HBO documentary details couple’s rescue of Jewish children from Nazis

Elizabeth Davis and Fritzi Nozik were among the children rescued  by the actions of an American Jewish couple during the Holocaust. They were interviewed as part of the HBO documentary ‘50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus.’ 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Why did the American Jewish community fail to do more to prevent the systematic murder of six million Jews, including 1.5 million children? It’s one of the most agonizing questions often been asked in response to the Holocaust.

At least one American Jewish couple, the late Gilbert J. Kraus and his wife, the late Eleanor, not only took direct action, but also were able to rescue 50 Jewish children from the very jaws of Nazi Germany and Austria. Their true-life story has been brought to the screen in the HBO documentary, “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” airing at 8 p.m. April 8.

This remarkable film brings to light an amazing and powerful story of courage, tenacity and determination. Remarkable, because although the Krauses were Jewish, they were not especially “religious,” and had not been especially active in the Jewish community of Philadelphia.

The film, directed by Steven Pressman, chronicles the story of the daring mission by the Krauses to travel to Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939, and their ultimate achievement of bringing 50 doomed Jewish children to the United States. They did this despite the nation’s harshly restrictive immigration laws, rampant anti-Semitism and strong efforts by major Jewish leaders in Philadelphia to get them to call off their mission.


The film notes that the bold plan to rescue Jewish children was developed in early January 1939, when New York businessman Louis Levine traveled to Philadelphia to meet with Gilbert Kraus, whom he admired for his backbone and determination to see challenging projects through to a successful conclusion. They met in the Bankers Security high-rise office building where Levine outlined his plan to persuade the U.S. State Department to issue visas for 50 children to be brought out of Austria. In 1938, it had been merged into Nazi Germany through the Anchluss plebecite.

The fact that a Jewish couple would literally risk their own lives by traveling to Nazi Germany to rescue Jewish children from what would turn out to be certain death in concentration camps is amazing in itself. Among those interviewed in the film is Liz Perle, the granddaughter of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who expresses amazement that the couple would leave their two sons in someone else’s care while they undertook their high-risk mission.

Perle said of her grandfather: “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.” Extraordinary indeed, though the Krauses never sought recognition or tribute for their efforts. While the arrival of the couple and the 50 rescued children received modest press coverage in New York and Philadelphia, it was against their wishes. Fortunately, for history, Eleanor Kraus prepared a 170-page detailed memoir of the entire adventure, which was kept in a drawer for seven decades before it came to light and provided the basis for this powerful film.

Professor Jonathan Sarna, a leading U.S. Jewish historian who is interviewed in the film, pointed out that 95 percent of Americans favored the restrictive immigration quotas, which blocked Jews from coming to America to escape the Shoah. In addition, 25 percent of American Jews also favored the restrictions.

At every step of the way, the Krauses faced obstacle after obstacle. They came face-to-face with Gestapo officials who had to approve the issuance of visas for the 50 children. Frantic Jewish parents came to them with desperate please to include their children on their list. One child, who came down with illness on the eve of their departure, had to be cut from the list. He later perished in the Sobibor death camp.

At the time, only months after Kristallnacht and months before Nazi Germany would invade Poland to start World War II, it was not clear to the Jewish community that those trapped in Germany and Austria faced certain death. The parents had to put up the brave front that they would rejoin their children at a later date. Only a few were fortunate enough for that to happen; many of the parents and siblings of the 50 children would indeed die in the Holocaust that followed. In one of the most poignant sequences in the film, we learn that the Jewish parents were forbidden from waving goodbye to their children because it was against Nazi law for Jews to give the Nazi salute.

Several of the now grown 50 children were interviewed for the film, including Kurt Admon of Netanya, Israel; Paul Beller of Morris Township, N.J., Robert Braun of Fairfield, Conn. and Elizabeth Davis of Melbourne, Fla. All of them are eternally grateful to the brave couple who served as their “Angels of Rescue.”