“They All Could Have Been Saved”

By Lance J. Sussman
Thursday, May 2, 2013

The HBO special 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus is a magnificently produced and beautifully edited documentary.  Steve Pressman has creatively reworked, for a commercial network, his 2010 film To Save a Life,  about his wife’s grandparents, a privileged Philadelphia Jewish couple  who did the impossible and sought no recognition for their incredible heroism.  50 Children tells its main story with passion, clarity, precision, and justifiable pride.  The Krauses are an inspiration; Steven Pressman is a worthy steward of his family’s legacy.           

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a well-off and highly assimilated Jewish couple from Philadelphia with two school-age children of their own, went to Vienna by themselves after Hitler’s annexation of Austria, rescued 50 Jewish children, and took them home to Philadelphia.  The HBO documentary tells their story through photographs, old newsreels, and archival materials, supplemented by taped interviews with some of their descendants.  What emerges is a compelling but strangely incomplete story. 

For one thing, the film says nothing about the Krauses' earlier religious life and leaves the impression that they really didn’t have one.  But in fact, Gilbert Kraus was confirmed at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in 1913.  The synagogue’s rabbi, Dr. Joseph Krauskopf, preached a message of “rescue” from the Jewish slums of the City of Brotherly Love.  Following a daring trip to Czarist Russia and a conversation with Leo Tolstoy, Krauskopf created the Farm School (today the Delaware Valley College) to help poor children.  Gilbert Kraus heard his rabbi’s benevolent message throughout his youth and from the pulpit at his confirmation. And we hear Eleanor, in the course of the film, recall how she fervently prayed that God would be with the parents of the children entrusted to her and her husband. 

Gilbert Kraus was also, as the film notes only in passing, a member of Brith Sholom, a Jewish fraternal lodge founded in Philadelphia in the first decade of the 20th century by a group of German-Jewish businessmen with a strong Zionist bent. They, too, believed in rescue—both of East European immigrant children from the hardships of American life and of the more severely imperiled from Nazi Germany. Their creation of a facility to house 50 children in a summer camp setting clearly influenced the Krauses in a way that the film could have emphasized more clearly. 

Like many other members of Philadelphia’s Jewish elite, the Krauses sent their children to Quaker schools. Unlike the Jewish establishment in Philadelphia and elsewhere, American Quakers worked indefatigably to rescue Jews from the Nazis, from “on the ground” missions in Europe to lobbying in Washington, D.C.  It is reasonable to assume that the Quaker example was not lost on either Gilbert or Eleanor Kraus. 

If the film gives us a less than complete picture of the Krauses' motivations, it also fails to illuminate fully the context in which they performed their extraordinary deeds.  Over and over, it hammers home the idea that the gates of America were closing shut in the face of Jewish refugees.  In fact, however, after the German annexation of Austria, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for expanding the American immigration quotas.  Especially after Kristallnacht in November, 1938, immigration to the United States spiked.  By 1939, a total of 282,000 Jews had left Germany and another 117,000 had left Austria.  Of these people, 95,000 made their way to the United States.  The Krauses' personal courage and moral clarity made them stand out, but they weren't the only people assisting the Jewish refugees from Nazism.  

Remembering what the situation was really like on the eve of World War II, one of the now quite aged “Kraus 50” comments, sadly, in the course of the documentary, “Everyone could have been saved, but they weren’t.”  Why?  Was it because FDR did not take the unprecedented step of letting a distressed and despised refugee group into the United States in large numbers, as the film’s narrators suggest?  Was it because the State Department was not only obstructionist but also anti-Semitic to the core?  We know all those stories too well, and it is easy, indeed painless, to point the finger of blame in the direction of the familiar malefactors. 

50 Children reveals something else, something we do not want to hear yet something we must hear.   The three most powerful Jews in Philadelphia, we are told, met with Gilbert Kraus and insisted that he call off his mission lest it feed the fire of domestic anti-Semitism.  Other members of the Jewish elite proceeded to do the same.  Regrettably, the film does not give us their names.  But it makes unmistakably clear that at the critical moment, the Jewish establishment in Philadelphia failed, for selfish reasons, to help their overseas brethren, and even stood in the way of the gallant few who sought to do otherwise.  Their inaction and, sometimes, their ill-designed actions were repeated all over the United States.  Knowing that there was neither a concerted top-down effort nor a massive bottom-up movement by American Jews to save the Jews of Germany and Austria, Roosevelt did not do what he could have done to open the doors of America wider than he actually did.  

Steven Pressman has done a magnificent job of telling his family’s story.  But even more than that, he has challenged us to tell the larger American Jewish story of failed rescue in the years before World War II a little more honestly.  His movie's just celebration of some unsung heroes shouldn't lead us to overlook the other heroes on the scene or to forget that too many Jews who could have played a heroic part acted disgracefully instead.  

Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and teaches American Jewish history at Temple University and Princeton.  

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