**EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of the 75th anniversary of the kindertransports, we remember the dramatic story of 50 Jewish children’s rescue from the Nazis, which started in Vienna and wound up Philadelphia. **
In early January of 1939, New York businessman Louis Levine traveled to Philadelphia to meet with Gilbert Kraus, the man he believed capable of carrying out a bold plan.
As they sat in Kraus’s law office in the nearly new Bankers Security high-rise at 1315 Walnut Street, Levine laid out his idea: Pry loose visas from the tight-fisted State Department, travel to Germany and bring back 50 Jewish children.
Levine, who was grand master of the Jewish service organization B’rith Sholom, founded in Philadelphia in 1905, knew nothing about immigration law. And Kraus was not an immigration lawyer. But Kraus had three attributes, his granddaughter says, that ultimately resulted in the daring rescue from Vienna of 50 Jewish children, in what would prove to be the largest Kindertransport, or rescue mission, to the United States.
“He had the soul of an artist, the will of a bull and the means to effect things. Put those three things together, and the extraordinary happens,” Liz Perle said of her grandfather.
While The New York Times and other newspapers carried the story of the children’s June 3, 1939, arrival on the S.S. President Harding, the drama that preceded it is only now being told in a documentary film that will air at 9 p.m., April 8, on HBO.
The surprising, heart-wrenching details emerge in “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” narrated by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer. The film is based on a 170-page memoir written by Kraus’s wife, Eleanor. The Philadelphia family kept it in a drawer.
“I grew up knowing the story,” said Perle, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media. But her grandparents were not ones to tout their achievement. “You’d never know they were anything but ordinary people,” she said. “They didn’t talk about it.” Even her cousins, Perle said, knew little about the coup until an uncle’s 80th birthday party, in 2006.
It was only after San Francisco journalist Steve Pressman, whom Perle married in 2001, focused on the manuscript about three years ago that the idea for a film took flight.
Eleanor Kraus “told this incredible story that had been hidden away for years and years,” said Pressman, who began checking the tale against archival records in the State Department and elsewhere. “It was the sound of fiction, but lo and behold, it did happen just as she said it happened.” Previously untold was “how the two of them — particularly Gilbert — figured out how to get 50 kids to the United States at a time when to get Jews in was all but impossible because of immigration laws. That part was never uncovered.”