On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we honor those lost in the Shoah and the few who were saved through circumstance, luck or the efforts of courageous individuals. People like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and the Bielski brothers immediately come to mind, having been the subjects of books and movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “Defiance.”
This year on April 8, Yom HaShoah, HBO will premiere the documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which explores the previously untold story of a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who risked their lives to save the largest group of children allowed into the United States at the time.
Blending historical footage, personal photographs, interviews with nine surviving members of the 50, and narration by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer (reading from the memoir of Eleanor Kraus — the “Mrs.” of the movie’s title), the film is riveting and suspenseful. It reveals the Krauses battling bureaucracies abroad and at home and racing against the clock to get the children out of Vienna as atrocities escalated in 1939.
The Krauses’ efforts might have remained a footnote lost to history had filmmaker Steven Pressman not read the unpublished memoir written by Eleanor, who died in 1989, 14 years after her husband, Gilbert.
“It was just lying around the house, hiding in plain sight,” he said.
His wife, Liz Perle, is the Krauses’ granddaughter, and though she’d “occasionally mention something in passing about them rescuing some kids, I didn’t pay much attention to it until four years ago, when she showed me the manuscript, and I got the idea of making a film,” Pressman said.
A North Hollywood native who studied journalism and political science at UC Berkeley, Pressman is a journalist and author of “Outrageous Betrayal,” about Werner Erhard. He put writing aside to make “50 Children,” his first film.
He called upon friends and acquaintances for advice and connections, lining up an editor, cinematographer and other crew. With funding raised via “generous individuals and foundations, both Jewish and non-Jewish,” he started making the film in January 2010 and finished two years later. Finally, through a connection from his father-in-law, he got it to HBO, which is co-presenting the documentary with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
Searching through prewar footage, now conveniently digitized and searchable, Pressman obtained video from the database of USHMM’s archives, the Bundesarchiv in Germany and Austrian State Archives in Vienna.
He also traveled around the country to interview surviving members from among the 50 children, whom he’d tracked down via Google, and many of whom lent him their family photos. With the exception of one woman who was 5 years old in 1939 and had no memory of the rescue, “Nobody turned me down,” Pressman said.
It was an emotional experience for Pressman to talk with these people about what little they remember. For some, it turned out that they had been bidding farewell to their parents for the last time when they were rescued.
“It was honor for me to be able to capture these memories,” he said. Because they were so young at the time, he added, “most of them never knew anything about Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. I was able to fill in the gaps for them.”
The Krauses were secular Jews, stylishly handsome and comfortable but not wealthy. But Gilbert, a successful lawyer, was active in B’rith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization headquartered in Philadelphia. The group’s head, Louis Levine, wanted to help European Jews escape, but organizations could not legally sponsor refugees. Gilbert volunteered to help, calling upon a law school acquaintance and Jewish congressman named Leon Sacks, who arranged a meeting at the State Department.
“Gilbert wasn’t a connected guy, but he knew people who knew people,” Pressman said.
Once the children were in the United States, they went directly to a B’rith Sholom summer camp, and the organization remained involved, overseeing their welfare.
In addition to survivor testimony, the documentary provides historical context to illustrate what obstacles the Krauses faced.
“I was shocked as I was doing my research to discover just how much anti-Semitism there was in this country,” said Pressman, noting that even Jewish leaders tried to discourage the couple. “They didn’t want to rock the boat and create even more anti-Semitism.”
Although the immigration quotas were very restrictive for all Jews, Gilbert felt that he had the best shot at obtaining visas for children, “because people at the State Department might feel a little more sorry for them,” Pressman explained.
“This was an extraordinary time, and these were two people [the Krauses] who were not powerful, they didn’t hold high positions. They were relatively ordinary people, but they felt so strongly about doing something when nobody else around them was doing anything,” Pressman said.
Once the couple came home from Vienna with the rescued children, “They never talked about it again,” Pressman said. “The Holocaust Museum didn’t know about the story until members of the Kraus family brought it to their attention a few years back.”
Pressman, who grew up in a “Conservative, semi-observant household in the Valley” and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has no Holocaust stories to tell from his side of the family, as everyone was born in the States, or was part of the earlier migration from Eastern Europe.
He’s the father to a daughter, Roshann, 22, and stepson, David, 19. His wife appears in “50 Children” and granted him formal permission (as did her uncle) to use Eleanor’s memoir as a source, but otherwise they remained “very hands-off” with the project, he noted.
Since finishing what he calls his “labor of love,” Pressman has turned his attention toward writing a book version to be published next year that, like the documentary, will incorporate the memoir and the testimony of the rescued children. He admits that he has thought about turning the story into a scripted feature.
“But I won’t be the one to do it,” Pressman said. “I’m not going to suddenly become a feature film director. But I’m hopeful there will be some interest. It’s such an incredible story.”
He calls the filmmaking experience “the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. As a journalist, you want to tell a good story, and you want to have an impact on people. I feel good that I’ve accomplished some of that.”