The ProsenPeople

Research and the Power of Bashert

Monday, May 26, 2014 | Permalink

Last week, Steven Pressman wrote about a recent visit to Vienna and bringing an extraordinary act of quiet heroism to light. He is the author of the recently published book 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany and has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I'm not a great believer in fate, but I certainly have encountered more than a few instances of bashert—that lovely Hebrew word signifying things that are meant to be—during the research and writing of my book and the production of the documentary film that preceded it.

For example, I'll never forget one of my visits to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, which resulted in a very powerful moment of bashert. The museum has two locations—the main building and a sort of annex that is located on the Judenplatz—Jewish Plaza—not far from the Israelitsche Kultusgemeinde, the official organization of Vienna's Jewish community. I was there on a weekday afternoon, and the museum was nearly empty. As I wandered through the building, however, I recognized an American whom I had met a few days earlier at the Vienna airport after we had both flown in on the same short flight from Berlin. We renewed our acquaintance at the museum, and this fellow, Marty Keller, introduced me to his cousin, Steve. We began talking, and they mentioned that both of their fathers had left Vienna as children not long after Nazi Germany had taken over Austria. Marty had come to Vienna for a conference, and Steve had come along after the two cousins thought they'd try to learn a little more about their fathers' childhoods.

At that point, of course, I mentioned that I was in Vienna for some research about the rescue of fifty Jewish children in 1939. They both looked at me with identical shocked expressions on their faces. While they didn't know much about the precise circumstances and details of their fathers' escapes from Vienna, Steve said the episode I was describing sounded familiar. That's when I reached into my coat pocket and unfolded a copy of a photograph of the fifty children on board the ship that brought them to America. I had gotten into the habit, for no readily apparent reason, of carrying around the photo wherever I went during my research. I had also been filling in the names of each of the children whenever I was able to clearly identify them. At this point in the project, there were still several children whom I could not match with a name.

Steve immediately pointed to one of the older and taller boys standing in the back row in the photograph. "That's my father, Robert!" he told me. We talked for a few more minutes at the museum and made plans to get together the next day for coffee. I filled them in on more details about the children's rescue, and Steve later sent me more information about his father, who had passed away many years ago. I was able to fill in another name on that group photo.

And then there's the painting of Rosa Jacobs, and how it wound up hanging in our living room in San Francisco.

As part of my research into the backgrounds of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, I was always interested in finding out as much as I could about Gil's work as a lawyer in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time of the rescue mission in 1939, Gil had a law partner named Edward Weyl, and I learned at some point that Eleanor had a niece who had married into the Weyl family. After more digging, I finally was able to get in touch with one of Edward Weyl's sons. Unfortunately, however, he didn't have much information to offer about his father's legal partnership with Gil, which is what I was mostly interested in.

"But I do have something here that might be of some interest," Don Weyl told me. "I think I have a painting that belongs to your wife." The painting, by the fairly renowned America painter Gladys Rockmore Davis, was an elegant portrait of Eleanor Kraus' mother, presumably done sometime in the 1930s. On the back of the painting, along one of the edges of the wooden frame, Eleanor had written in ink that, upon her death, the painting was to be given to her niece Jane, who was Don Weyl's mother. And when Jane died, Eleanor had also written, the painting was to be passed along to Eleanor's granddaughter, Liz Perle. Don, however, knew nothing about Liz, and certainly had no way of finding her after his mother passed away. At least not until I called him one day, out of the blue, asking about his father's long-ago connections to Gil Kraus.

Rosa Jacobs now looks down at us, in her original wooden frame, with my wife's name on the back scrawled out in ink decades ago by her grandmother. Liz can now gaze up at her great-grandmother. And while I still don't necessarily believe in fate, I certainly have come to recognize the power of bashert.

Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California's Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. He is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus" which led to his new book. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.

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Vienna: A Stroll Through a Haunted City

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Steven Pressman wrote about bringing an extraordinary act of quiet heroism to light. He is the author of the recently published book 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was in Vienna earlier this month to talk about my book and to show the documentary film I made at the U.S. Embassy's Amerika Haus cultural center. During my research for this project, I had previously made two separate trips to Vienna but hadn't been back to the city since the fall of 2010. It was a beautiful morning—bright sunshine, brilliant blue skies, a warming spring day—and I took a long walk to revisit some of the places I'd gone to before, all of which figured, one way or another, in Gil and Eleanor Kraus' rescue mission.

I first stopped at the Kunstlerhaus, a nineteenth century artists' exhibition hall that, in the spring of 1939, was the site of the Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art—exhibit, which had traveled throughout Germany and Austria since its original opening, attended by Hitler himself, in Munich in 1937. Gil and Eleanor came to see the exhibition a day or two before they left Vienna with the fifty children. Coincidentally, I had attended only a couple of weeks earlier a fascinating and disturbing exhibition of some of that same "degenerate" art at the Neue Galerie in New York City. Suddenly it struck me as I walked past the Kunstlerhaus that I had gazed upon several of the very same paintings that Gil and Eleanor had viewed 75 years earlier.


