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Indeed, everywhere the couple turned, people said it could not be done. But Gilbert Kraus, “above all else, was a stubborn son of a gun with a contrarian streak. If you said, ‘You can’t do that,’ he would say, ‘I’ll find a way,’” said Pressman, who wrote, produced and directed the film.
“He felt passionate about the issue, but it was essentially part of his character — whether America’s government or other Jewish organizations were not keen on the project, his response was, ‘No one’s going to tell me what I can and cannot do.’”
According to Pressman, Gilbert Kraus worked State Department connections to strike up a relationship with George Messersmith, who at that time was assistant secretary of state. The outspoken Messersmith (featured in Erik Larson’s best-seller, “In the Garden of Beasts”) had red-flagged the dangers of rising Nazism during his posting as consul general in Berlin from 1930 to 1934. Indeed, at one point he described some of Germany’s leadership, in a cable to Washington, as “psychopathic cases” who “would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.”
Messersmith, who served in Vienna from 1934 to 1937, advised Kraus to focus there, Pressman said. Kraus argued that so-called “dead-number” visas — issued but unused as people died, were arrested or traveled to other countries — should be freed up for the children.
As Kraus was working the legal end of things, his wife was working her social ties, trying to get families to sign affidavits to host and support the children, should they ever get out.
It’s a role that Perle cannot imagine undertaken by her elegant grandmother. “She had to go to her fancy society friends and ask for money, which you just didn’t do,” Perle said. “She was not one to call on her friends and ask an enormous favor.”
B’rith Sholom’s Philadelphia lodges also held fundraisers such as sporting events and poker nights to raise money, said the organization’s national president, Joel Rosenberg. At least $150,000 was raised, he said, but the organization has been unable to calculate the total cost. “We couldn’t get clear records going that far back,” he said recently.
With war imminent, the 34-year-old Eleanor Kraus was “thrilled” Perle said, when the State Department warned her not to travel with her husband to Europe. Besides, she had two small children at home. After sailing to Europe in early April, 1939, he wired his wife from Vienna that he really needed her help. She boarded the next boat.