on the way to Auschwitz.” That’s kind of the biggie. But then also, hey, “The New Deal.” That was pretty good.

That was a pretty good thing. And his ultimate objective always was to win the war, once we were in it, was to win the war.

If you take a macro and very dispassionate view of history, a “Game of Thrones”-style view, which is an extremely unethical way to look at life, but nevertheless — if you do it that way, you could argue that he specifically curtailed immigration because he knew in the long run it would help his efforts to bring the country into the war. Is there any credence to that idea?

Oh, absolutely. There’s no question that FDR was not going to sell America on a war to save Jews. No one could rationally argue, from B’nai B’rith to ADL, there is no way that FDR was going to sway public opinion to get into a war to save Jews. He was smart enough to know that. His Jewish advisors were smart enough to know that. And that goes a long way toward explaining, even at this earlier stage when my film takes place, why he wasn’t going to be an advocate for allowing more Jewish refugees into this country. Sadly, at this time when hundreds of thousands of more lives could have been saved.

'50 Children,' by Steven Pressman (Courtesy: author)
’50 Children,’ by Steven Pressman (Courtesy: author)

Why would not allowing immigration curtail his efforts?

Very simple: the American public was so supportive of these rigid immigration quotas — that, by the way, predated Nazi Germany. That’s a whole other debate about why we’ve always been so anti-immigrant in this country. And we definitely were, coming out of World War I and all through the 1920s.

FDR knows that. FDR knows that 95 percent of the American public wants to keep these rigid quotas, and in fact, want to do away with immigration altogether. As early as 1938-39 he knows that, ultimately, there’s going to be a war in Europe, and ultimately, America’s going to be fighting Hitler or supporting England. He also knows that he can’t buck public opinion, and so if he signs legislation that allows 10,000 Jewish children into this country, he’s not going to be able to divorce that action from these public attitudes about immigration. And he’s going to be seen, for better or worse, right or wrong, as the guy who’s trying to save Jews and bring more Jews into this country, and that’s not going to fly in this country.

I guess… I guess that’s my answer.

You can’t really fudge that issue. You can fault him; you could say, “How could he have done that?”

Hypothetically, let’s say it was easier to bring in immigration — at least for children. How do you think history would have been different? Would it have affected the way the war played out anyway, or would it have just been more saved lives?

It would have saved a bunch of lives. I don’t think it would have affected the war one way or the other. Let’s not give Hitler any credit at all. We’re dealing with a megalomaniac who, as early as — before this story takes place, had his grand plan in place. And probably, almost certainly including the annihilation of European Jewry.

All you have to do is go back and read “Mein Kampf,” and listen to other things that he was saying well before this story takes place, what he had in mind for European Jewry. The Nazis were good propagandists, and they looked at the refusal of the United States and other countries, by the way, the refusal to let Jews in — as a way for the Nazis to say, “Look. It’s not our problem. Nobody wants Jews!”

They used that as a twisted justification for Auschwitz. But they would have done that anyway. So, no. I don’t think letting in 10,000 or 20,000 Jewish children in 1939 would have changed anything except it would have saved a lot of lives. Quite honestly, shame on the United States, when they knew what was happening in Europe, that they still closed the doors.

Unfortunately we are in a situation where anti-Semitism is undeniably on the rise in Europe. Recent stories out of France have gone past, in my opinion, 15-year-old rebellious kids being obnoxious hooligans, it is a real problem.

It’s institutionalized. And unfortunately, it’s not just France. I actually think it’s more alarming in a country like Hungary, with the Jobbik Party. I’m not going to sit here and sound so alarmist to say that we’re looking at another Holocaust, because I don’t think we are, but it is still ugly and disturbing when you look at the kind of ultra-nationalism, anti-immigrant, anti-outsider-ism that we see reflected in the far-right party. Le Pen in France, Jobbik in Hungary — it’s rampant throughout Europe. And those things do have echoes of the 1930s. Absolutely.

As someone who’s studying this, is the bulk of this “real” anti-Semitism? Or is it people, like this comedian in France, Dieudonné, who some argue has his roots as a prankster, who is just trying to piss people off? Just to needle people? Is it just a sort of anti-establishment ploy? Is it sort of a punk-rock aesthetic? Or is it old-school, blood libel, “if we had an opportunity to do it, we’d kill the Jews in a heartbeat”?

