Liz Perle says it was common knowledge within her family that her grandparents, a well-to-do Philadelphia couple, rescued 50 Austrian children from the hands of the Nazis.
They just never treated it as a big deal.
That’s about to change, as the story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus is about to go national with the premiere of 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus on HBO on April 8 at 9 p.m.
As the documentary, narrated by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer, (who gives voice to Eleanor’s writings) shows, what the Krauses did was a big deal. Despite overwhelming obstacles like the worsening situation in Europe, an unwillingness on the part of politicians in Washington (and even some in the Jewish community) to allow those at risk a safe haven in the United States, and his own lack of connections and knowledge of immigration law, Gilbert, an attorney, became convinced that he had to do something to save children.
He worked with Brith Sholom, the national Jewish fraternal organization founded in Philadelphia, to get the visas to spirit the children out of Austria, while Eleanor went to her friends in Jewish society to get them to pledge in affidavits that they would provide homes for the children when they arrived here.
Regardless of the matter-of-fact way she treated her accomplishment, Perle’s grandmother knew that what she and her husband had done was worth commemorating, if only for herself. She wrote a memoir, Don’t Wave Goodbye, that she kept in a drawer. That manuscript, along with some of the children’s passports, eventually passed into Perle’s possession — and, ultimately, into the hands of Perle’s husband, the journalist Steven Pressman.
Giving Steven the memoir “wasn’t an event,” recalls Perle, who lives in San Francisco. “He knew about it since we were married” in 2001. “It was a question of him deciding that he wanted to make a movie about it” in 2010.
The movie debuted last year in Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s New Filmmaker Weekend, under its former title, To Save a Life. It is the first film from Pressman, who is perhaps best known for his book, Outrageous Betrayal: The Dark Journey of Werner Erhard from est to Exile.
In an email, Pressman discussed the atypical way that his documentary became HBO’s programming centerpiece for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Unlike the vast majority of documentaries, which travel the film festival circuit trying to create enough of a buzz to attract the attention of distribution companies, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, has not been shown to the general public prior to its upcoming broadcast on HBO, Pressman said. He credited Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films who, he said, became aware of his film about a year ago, with enthusiastically helping to move it forward. “It just doesn’t get any better than HBO when it comes to providing a showcase for documentary films in this country,” he said.
As for Perle’s involvement in the production process of her husband’s work, the co-founder and editor in chief of the national nonprofit organization, Common Sense Media, laughed:“I had no role whatsoever! As a matter of fact, all of the advice I gave him, he studiously ignored — and he was right to do so.”
That’s not to say that the film wasn’t a family affair. Another grandchild of the Krauses, Perle’s cousin, the Philadelphia-born and raised Peter Kraus, and his wife, Jill, helped to fund the making of the documentary. Jill Kraus was also involved in the research for the film, and traveled to Vienna to track down the original documentation of the operation that required both Gilbert and Eleanor to journey into Berlin and Vienna to interact with Nazi officials in order to secure the children’s safe passage.
During his efforts to secure visas for the children, Gilbert was advised by then-assistant U.S. Secretary of State George Messersmith that he should focus there instead of Germany. Ultimately 25 girls and boys from Austria were rescued. They arrived aboard the United States Lines’ Warren Harding, which docked in New York Harbor on June 3, 1939, an event that was covered by publications including The New York Times and the Associated Press.
“As I get older, I appreciate more and more the amount of courage and determination to do what they did,” Perle said. “My grandparents were normal, unextraordinary people. You wouldn’t look at them and think, these are heroes. And I don’t think they looked at themselves that way, either.”
While the Krauses (Gilbert died in 1975; Eleanor in 1989) never wanted or needed to be acknowledged for their deed, thanks to Pressman’s film, an appreciative community can finally pay them the tribute they deserve.
50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus
April 8, 9 p.m. on HBO (check schedule for repeat showings throughout April)