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What struck him about Eleanor Kraus was that she was “a gorgeous woman with red fingernail polish. We were fascinated by the polish,” he said recently. “We’d never seen red.”
Herman, whose parents eventually escaped to the United States, is now 83. He has vivid memories — as an 8-year-old — of the Monday after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. Suddenly, he became a pariah to his non-Jewish school friends.
“They wouldn’t play with me anymore,” said Herman, who for years has been telling his story to Philadelphia school children. “I asked my father, ‘What did I do?’ His answer: ‘You were born Jewish.’”
He counsels his own grandchildren. “When you’re in a pinch, you better rely on your family. Friends are great — I had friends, too. And like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “I was a dirty Jew.”
Gilbert Kraus died in 1975, still the single-mindedly determined man he had always been. “He had what was then called ‘hardening of the arteries,’” said Perle, who was about 19 when he died. “When he needed more help, he quietly starved himself to death.”
Eleanor Kraus died in 1989, and the couple’s story was captured in the typewritten pages she left behind.
For the Kraus family, “I can’t tell you what a big deal it wasn’t,” Perle said. “Only now do we realize the anti-Semitism of the State Department, the fear in the Jewish community that if they spoke up, fewer Jews would be allowed in.
“Only now do we realize it was something heroic.”
“50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” will be aired April 8 at 9 p.m., on HBO.
Dorothy Brown is the former enterprise editor of print and digital media at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She blogs at www.unRetiring.blogspot.com