Kurt Herman — movie star?
He’s no George Clooney but there’s no denying that the 82 year old fills a screen with a soulful presence — and a remarkable story as a descendant from a most dire period in history.
Herman is one of the surviving Brith Sholom Children, 50 Austrian youths whose 11th hour escape from the Holocaust landed them in Philadelphia in 1939, thanks to extraordinary efforts by a Philadelphia couple in tandem with Brith Sholom, the locally headquartered national Jewish fraternal organization that financed their flight from tyranny.
It is a story told by Herman’s expressive face and expressed on screen in Steven Pressman’s impressive filmmaking debut, To Save a Life.
Save the date: The documentary — which details the efforts of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus as life-saving couriers, traveling first to Germany, then Vienna, before transporting their precious cargo of Jewish kids back to Philadelphia — unspools with a sneak peek March 17 at the Prince Music Theater.
Pressman will receive the Local Theme Award that evening at the Gershman Y Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s New Filmmakers Weekend.
It’s all new to Pressman, a Los Angeles journalist whose previous claim to fame had Philadelphia roots as well: His biographical account of Outrageous Betrayal: The Dark Journey of Werner Erhard From est to Exile told the story of the cult figure, born Jack Rosenberg , a Philadelphia used-car salesman who some would say took the gullible for a ride with his chic new wave lifestyle/spiritual quest for eternal enlightenment.
You can’t get two figures more diametrically apart, Pressman laughs of the cultist Erhard and the heroic Krauses.
The latter hit close to home: “The story was quite literally handed to me; my wife, Liz Perle, is one of the Kraus’ grandchildren.”
What did you do in the war, Bubbie and Zayde? Quite a lot, it turns out, and it was all detailed in a secreted away journal penned by Eleanor Kraus. “It was part of the family’s hidden belongings for years,” says Pressman.
“My wife and I thought, ‘This journal would make a really good film,’ ” Steven recalls of what can best be described as a “Let’s put on a show!” moment.
Thinking about who could make the feature, the spotlight unexpectedly shone home: “With all the hubris a journalist can have, I said, ‘How about me?’ ” recalls Steven.
Excellent choice, it turns out. He mastered the domain of the documentary as if born to the movie, corralling family film, purchasing footage and scheduling speaking heads — including Philadelphia-born Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna.
To Save a Life is to save for posterity a world of good deeds done by the Krauses, who placed the children they harbored up and down the East Coast, taking in two kids themselves. (They also had two children of their own.)
If such heroics were done today, the Krauses would be captured for eternity on an Oprah reunion special, or, adds Pressman, “on a Facebook page.”
He himself faced his task of tracking down survivors with modern technology, using the Internet and Google.
He estimated that about half of the 50 children rescued are still living.
The Krauses, post-mission, faced life modestly; the lawyer and his wife just went back to everyday business, not thinking of themselves as heroes. “They just never talked about it,” muses Pressman.
Survivor Herman, on the other hand, has quite a bit to say — with humor, eloquence and warm appreciation for what the Krauses accomplished.
OK, he says he is not a movie star. (He will be at the preview on March 17.) But doesn’t he feel like one of the Chosen People? “Yes, I was one of the lucky ones,” he says of being selected — 25 boys and 25 girls were taken by the Krauses back to Philadelphia after the prospective choices were made by Brith Sholom, following thorough investigative work and psychological testing of thousands of prospects.
Herman was herded onto the ship with the others in May 1939; all left without their parents, although Herman was reunited with both in Allentown two years later.
“It was a mansion,” he says of the palatial retreat he lived in with his American family, the Leonards, when he first arrived in the country at age 9.
“It’s now the house of the president of Muhlenberg College,” says Herman, who later studied there.
Indeed, he is ready to go home again; shortly, Herman will be taking a tour of the mansion that once housed his newly found American aspirations and hopes.
So you can go home again. Indeed, even after his own parents arrived in America, Herman felt love and gratitude for the Leonards: “They were my second family.”
Ultimately, Herman made a home for himself in Philly, with a wife, three daughters and eight grandchildren. The Penn State grad/accounting major served as CFO for the precursor to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for 11 years, beginning in 1975, and then the JCC for 10 years.
And he has never forgotten Brith Sholom: He has served as president and financial secretary at its local Kraus Perelstein Lodge — and as treasurer of the national organization. His wife, Rosalyn, has been active as an officer at the local lodge as well.
Payback? “Yes,” the accountant says of his gratitude toward the organization that saved his life.
He also gives back by speaking to groups, noting, ironically, “that the best audiences are those in Catholic schools; they are well prepared and so disciplined.”
As is Herman, who, when not giving speeches, volunteers on the board at the Klein JCC, and, “from February to April, I am doing taxes.”
As for filmmaker Pressman, when pressed, he ponders a different kind of bottom line: Would he be able to channel the spirit and heroics of the Krauses? Would he risk his life to save a life?
The man who has made a potent Oscar-worthy docu (he demurs when praised) concedes, “I can’t answer that.”
But then, he reasons, “I don’t know who can.”