50 Children: The Rescue Mission of
Mr. and Mrs. Kraus
By Claus Mueller
This is a superbly constructed documentary about the rescue of fifty Jewish children from Nazi Germany shortly before World War II by an American Jewish couple which travelled to Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939 to carry out this daring project. Gilbert Kraus, Philadelphia a lawyer, and his wife Eleanor were ordinary people who stayed virtually unknown. Before going to Germany they did not have the reputation of great risk taking. Apart from close associates and their family, their act of bravery in 1939 as prompted by a moral impulse, remained unknown to the public. They saved 25 boys and 25 girls from 5 � 14 years old.
What the documentary demonstrates is that some people like the Kraus stepped out of their taken for granted roles and were able to overcome great obstacles in achieving their righteous goals. Their sense of justice was violated by the crimes and policies of Nazi Germany, though they lived far away from that repressive dictatorship and were not directly affected. Yet unlike the people surrounding them, the politicians governing the country, their administrative officials, and even the Jewish community they were part of, the Kraus felt compelled to act.
They refused to remain passive as most others did, though there was widespread reporting in the US press of Nazi crimes and their intentions to destroy the Jews in Europe. From early on the Kraus maintained that unless these Austrian children were saved and allowed to leave for a safe country such as the United States, the children would face certain death. After all the handwriting of the Kristallnacht of November 1938 was on the wall, Jews still could leave the following year but no country would accept them.
Through the successful integration of archival footage with a well grounded commentary based on extensive solid research and interviews with nine of the surviving children and their descendants more than seventy years after the rescue , the film makers are able to establish the context and background of the rescue. Thus 50 Children offers more than just an appealing and heartwarming story. The film provides the viewer with an understanding of the politics of denial and of the refusal to act. It dismantles the myth that at the end of the late thirties the US public and the politicians did not know about the atrocities in Germany and the occupied areas. The story portraits the rampant anti-Semitism prevailing among segments of the US population which abetted the passive position of American politicians and officials. Roosevelt refused to actively intervene since most Americans did not want to get involved in the European conflict, apart from him enjoying the solid backing of the US Jewish community for his position. The Kraus has to overcome the resistance of State Department officials. More importantly they faced the overt and covert opposition of Jewish officials in the United States and Austria who feared that removing 50 children would aggravate the conditions of Jews in Germany and Austria and make emigration more problematic. Ironically some of the parents whose children were saved secured exit visas subsequently. Support for the Kraus was also refused since opponents denied that that the rescue action could be successful and that anything could be done.
I found the documentary most enlightening. HBO continues its support for outstanding documentaries and the first time film maker Steven Pressman must be commended for an outstanding achievement. The film premiers on HBO and HBO GO on Monday April 8 at 9 PM.