Three local residents escaped the fate of the nearly 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis when they were included among 50 Jewish children rescued by a Philadelphia couple whose story was told in a recent HBO documentary.
50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, narrated by actor Alan Alda, can be seen on HBO Go for iPads and other devices.
In 1939, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus traveled to Europe, found the youngsters, arranged visas for them, and brought them from Vienna to the United States, where the couple placed them with foster families.
Among the children, who ranged from five to 14 years old, were Paul Beller and Alfred Berg, now of Monroe, and Dr. Erwin Tepper of Wall Township.
Filmmaker Steven Pressman, who is married to the Krauses’ granddaughter, Liz Perle, used Eleanor’s journal to document the daring rescue.
“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. “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 — his father was in the plywood business — until the 1938 Anschluss between Germany and Austria, when the Jews had their rights taken away overnight, 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. You needed to get someone to sponsor you financially. People wanted to leave but once the war started, no country would let them in.”
Tepper, who was only seven in 1939, has few memories of Vienna. One was the terror his family felt when his father didn’t come home on Kristallnacht — the November 1938 pogrom generally regarded as the start of the Holocaust — although it turned out a former employer, a gentile, had sheltered him for two nights.
Another childhood trauma occurred when a Nazi arrested Tepper, then six, and a non-Jewish friend when they were playing in a park.
“I was taken to the police station and charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on a police officer,” said Tepper. “He was ready to throw me in jail, but the desk sergeant had some sense and called my mother.”
Anti-Semitism and political maneuvering led to a dearth of the kind of courage that was needed to effect the rescue of Jews in Europe, but the Krauses, who were Jewish themselves, somehow seized the notion that they should go to Nazi-occupied Austria and attempt to extract as many Jewish children as they could.
“A lot of Jewish people told them 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.”
The couple — Gilbert was a lawyer with some contacts in Washington — made the dangerous trip to Vienna via Berlin to interview hundreds of prospective children. They found foster parents who would agree to adopt the youngsters if their parents didn’t survive.
“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 that I was going to visit relatives in the United States for the summer; I had some relatives in the Bronx. She never told me why, so I was relaxed in the interview. My mother protected me.”
The ship, the USS President Harding, set sail in May of 1939 and arrived in New York Harbor on June 3.
On board the children were prepared for their new home with lessons in American citizenship and culture and English, but still had free time.
“Don’t forget,” said Tepper, “we were on an ocean liner, not some steamship that other immigrants came by, so they had movies every afternoon. Even though we didn’t speak English and there were no subtitles, we all went to the movies every afternoon and then spent dinner arguing over what the movie was about.”
Tepper, who did extensive research on his rescuers for a presentation at a 2002 survivors’ conference in Chicago, said Gilbert Kraus transferred to the children visa numbers that had been issued but never used by their original recipients. The couple assumed legal guardianship and personal responsibility for the children.
The youngsters spent the summer at Camp Brith Shalomville, run by the Brith Shalom, a benevolent association in Philadelphia, which supported the Krauses. There the children were further Americanized and introduced to such “exotic” foods as Jell-O and fruit cocktail.
One of Tepper’s fondest memories of that period was learning English by reading newspaper comic strips, and, he said, “to this day I still turn to the comics first when I get the paper.”
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 joined his family in 1946.
“The Amrams treated me like a son and I’m still in contact with their two children,” said Beller, who moved with his family to Manhattan and attended the City University of New York and graduate school at New York University. He 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 56 years and have three children, seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Tepper went to live with his aunt and uncle in the Bronx. His father had fled to England months before and actually greeted his son when the ship docked at Southampton. His mother later was able to join her husband.
Two years later, the Teppers came to the United States, eventually settling in Bridgeport, Conn. Tepper attended Yale University before going to medical school in Basel, Switzerland. A former resident of West Long Branch, he retired from Monmouth Medical Center. He and his late wife, Silvia, have three children and two grandchildren.
Berg, who recently suffered a stroke, is unable to communicate. However, his wife of 60 years, Marianne, told NJJN that her husband, at age 14, was the oldest of the rescued children.
Berg’s sister had already been selected as one of the 25 girls, and their parents were making arrangements for him to go to Palestine when one of the other selected boys became very ill at the last minute.
“He was there when his sister was being interviewed,” said Marianne. “The Krauses remembered him from the interview and asked Freddy [his nickname] if he’d also like to go to America.”
Berg’s parents were able to join their children in December 1939. Berg grew up in Brooklyn and became a stockbroker. The couple lived in the Inwood section of Manhattan before coming to Monroe. They have two children and three grandchildren.