A rescue mission remembered

A story of cour­age: Kurt Her­man, above, is shown dur­ing an in­ter­view for the HBO doc­u­ment­ary, ‘50 Chil­dren: The Res­cue Mis­sion of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus.’ He was one of 50 Jew­ish chil­dren saved by Elean­or and Gil­bert Kraus.

— The late Elean­or and Gil­bert Kraus launched a mis­sion to save 50 Jew­ish chil­dren from the Nazis. Their cour­ageous ef­forts are high­lighted in an HBO doc­u­ment­ary that aired on Monday.

His moth­er was not per­mit­ted to wave good­bye or shed a tear when she put her 8-year-old son, Kurt Her­man, on a train and he began a trip to his ul­ti­mate des­tin­a­tion, the United Sates of Amer­ica.

Things in Vi­enna, Aus­tria, had be­come in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous for Jews in 1939, and Her­man’s moth­er had learned of a unique op­por­tun­ity for 50 Jew­ish chil­dren to be giv­en sanc­tu­ary.

“It must have been just ter­rible for her to send off her only child,” said Her­man, whose fath­er had already left Vi­enna to try to find sanc­tu­ary in France for the fam­ily.

Kurt Her­man, it turns out, was one of the be­ne­fi­ciar­ies of a little-known res­cue mis­sion that a Phil­adelphia law­yer and his wife launched, a dan­ger­ous mis­sion to save Jew­ish chil­dren from the Nazis. 

But aware­ness of the re­mark­able con­tri­bu­tion by the late Elean­or and Gil­bert Kraus has changed dra­mat­ic­ally with the new HBO doc­u­ment­ary, 50 Chil­dren: The Res­cue Mis­sion of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus. The film about their brave res­cue made its de­but on Monday, Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day.

The doc­u­ment­ary came to be after San Fran­cisco film­maker Steve Press­man mar­ried Liz Perle, grand­daugh­ter of the Krauses, and learned of the in­cid­ent that his­tory had over­looked.

Much of the ba­sic in­form­a­tion was found when a manuscript about the ex­per­i­ence, writ­ten by Elean­or Kraus, was un­earthed and dis­trib­uted to the fam­ily. It in­spired Press­man to delve deep­er in­to the story and cre­ate 50 Chil­dren. The film chron­icles the couple’s res­cue of 25 girls and 25 boys from ages 5 to 14 who were in harm’s way.

“Iron­ic­ally, I learned so much more about my past from see­ing the film,” said Her­man, now 83, in a tele­phone in­ter­view.  Her­man resides in Wil­low Grove after hav­ing spent 50 years, from 1960 through 2010, at his home on King­field Road in Pine Val­ley in the North­east. 

The oc­to­gen­ari­an has amaz­ing re­call of the de­tails of his ex­per­i­ence, but lacked the total con­text un­til Press­man’s doc­u­ment­ary.

Those per­son­al memor­ies in­clude be­ing taken to a Jew­ish cen­ter by his moth­er in March of 1939, of tak­ing a Rorschach test to de­term­ine his per­son­al­ity traits and un­der­go­ing a phys­ic­al to eval­u­ate his health. 

“What they were look­ing for were chil­dren who were ba­sic­ally in­de­pend­ent, and who could get along on their own. We knew that we would be sep­ar­ated from our par­ents, but even at that age, I knew that what I wanted was to get away from where I was,” he said.

Life had changed drastic­ally for Kurt Her­man, 

“Once, life back in Vi­enna was won­der­ful — and then it wasn’t won­der­ful at all,” said Her­man who re­mem­bers when his former non-Jew­ish friends began bul­ly­ing and har­ass­ing him. “I couldn’t fig­ure out why the Jew­ish kids were sent to a sep­ar­ate school, and why our home was raided.”

Her­man also re­mem­bers Kristallnacht, that ter­ri­fy­ing night in Novem­ber 1938 when he wit­nessed the burn­ing of busi­nesses, homes and books of Jews in Vi­enna. “That,” he said, “you don’t for­get.”

His odys­sey to Amer­ica was its own ad­ven­ture. “Here we were on a ship, run­ning around, eat­ing good food and be­ing the darlings of all the adults.”

When the ship ar­rived at the har­bor of New York on June 3, 1939, Her­man would ex­per­i­ence what was al­most a fantasy life. He spent that first sum­mer at Camp Sho­lom­ville, a Jew­ish camp out­side of Phil­adelphia, where he began learn­ing rudi­ment­ary Eng­lish. 

Then he was taken to a man­sion in Al­lentown, Pa., where lov­ing foster par­ents, the late Joseph and Rose Le­onard, and a staff of ser­vants, made life won­der­ful. “I thought all Amer­ic­ans lived this way,” he re­mem­bers think­ing.

After that first school year, his moth­er, and later his fath­er, who had both sur­vived, re­united the fam­ily. “Then I found out what it was to be a poor Amer­ic­an!” he quipped.

He is grate­ful and blessed, he em­phas­ized, thanks to the Kraus res­cue and to the kind­ness of his foster fam­ily. He has a lov­ing fam­ily of his own — wife Ros­a­lyn, three daugh­ters, eight grand­chil­dren and one great grand­child. 

Now re­tired, he looks back on a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a chief fin­an­cial of­ficer for sev­er­al cor­por­a­tions and agen­cies. 

 “Life,” he said, “is very sweet!”

 Like Kurt Her­man, Liz Perle, wife of film­maker Press­man, has learned more about her own grand­par­ents — who lived in Cen­ter City and then later in Doylestown — from her hus­band’s doc­u­ment­ary than she ever knew. 

“This was not talked about very much in the fam­ily,” Perle ex­plained in a phone in­ter­view. “It happened — and then it just re­ceded. My moth­er, the daugh­ter of the res­cuers, died young, and while I was very close to my grand­par­ents, I was not told very much about what they did and why.”

Perle, a San Fran­cisco res­id­ent, now has a whole new per­spect­ive about Elean­or and Gil­bert Kraus.  

 “They were not people you would think of as ob­vi­ous her­oes. But what they did as or­din­ary people was ac­tu­ally ex­traordin­ary,” Perle said. ••

 The doc­u­ment­ary, 50 Chil­dren: The Res­cue Mis­sion of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, is avail­able on HBO.

You can reach at pinegander@aol.com.

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