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.

Relat­ed Content:

A jour­nal­ist with over 30 years’ expe­ri­ence, Steven Press­man is the writer, direc­tor and pro­duc­er of the HBO doc­u­men­tary film, Fifty Chil­dren. He is mar­ried to for­mer New York pub­lish­er Liz Per­le, who is the grand­daugh­ter of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. They live in San Fran­cis­co, CA.Steven Press­man is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.