Degenerate Art Exhibit

After passing by the elegant Bristol Hotel, where Gil and Eleanor stayed while they were in Vienna, I made my way up Kartnerstrasse, one of the city's fashionable shopping streets (as it was in 1939) and walked past the massive St. Stephen's Cathedral. A few minutes later I found myself on Seitenstettengasse, the street where the offices of Vienna's Jewish community are located today as they were when the Krauses were here. This is where Gil and Eleanor met with the parents and interviewed the children hoping to come to America. Not long before the Krauses arrived, the Nazis raided these offices, arrested Jewish community leaders and took control. During my visit, two armed police officers maintained a vigilant watch at one end of the street. A synagogue adjoins the Jewish community office, as it did in the 1930s. But the police are now stationed here to guard against anti-Semitic attacks, rather than to help carry them out as they did during the Kristallnacht riots of November 1938.


Stadttempel is the main synagogue of Vienna, Austria

As I continued my stroll through Vienna's inner city, I tried to imagine a time when these same, cobblestoned streets were teeming with Jews—lawyers, shopkeepers, merchants, journalists, writers, doctors—all of whom had contributed to the rich vibrancy of this once great cultural capital of Europe. In the 1930s, just like today, Vienna's lovely green parks were lined with wooden benches. By 1938, little plaques had been affixed to the benches announcing they were reserved for Aryans. By the time that Gil and Eleanor arrived, Jewish children and adults alike were no longer even allowed in the parks. On this warm spring day, I'm free to take a seat on those same wooden benches. But the echoes of that once-thriving Jewish culture have vanished into silence. Only a tiny sliver of a Jewish community exists now in Vienna, and that earlier world is gone forever. I slowly made my way back to my hotel, passing yet another row of empty benches. Without warning, my eyes moistened with tears. I was surrounded only by ghosts.

Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California's Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. He is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus" which led to his new book. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.

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Bringing to Light Quiet Heroism

Monday, May 19, 2014 | Permalink

Steven Pressman is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film "50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus," which led to his new book, 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to tell this very dramatic, and heretofore almost completely unknown, Holocaust rescue story that came to a successful conclusion 75 years ago this month.

I say that it was "almost" completely unknown because, in a sense, the story of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, the Philadelphia Jewish couple who carried out the rescue mission of fifty children from Vienna, was basically hiding in plain sight for many of those 75 years.

My wife, Liz Perle, is one of four grandchildren of the Krauses—and she had long been aware, at least generally, of what her grandparents had done in the spring of 1939. More importantly, in terms of my being able to piece together this extraordinary story, Eleanor Kraus had typed out an account of the mission some years after it had taken place. Liz had an onionskin copy of her grandmother's private memoir—and that remarkable document provided me with an essential blueprint for writing my book.

What I really loved about this project was having the opportunity to dig so much deeper into this story, considerably beyond Eleanor's personal account. The main focus of the story, of course, remains on this brave and courageous couple who overcame immense obstacles, both in the United States and in Nazi Germany, in their effort to save a group of children and bring them to safety in America.

But doing justice to the quiet heroism of the Krauses also required me to tell a much broader story about cultural, social, and political conditions that existed throughout the 1930s both in America and in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. In order to accomplish this, my research quite literally took me around the world—from Philadelphia and Washington, DC, to Vienna and Berlin—and eventually to Jerusalem. That's where I came across an astonishing stash of documents (originally located in Vienna but moved to Israel in the 1950s) that provided even more graphic proof of Gil and Eleanor's heroic actions. Tucked away in a set of dusty archives at Hebrew University were thousands of pages of family questionnaires filled out by Jewish families in Vienna who, by the late 1930s, had become increasingly desperate to escape from Hitler's grasp. Included among those documents were the families with children hoping to be chosen by the Krauses for the journey to America.

While sifting through this trove of documents, I came across a two-page, handwritten list of the fifty children eventually selected by the Krauses. My wife, who had joined me on the research trip, held up those pages in her hand and instantly recognized her grandmother's distinctively elegant handwriting. It was a moment of astonishing discovery and an intensely personal family connection that I will never forget.

Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California's Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.

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Interview: Steven Pressman

Monday, April 28, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Holocaust Remembrance Day emphasizes the response of Americans to near-annihilation of the Jews in Europe. A recently published book by Steven Pressman, 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany (Harper), is a gripping story. The author superbly intertwines the events of the Nazi tyranny toward the Jews with the theme of hope, showing how two Jewish Americans, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, took up their call to duty, as they became involved with rescuing refugees in 1939. Elise Cooper recently spoke to Steven Pressman about his work.

