At the end of March, a census taken by Israel’s Interior Ministry reported that the Jewish population in the nation stood at 6 million, out of a total population of 8 million. The vast majority of the remainder are Arabs, with another 350,000 non-Arab Christians, press reports indicated.
If that 6 million number strikes a chord — and it did with many news outlets — it’s because that is the number of Jews estimated to have been killed in the Shoah, the Holocaust or “final solution” engineered by the Nazis during World War II. Those who perished did so simply because of their race and their faith, whether or not the latter was practiced.
In 1939, almost a year after Hitler’s troops marched into his native Austria, the situation for Jews was bad, and getting worse. Of particular concern to many parents were their young children. If older Jews lost their lives, saving a child would be worth something beyond measure.
Henrietta Wenkart, then a young girl who enjoyed Sunday outings with her father in the Wienerwald, the famed Vienna Woods, understood times were difficult, and that escaping the Nazis’ grip was imperative.
“In Vienna, it wasn’t the case that some people were wondering whether or not to leave. Whoever could leave, did,” Ms. Wenkart, who now goes by Henny, said in an interview in “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” a documentary that airs on HBO on Monday, which is also Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“What people don’t understand is that at the beginning, you could get out, everybody could get out, [but] nobody would let us in. Everyone could have been saved. Everyone,” Ms. Wenkart said.
The challenge was where fleeing Jewish refugees would go. Continental Europe was a tenuous option: Most of those countries would either fall to advancing Nazi troops or were led by governments sympathetic to Hitler’s regime. Exceptions were few. Some Jewish children escaped to Britain; a few made it to what was then British-controlled Palestine. Others went to Cuba or elsewhere.
Very few made it to the United States. President Roosevelt, though highly popular, decided to ignore a bill in Congress that would open up visas to Jewish children, a move “sure to tug at the heartstrings,” as one historian put it. Without FDR’s endorsement, the measure died.
That state of affairs was unacceptable for Gilbert Kraus, a successful attorney in Philadelphia, and his wife, Eleanor. Starting in February 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Kraus began working on a plan to bring 50 Jewish children to Philadelphia from Nazi-controlled lands. By June 3, the children were in the United States. Both Krauses were Jews, but not particularly observant, said filmmaker Steven Pressman, who created the documentary.
“Let me describe the Krauses this way,” Mr. Pressman told The Washington Times in a telephone interview. “Gilbert, in particular, came from a long-standing German-Jewish family, professional class, upper middle income, not wealthy, but comfortable. Almost all of them were very secular Jews, they were not religious Jews, [but] they were part of that crowd and community. They were not religious, but [they were] very social-minded.”
Mr. Pressman added, “If there ever was somebody who embodied the notion of tikkun olam [“repairing the world”], it was Gilbert Kraus. It certainly was embodied in how he lived his life, and in this rescue mission.”
How did the story, which has been little known during the past 74 years, come to light? Mr. Pressman is married to Liz Perle, one of the Krauses’ four grandchildren. The story wasn’t widely discussed in the Kraus family, but came to light when a journal written by Eleanor was discovered. Rich in detail, the notes form the basis for the film.
The documentary, which had a special screening in Washington on April 4, is narrated by actor Alan Alda and features interviews with several of the rescued children, who vividly recall the circumstances of their deliverance. For many, their parents were later able to join them in America, while others never saw their mothers or fathers again.
“The ultimate message” of the story, according to Mr. Pressman, was “showing what ordinary people can do, despite extraordinary obstacles.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at email@example.com.