In connection with Holocaust Remembrance this week, I had opportunity to see a telling and moving documentary titled “Fifty Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus”. This little known story is an important one. See more about the book and the film at: www.50childrenfilm.com
In 1939, a well to do successful Jewish attorney in Philadelphia named Gilbert Kraus watched the news from Europe with great alarm and was trying to think of a way to get children out of harm’s way to America. He studied both the immigrant quota charts as well as the lists of actual arrivals and realized a discrepancy that might allow for 50 visas for Jewish children from Europe. He and his wife Eleanor worked tirelessly to make this possible, despite challenging bureaucracy and resistance from the US State Department and government channels as well as (so sadly) from leading Jews of Philadelphia who feared to rock the boat of domestic anti-Jewish backlash at the time.
I won’t tell the whole story here, better watch the film or read the book yourself, but the husband and wife and a pediatrician friend did go into Berlin and Vienna (after the Anschluss) in May of 1939 and after much effort, heart-wrenching and fraught with danger, they brought 50 Jewish children to America – saving their lives. This was the largest group of Jewish immigrants from Europe allowed into the US during WWII.
The whole film is very meaningful (it is based primarily on the journal kept by Eleanor Kraus) and offers much insight to the times and food for thought for today – but for now I’d like to share 3 lines from the film.
“My grandparents were not saints. When in Europe they stayed in the best hotels and dined in the finest restaurants. But what they did was selfless. And it was selfless even if my grandmother did it in a very nice hat.”
That’s the Kraus’ grandaughter speaking, and its a very good point. We often paint do-gooders as the unattainable righteous, unique individuals with a other-worldly capacity to do good. But the Kraus couple wasn’t like that. They were ordinary people who did something very extraordinary.
To make this point further, we learn that Mr. and Mrs. Kraus were not at all observant, in fact they sent their children to Quaker school in Philadelphia, did few or no Jewish observances at home. And after they pulled off this very courageous and daring trip to Nazi Europe in 1939, and all the children were settled in with American foster parents or American family, they returned to their everyday normal lives, the whole story was forgotten and they continued to live their lives as before.
“That night as we waited in Berlin for the visas, a young man played banjo for us, and he taught us a song: ‘Hinei Lo Yonum v’lo Yishan Shomer Yisrael…'”
One of the children, now elderly, recalled that night spent in Berlin, waiting anxiously for the final word on whether the American consulate would actually issue the visas. They left their parents behind in Vienna, and now were housed for the night in Berlin, with Nazi flags and stormtroopers and signage everywhere. And a young man sang with them this biblical song from the Psalms which means: The Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers.” This survivor vividly remembered this song from that night and sang it softly on the film.
“It was a dark night. There were Nazi soldiers and dogs all over the Vienna train station platform. We cautioned the parents not to wave to their children goodbye, for it was forbidden for Jews to give the Nazi salute, and a wave could be dangerously misinterpreted. Sop the parents stood there with smiles pasted on their faces, their eyes red with tears, their hands at their sides. Watching these parents bidding farewell to their children, I have never seen such bravery and dignity in my life.”
This is the gist of what Eleanor Kraus describes in her journal about that night when she and her husband left Vienna towards Berlin and then New York with fifty Jewish children, saved from what would soon become the Holocaust.
The bravery and dignity she describes reminds me of two words from this week’s Torah portion of Shmini: “Vayidom Aharon” – and Aharon was silent.
Two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, just died while in the process of consecrating the Mishkan tabernacle. Moses tried to console Aharon. And Aharon was silent. His silence was deafening, a tremendous testament, a silence that resounds throughout the generations, a silence that speaks volumes about tragic loss.
The parents at that Vienna Banhof, in May of 1939, standing with their hands at their sides, suppressing the natural wave at such a time of separation, is like Aharon’s silence, filled with bravery and dignity.