— 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.