Elise Cooper: Do you agree that this book is about Jews actively participating in helping?

Steven Pressman: One of my friends, Paul Shapiro, who works for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, says that this story punctuates punctures one of those myths: the submissiveness of the Jews. There were Jewish groups and leaders trying to save lives but they ran up against incredible obstacles, particularly the U.S. immigration laws.

EC: Can you briefly describe the obstacles the Krauses faced, the first being the State Department?

SP: Gil’s toughest obstacle was not the Gestapo in Berlin or Vienna, but the U.S. State Department. It was tougher for Gil to get the children into the U.S. than it was to get them out of Nazi Germany. It is a minor miracle that he was able to work within the system and figure out a way to get visas for those fifty children. He had to overcome high-level State Department officials, like Breckinridge Long, who were openly anti-Semitic, had no sympathy for the plight of the Jews, and put up brick walls. I discuss the arguments, coming out of the Depression, about immigrants taking away American jobs. What about the children? A ten-year-old is not going to take away a job. FDR was not going to go to war to save Jews. He knew that public opinion polls showed that 95% of the American public were against liberalizing the immigration laws. I think in reading this story Americans should be reminded that this country fell short. People should remember that during this period the Nazis wanted the Jews to leave, although they were only able to leave with the shirts on their back.

EC: What about the other obstacles within the U.S.?

SP: The Krauses had to deal with their fellow American Jews. For some it was pure jealousy and for the organizations there were turf wars. Yet, for others it was the constant fear of backlash and anti-Semitism that Jews had to live with, even in America. The book has a telling public opinion poll: while 95% of the America public was against liberalizing the immigration laws a more striking statistic is that 25% of American Jews also did not want to increase immigration.

EC: Can you describe the obstacles they faced in Nazi Germany?

SP: In Austria there were banners and storm troopers everywhere. There were signs in almost all the shops that said ‘Jews are forbidden here.’ They knew as Jews they were in the belly of the beast. They literally had to sit across the desk from a Gestapo officer explaining how they planned on taking the fifty Jewish children to America.

EC: How would you describe Gil?

SP: He was a very smart, savvy, determined, and stubborn guy. My wife, his granddaughter, says he was the ultimate contrarian. If someone would say ‘up’ he would say ‘down.’ One of my biggest regrets, since they already passed away, is that I could not sit down with them and ask what went through their minds.

EC: Can you discuss how the children were chosen?

SP: They chose those they felt would be emotionally and physically the strongest. The average age was between eight and eleven years, with only a few teenagers. A powerful scene in the book is when five-year-old Heinrich Steinberger was taken off the list after becoming ill shortly before the departure from Vienna. He died three years later at the Sobibor death camp. His picture is ingrained in my mind. I had an email relationship with the wife of the person who took his place. Just think how these two lives had changed. Gil was only limited to fifty because of the amount of housing they had back in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, at that time no one anticipated that leaving any of these children behind meant they would die.

EC: What about the parents’ reactions?

SP: These two secular Jews took action at a time when it was still possible to save lives. They left their own two children at home while risking danger by entering Nazi Germany to save the lives of children they did not know. Most of the parents felt they had no choice. Eleanor wrote that the mothers appeared more hopeful than the fathers, perhaps because the men already had their businesses and livelihoods taken away from them and they now had to lose their children as well. I could not even fathom [considering] such a situation.

EC: Do you think your book relates to today?

SP: This is written seventy-five years after the Holocaust, and hopefully will serve as a reminder of what happened and a warning of what can still happen. There are recent reports of Jews in the Ukraine having to register, pay a tax, and disclose their property. My first reaction was how could this be happening in the twenty-first century? How is this possible? It’s chilling to read these reports and took me back to 1939 Vienna, the setting for my book.”

EC: Numbers are significant in the Holocaust. Do you agree?

SP: We are immersed in numbers. Six million died, 1.5 million of them children. Yet, even though fifty is such a small number in comparison, it is a number people can grasp.

This was the single largest group of unaccompanied children brought to America. Yet, the number is actually much larger than fifty if people take into account that those children lived to have children and grandchildren.

EC: Since the book is based on the HBO documentary 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus are there any differences?

SP: I decided to make the film first because I saw it as a new challenge. Even though the book focuses on the same story it is much more multilayered and in-depth than the film. The book richly and fully explores the broader historical context, the lives of Gil and Eleanor, and the details of the rescue.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

SP: I hope this small story of the Holocaust reminds people of the broader picture. We are within about ten years when there will be no actual eyewitnesses left. I also think it transcends the Holocaust since it shows that individuals can do extraordinary deeds. As a Jew I feel somewhat fulfilled that I was able to write the movie and this book about the Holocaust.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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