Were it not for a Philadelphia lawyer and his wife, 50 more children likely would have perished at the hands of the Nazis.
While 50 may sound trifling considering 1.5 million children were killed in the Holocaust, the 50 brought to America represented the largest number of children saved at one time.
The little-known story is told in “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” airing on HBO Monday, April 8, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Alan Alda narrates the well-done documentary, which weaves entries from Eleanor Kraus’ journals, read by Mamie Gummer. Interviews with survivors and scholars are interspersed with clips and photos detailing the heartbreak of parents begging strangers to take their children.
“Fundamentally, the most important component of it is you see two individuals recognizing the situation in which they might do something or might not,” Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, tells Zap2it. “And they decided to act, and their decision was one of life or death. It is not more dramatic than that. People do have a choice to act or say, ‘It is not my problem.'”
Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus were upper-class, and though Jewish, not observant. As they read about the genocide, he became determined to save children. The United States enforced its immigrant quotas. Kraus dealt with the State Department and the Gestapo until securing necessary papers.
“We know for a fact children for whom there were not sufficient visas were sent to their deaths,” Shapiro says.
“Occasionally people will say the Holocaust is not an American history,” Shapiro adds. “So much in this story reflects American values, and it is an American family that puts themselves at risk to do the right thing and brings the history more clearly to American shores. And of course many of those children became American citizens and lived lives here and made contributions here, and the United States is connected to the history of the Holocaust through what we did and what we didn’t do.”