The creator of a film about the rescue of 50 youngsters from Nazi Europe and one of those whose story of survival is featured will come together at a screening of the documentary at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah of Clark on Sunday, March 29.
50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus tells the story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Philadelphia couple who in 1939 embarked on an improbable mission to Nazi-occupied Austria. They faced daunting obstacles as they went about finding the youngsters and obtaining visas from the U.S. government, passports from the Nazis, and 50 affidavits from American families willing to assume responsibility for the children.
Among those who escaped the fate of the nearly 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis was Paul Beller of Monroe Township, who will join filmmaker Steven Pressman, who is married to the Krauses’ granddaughter, at the temple.
As the youngsters set out to board the ship that would take them to America, “One of the things I remember was my mother saying to me, ‘Don’t wave good-bye,’” said Beller in a phone conversation with NJJN at the time of the HBO film’s original airing in 2013. “Some of those parents would never see their children again, and they couldn’t wave goodbye. They were told they might be arrested because it would look like ‘Heil Hitler,’ and Jews were forbidden from giving the Nazi salute.”
Beller, who was born in 1931, said his family had a relatively good life in Austria until the 1938 Anschluss, when the Jews had their rights taken away, followed soon afterward by deportations to the death camps.
“Conditions were terrible, and everybody was trying to leave,” Beller said. “The visa quotas were quite severe in America because of anti-Semitism and the Depression.… People wanted to leave but once the war started, no country would let them in.”
Anti-Semitism and political maneuvering led to a dearth of the kind of courage needed to effect the rescue of Jews in Europe, but the Krauses, who were Jewish, seized the notion that they should go to Austria and attempt to extract as many Jewish children as they could.
The couple — Gilbert was a lawyer with some contacts in Washington — interviewed hundreds of children in Vienna. They assumed legal guardianship and personal responsibility for them and found foster parents to adopt the youngsters, who ranged in age from five to 14, if their parents didn’t survive.
“A lot of Jewish people told the Krauses they shouldn’t be doing this because it was too risky,” said Beller. “Roosevelt was not too supportive of immigration and the State Department was quite anti-Semitic.”
“They picked 25 girls and 25 boys,” said Beller. “The criteria was that you had to be mentally and physically in good health, and you had to be willing to travel without fear and emotional attachment to your parents. My mother told me I was going to visit relatives in the United States for the summer…. She never told me why, so I was relaxed in the interview. My mother protected me.”
On board the USS President Harding, the children were prepared for their new home with lessons in English and American citizenship and culture. After arriving in New York in June, they spent the summer at a camp run by the Brith Sholom, a benevolent association in Philadelphia.
After the summer, Beller went to live with Philip and Emily Amram in a Philadelphia suburb for a year until his mother arrived with his grandparents. His father, a Polish citizen, had gone into hiding and was later detained by the British as he tried to sneak into Palestine. However, he was able to join his family in 1946.
“The Amrams treated me like a son,” said Beller, adding that he remained in touch with their two children for many years. Beller worked in Medicare administration in Baltimore for 40 years and now volunteers as a Medicare counselor at senior centers.
He and his wife, Glenda, have been married 58 years and have three children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
The film is based on a private journal written by Eleanor that Pressman’s wife, Liz Perle, shared with him. “At first, I didn’t quite believe what I was reading” about Perle’s grandparents, Pressman told NJJN in an e-mail. “But after realizing that it was all true, I was determined all these years later to bring this story to light.” In addition to serving as the producer and director of the documentary, which is narrated by Alan Alda, Pressman has also written a book about the rescue.
He said that delving into the Krauses’ daring act “turned out to be an incredible journey of discovery….”
What held particular meaning for him was being able “to tell a very important story about this country in addition to bringing some long-deserved recognition to these two extraordinary people.”