‘That’s not pranksterism. That’s good old-fashioned anti-Semitism’

It’s a hard question to answer, but I look at some of these things, at some of the rhetoric, and I think this goes beyond dark humor, and I think it is anti-Semitism. I think when you have a guy who comes up with a variation on the Sieg Heil salute, he’s smart enough to know what he’s doing. And I think those who mimic him — I’m not going to credit them with the word “smart” because I don’t think they’re particularly smart, but I think they know exactly what they’re doing. And no, we’ve seen other incidents within the last few years of arson at synagogues, of swastikas painted on grave stones. That’s not pranksterism. That’s good old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

Do you think it maybe gets a little bit of a pass in the U.S. and in Europe because today, in 2014, Jews, at least in the West, are not regularly in an “at-risk” position? They’re not being, by and large, bullied in the streets, so people just said, “Eh, the Jews can handle it”? Is that part of the thinking?

I think it’s easy for folks in a safe country like the United States. I can’t speak for what it would be like to be Jewish in France right now, because that’s not my experience. My experience is being a Jew and having been raised as a Jew in this country. Look, the fact of the matter is, yes, there’s anti-Semitism in this country. But we’re not seeing the rise of that kind of ugly far-right anti-Semitism — every once in a while, you see a little bit of it. But not at all on the scale that we’re now seeing in Europe. So I think there is some safety here in the United States, and you’re probably right that that safety allows some of us here to say, “Oh, this is a passing phase in Europe.” But I don’t know. It alarms me.

It is alarming. I was recently in France and I met with a woman who was wearing a Chai charm, and I was talking to her about that, and she said, “Yeah, you know, I wear this out to bars, and it’s just a magnet for abuse.” It’s like, guys who want to pick her up — she happened to be very beautiful…

That’s also a magnet for abuse.

Yeah, she’s dealing with a double-whammy. So guys try to pick her up and they’re obnoxious to her to begin with. And then they see the Chai charm, which, you know, her grandmother gave to her and she survived pogroms and is very special to her, and it’s like every guy is just like, “Oh, so you’re a Jew. How is it running the banks?” It’s just an accepted joke in that culture right now.

That hasn’t gone away. Listen, a little over a month ago, I was in Vienna to show my film. It was a reception that was hosted by the U.S. embassy in Vienna. There were about a hundred people there, and a mixture of American expats and some Viennese folks. There was a guy there from the Austrian Foreign Ministry. And it was astounding to me, because we’re showing this film and you see a fair amount of archival news footage that shows Vienna in that period, in the 1930s. There were audible gasps among some of the audience members during those scenes, not because of what was being portrayed in the film, but because they recognized streets and buildings that look exactly the same today as they did in the 1930s.

‘Austria still sort of always considered itself Hitler’s first victim. And to a certain extent, I think that mindset is still there among the Austrians’

It was real for them in a way that wouldn’t have been the reaction of people watching the film here. And it struck me that we’re talking about something that, in historical terms, didn’t happen very long ago.

Obviously, there are some people very much still alive who were firsthand witnesses to that. This is in the context of our discussion about anti-Semitism. The rap for all these years about Austria is that until quite recently, Austria still sort of always considered itself Hitler’s first victim. And to a certain extent, I think that mindset is still there among the Austrians. Slowly, they’ve been a little more frank in acknowledging their complicity, their participation, and their warm embrace of Adolf Hitler, which I depict in the film.

The way you described the Anschluss in your film, you basically said a shot was never fired. I forgot how you phrase it exactly, but it was an easy occupation.

A million people came out to welcome Adolf Hitler.

However, specifically in Austria, the sense of false victimhood is fading. But it’s obviously still there. Ten years ago, it was still kind of the official party line in a sense.

I think it’s still, unfortunately, easy to be very anti-Semitic in Europe, with this kind of patina of legitimacy around it. That’s what scares me.

‘It’s still, unfortunately, easy to be very anti-Semitic in Europe, with this kind of patina of legitimacy around it’

There is 5,000 years of anti-Semitism. That has never gone away. These days, some of Israel’s policies make it, in a sense, that much easier for people to insist that they’re not being anti-Semitic, but they’re being political in the sense of questioning Israel’s legitimacy in the world.

And that sort of blurs the lines sometimes between good old-fashioned anti-Semitism and, for better or worse, an ongoing debate about Israel’s place in the world. And so I think the political sometimes bleeds into the old “get the Jews” kind of thing.

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