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.

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.