In the spring of 1939, on the eve of
The fact that the Krauses were Jewish added to the daunting challenges and long odds that stood in their way. Yet another obstacle was American attitudes and policies during the 1930s that all but shut the door to Jews trapped by the Third Reich.
America's immigration laws included stringent quotas that sharply curtailed the number of foreigners allowed into the country. The
Surprisingly, the Krauses — who also happened to be my wife's late grandparents — faced stiff resistance from Jewish community leaders and organizations. Much of it was rooted in the fear that any attempts to bring Jews into the country would only fan the flames of the anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in America at the time. In fact, when two Jewish congressmen from New York — Emanuel Celler and Samuel Dickstein — suggested a bill to admit victims of Hitler's religious and political persecution, national Jewish groups quickly denounced the proposal. "As heartless as it may seem," the American Jewish Committee announced, "future efforts should be directed toward sending Jewish refugees to other countries instead of bringing them here."
The Krauses remained undeterred. Gil found a sympathetic ear in George Messersmith, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria, who in early 1939 was assistant secretary of State. Messersmith was no champion of broad-scale Jewish rescue efforts, but he looked favorably on Gil's resourceful plan to set aside a small number of unused immigration visas for children rather than let the precious visas simply expire.
In saving a group of children they didn't know, the Krauses offered a glimmer of hope to parents who were only too willing to send their children across an ocean with strangers, without knowing if they would ever see them again.
"To take a child from its mother seemed to be the lowest thing a human being could do," Eleanor Kraus later wrote in a private account of the rescue mission. "Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, 'Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.'"
Happily, a majority of the children saved by the Krauses were ultimately reunited with their parents, who found it easier to obtain visas after their children were already here. A few, however, never again saw their mothers or fathers after saying goodbye at a Vienna train station in May 1939.
I've interviewed several of the children (now in their 80s) rescued by the Krauses. "What people don't understand is that in the beginning, everyone could get out. But nobody would let us in," remembered Henny Wenkart, who left behind her parents and infant sister. "Everyone could've been saved. Everyone."
Wenkart was later reunited with her family in the United States. The Krauses had made sure that all of the children found homes with relatives or temporary foster families after their arrival in America.
In the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom that raged across
And yet each life saved also carries with it a powerful message about the ability of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. "He who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the entire world," declares the Talmud, the ancient collection of rabbinic teachings that, along with the Torah, provides the underpinnings of all aspects of Jewish living.
The Krauses, who were secular Jews, in many respects were hardly the stuff of heroes. But their deeds were heroic, and the remarkable fact that they rarely talked about this episode during the rest of their lives underscores the significance of their Talmudic actions 75 years ago.