Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unlikely heroes

Eccentric American couple travelled into the belly of the Nazi beast in 1939 to rescue dozens of Jewish children

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Imagine, it's 1939 in Philadelphia, you're a successful American lawyer in the bathroom shaving, and you suddenly tell your spouse you're going to sail to Vienna and save 50 Jewish kids from the Nazis.

And there's your wife, wondering what's in your shaving cream as you leisurely propose a dangerously unpredictable foray into the Third Reich that hates you and all other Jews with a psychotic passion.

What's equally provocative is the couple's determination to proceed in the face of immediate opposition from their own government, as well as many prominent and powerful Jewish leaders and organizations in the U.S., who branded the mercy mission politically unwise by believing it would increase anti-Semitism at home.

Thus began one of the most outlandish exploits of the Second World War in civilian America -- the expedition of two eccentric, impudent, naive people, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, and their bizarre journey into the lion's den of Nazi territory to rescue 50 Jewish children from Hitler's henchmen before the borders closed and the war began. And, bless 'em, they pulled it off.

Ironically, the Krauses' biggest challenge wasn't getting the children out of Nazi-occupied Austria, so much as it was getting the U.S. to let them in. At that time many Americans, particularly the State Department, virulently disliked Jews.

And while the Nazis were encouraging all the Jews to leave in 1939, they had already stripped them of the wealth, businesses and jobs that would have provided them the money to do so. For Jews, it was a deadly catch-22.

The story is wonderfully told by writer and filmmaker Steven Pressman, largely because his economic use of words and plain language avoid the pitfall of adoration that could easily derail this tale of self-sacrifice and nobility in the face of danger. (Pressman earlier wrote, directed and produced a less in-depth version of this story in a 2013 HBO documentary.)

It doesn't hurt that Pressman's wife is the granddaughter of the Krauses; shortly after Pressman and his wife met in 2000, he gained access to the notes of the adventure. Eleanor and Gil were a modest couple who never sought recognition for what they did, telling very few about it.

Pressman's book has three puzzling flaws. First, nowhere does it mention with certainty who paid for all this life-saving. The cost of transporting 50 children from Germany to the U.S. East Coast by ship wouldn't have been cheap; and while it appears a Jewish fraternal organization kicked in a lot of money, it's hard to be sure.

Second, the Krauses didn't speak German. Vienna was a cosmopolitan city, so many would speak English, but others wouldn't -- particularly among the Nazis. So how did they communicate with the latter? Very little light is shed on the problem of their unilingualism.

Last, while Pressman's subtitle characterizes the Krauses as "ordinary," he takes an entire book to irrevocably show us they were not.

It would be unkind to Spellman to detail here how the Krauses whisked the Jewish kids out of Austria, except to say they had the help of some important people in both the U.S. and Europe.

One of many poignant incidents in the book is the description of the parents, not even allowed to wave goodbye to their own children for fear it would be misinterpreted as the Nazi salute (Jews were forbidden to make the Nazi salute). For many it would be the last they'd see of their kids.

In the end, rescuing 50 children may not seem like much relative to the 1.5 million young lives lost in the Holocaust. Shamefully, those 25 girls and 25 boys rescued by the Krauses, according to Spellman, constituted the largest single group of unaccompanied Jewish refugee children allowed into the U.S. before the war, thanks to rampant discrimination.

Canada was just as hurtful. For example, for decades after the war, Jews (including war veterans) were barred in Winnipeg from joining the Manitoba Club, the now-defunct Carleton Club, the St. Charles Country Club and the Winnipeg Winter Club.

The Krauses' hometown is well-known as the City of Brotherly Love and the home of the Liberty Bell. Perhaps that's what inspired them to act.

People sometimes complain there's little one person alone can do to change the world. As the Krauses demonstrated, the same sure can't be said of two.


Barry Craig is a retired journalist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A1

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