Pope Francis made international headlines last weekend when he unexpectedly invited 12 Muslim refugees from Syria aboard his papal plane and offered them refuge at the Vatican.
One of the rescued men told reporters, “The pope made a humanitarian gesture and it was so moving.”
People who attended author Steven Pressman’s presentation at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, heard a similar story of an unexpected, yet heroic, gesture that resulted in the rescue of refugees.
Pressman, speaking to about 50 people at the cathedral on Saturday, April 2, described a humanitarian rescue — one that took place in 1939 Nazi Germany when an ordinary American couple left their home in Philadelphia and traveled to Europe to bring 50 Jewish children to safety in the United States.
Pressman, a magazine and newspaper journalist for more than 30 years, stumbled upon the story of the rescue mission in his own home.
As he described, his wife, Liz, the granddaughter of the Philadelphia couple, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, had kept an inch-thick stack of yellowing onionskin paper in a brown cardboard binder held together by a rusted metal clasp in a forgotten desk drawer of their San Francisco home.
“The contents of a plastic bag, wedged between manila file folders, added even more
drama to the stack of onionskin papers,” said Pressman, describing more than a dozen German passports, each bearing a Nazi swastika and each with a photo of a young boy or girl.
Pressman came to learn that the passports belonged to some of the 50 children that his wife’s maternal grandparents had rescued in a daring escapade. After convincing himself that the manuscript he discovered, written by Eleanor Kraus, documented something that truly happened, he recognized it was a story to be shared. He did so through the HBO documentary film, “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” and a book, published by HarperCollins in 2014, “50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.”
Since the documentary and book have been completed, Pressman has traveled the country sharing the story in presentations like the one at the cathedral. However, he told the Catholic Herald, this was the first time, he spoke in a Catholic church.
“I jumped at the chance to do so,” he said, adding, “It was wonderful to share the story with a different community.”
The presentation was co-sponsored by the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and Congregation Shalom, Milwaukee, where Pressman offered a similar talk the following day.
Describing his wife’s grandparents as non-observant Jews who sent their own children to Quaker schools, Pressman marveled at the fact they left their comfortable home to take on this challenge.
“They had little to nothing to do with the Jewish community in Philadelphia,” he said, describing Gil as a successful civil lawyer and Eleanor as a woman who “came from lower eastern European stock and moved up when she married into the Kraus family in a big way.”
Eleanor favored stylish clothes, fine jewelry, her fancy house and loved to host dinner parties and attend evenings at the symphony.
He described her as being happy as the wife of a prominent lawyer.
Yet, when he came home from work one day in January 1939 with the idea of saving Jewish children trapped inside Germany, she was not on board.
“This is really crazy,” she said. “No one in their right mind would go to Germany now.”
Yet, Gil didn’t let the idea die. It was first proposed to him earlier that day when his good friend, Louis Levine, grand master of Brith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization, dropped in to talk.
The two, who were following the news of the increasingly dangerous conditions for Jews living in Germany and Austria under Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, came up with a seemingly preposterous idea of rescuing trapped Jewish children.
“Cutting to the chase,” Pressman told his audience, “that’s exactly what happened. Gil sailed to Europe on the Queen Mary in a first class cabin and initially Eleanor stayed behind because she was warned that Nazi Germany was not the place for a woman to be traveling alone.”
Gil traveled with a pediatrician, the doctor to the Kraus children, and, according to Pressman, “Eleanor joined her husband and the doctor a few weeks later … with her jewelry and fancy dresses.”
Eventually, the couple brought back 50 children to the United States, children who spent the summer of 1939 in a recreational camp in Philadelphia as Jewish leaders worked to match the kids with relatives who may have been living in the United States.
According to Pressman, the Kraus family took in two of the children as foster children for about two years and enrolled them in the same prestigious Quaker school where their children were enrolled.
When the Krauses were in Germany, “they made a solemn promise not to allow any of the children to be legally adopted by any stranger in the United States,” Pressman explained, suggesting they wanted to give the parents the hope and solace that one day they would be reunited with their children.
In doing his research for the book and documentary, Pressman accounted for 37 of the 50 rescued children and found 19 were still living in January 2015. Now in their 80s, his book includes accounts of their lives since their arrival in the United States in June 1939.
During his presentation, Pressman stressed that his wife’s grandparents “were simply two ordinary, relatively ordinary Americans who were reading the newspapers that were filled with increasingly brutal accounts…. Perhaps the question is not why Gil and Eleanor Kraus did what they did, but why not hundreds or thousands of Gil and Eleanors willing to do the same thing?” he wondered.
He also noted it’s impossible to avoid comparisons to the refugee crisis occuring today with refugees streaming into Europe from Iraq and Afghanistan, and unaccompanied children from Central America trying to find a safe haven in the United States.
“All these years later, I think of Gil and Eleanor Kraus as two ordinary Americans who sure never set out to be heroes, which perhaps in the final analysis is precisely what makes their historic contribution to repairing the world all the more heroic,” he said.
Pleased that the cathedral was able to host the presentation, Fr. Jeffrey Haines, rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, noted that the topic has contemporary relevance.
“One of the points that Mr. Pressman made dealt with the current world situation involving the refugee crisis,” he told the Catholic Herald in an email. “As he noted in his remarks, the challenge facing the Jewish refugees in Germany and Austria at the time was not an inability to leave those countries. In fact, they were encouraged to do so. The problem had to do with countries who were willing to receive and welcome them.”
Immigration restrictions were tight, Fr. Haines noted, and the Jews found few countries willing to take the refugees. He noted Pressman drew a connection to the current difficulties refugees face in trying to find countries to accept them.
Fr. Haines also noted one of the compelling points Pressman made is the fact that no one would have predicted that the Krauses would have attempted such a rescue.
“They did not have a history of dealing with social causes. They lived a rather ‘regular’ life. But that is what makes their effort so admirable,” he said. “It inspires one to think that – if two regular people can achieve such a bold, daring and noble rescue of lives – then it is possible for all of us regular people to do so, too.”