He wanted to go to Vienna and save 50 Jewish children from the Nazis.
In 1939, most of the world had not yet learned of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to exterminate the Jews of Europe. But the Krauses knew the Nazis had already passed a myriad of laws to harass, ghettoize and impoverish European Jews, who were being brutalized in the streets.
Would she go with him?
From Eleanor Kraus’ memoir, and from a documentary to be shown on HBO on Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 8), we know she did.
Steven Pressman, who directed HBO’s “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” learned of the couple’s potentially suicidal rescue from his wife, Liz Perle — the Krauses’ granddaughter.
“They had to make the decision that they were going to do something terribly dangerous, maybe risking leaving their children behind as orphans if something went wrong,” Perle says in the film.
To make a documentary of the little-known saga, first-time filmmaker Pressman, an investigative journalist, tracked down the surviving rescued children, who are now in their 70s and 80s. Nine appear in the film, though Pressman believes 20 to 25 may be alive.
He worked with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and archives in Israel to find old footage and photos of them, and of rarely shown street scenes from Nazi Germany and Austria.
The film, which is narrated by actor Alan Alda, is punctuated by numbers — 600: the number of parents of Jewish Viennese children who applied to the Krauses; 50: the number of spots available, 25 for girls, 25 for boys.
And this: more than 1.5 million, the number of children lost in the Holocaust.
Against that backdrop, 50 rescued children may seem paltry, Pressman acknowledged in an interview. Nonetheless, it was the largest rescued group of children to be brought to America.
Hitler was fast closing the exits from the Nazi empire and few countries were willing to take in Jewish refugees. Tight U.S. restrictions on immigration would not be lifted, and anti-Semitism was rampant in the U.S.
Most Americans — including President Franklin Roosevelt — opposed a bill in Congress to increase immigration quotas for thousands of Jewish children living under Nazi rule. As shown in the film, “File No Action — FDR,” reads a note from the president, scribbled on the cover of the bill.
In the early months of 1939, the Krauses pressed their case with reluctant State Department officials. Even some Jewish American leaders, fearful of a backlash and of escalating anti-Semitism, tried to dissuade the couple from their mission, Pressman said.
“I can, on one level, understand it,” he said. “On another level, it’s still pretty shocking.”