Planning the Rescue
In January 1939, the president of the Independent Order Brith Sholom, Louis Levine, approached Gilbert Kraus about trying to save some of the Jewish children trapped inside Nazi Germany. He offered to completely fund Kraus's efforts, provided Kraus would organize and carry out the mission. Levine also offered use of Brith Sholom's recently completed, 25-bedroom country retreat, which they had built to use as a retirement home for members.
Kraus immediately agreed and set to work. The following week he and Levine travelled to Washington, DC, to meet with representatives of the Department of State. While he was in DC, Gilbert's wife, Eleanor, began the process of procuring 50 affidavits that would prove sponsorship and support for each child's immigration to the United States.
To complete these forms, Eleanor sought the advice of Murray Levin of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Levin advised Eleanor on the complicated legal process of completing the affidavits and securing statements of financial security, copies of financial records, and letters of reference. She also collected Gilbert's records (such as bank statements), and documents and references from colleagues and friends who would help them. Working tirelessly for six weeks, she completed 54 affidavits, including four extra in case any fell through.
As Eleanor collected the affidavits, she and Gilbert met with Under Secretary of State George Messersmith. During their meetings, Messersmith confirmed that their idea for obtaining unused visas (so-called “dead number visas”) for the children would theoretically work. The “dead number visas” were pre-approved visas that were “rejected [or] returned at the last minute by people who couldn't leave when the time for departure came.” However, Messersmith warned that there was no way to guarantee success unless they travelled to Germany and worked with the US Consul in Berlin. Furthermore, he warned that there would be more challenges, as some American rescue organizations would attempt to discredit their efforts.
After organizing the affidavits, Eleanor and Gilbert met again with Messersmith. He once again encouraged them to go to Germany to meet with US consular officials and referred them to the Passport Division. An official in the Passport Division warned that Germany and the political atmosphere were especially unsafe for women. While she was concerned about the prospect of war, Eleanor suggested that their friend Robert Schless travel with Gilbert. Not only would Schless be a travel companion for Gilbert, he also spoke German, was a doctor, and would be able to review the candidates for immigration.
Working within the Existing Legal System
In order for the Krauses' efforts to be successful, they depended largely on the advice of State Department officials. Within the Department, they were able to find individuals who were sympathetic to their rescue efforts, yet frustrated by the restrictions of immigration law. In February 1939, Congressman Leon Sacks arranged a meeting for himself, Kraus, and Levine with Messersmith to propose their rescue plan.
The Krauses had to work within the existing legal system for immigration. While there were many individuals who sought to flee Nazi-occupied Europe for the United States, there was a stringent quota system in place in the United States. For example, the 1924 US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) imposed strict quotas on immigration based on nationality. Furthermore, the economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression caused immigration authorities to ban individuals who were unlikely to find employment in the United States.
Messersmith confirmed that the best plan was to use “dead number visas” to bring the children to the United States. Kraus believed that they could use these visas for children of families who were at the top of the immigration lists, but lacked the means to leave Germany. Messersmith promised to write to Consular Chargé d'Affaires in Berlin, Raymond H. Geist, who would assess the feasibility of Kraus's proposal.
Criticism of the Mission
Almost as soon as the Krauses began planning their rescue, they received criticism from other American Jewish rescue societies. Some of the criticism was against the Krauses themselves, claiming that their rescue mission was nothing more than a publicity stunt. In late February 1939, the German-Jewish Children's Aid, Inc., sent a letter to the Visa Division at the State Department to determine if Brith Sholom had received authorization for the immigration of 250 children outside quota restrictions. The German-Jewish Children's Aid claimed that providing special circumstances to the Krauses could put other rescue societies in an embarrassing situation or risk the operation of these societies in their rescue effort.
In June 1939, the Krauses attempted to raise money from American-based rescue organizations for their efforts. Again, the German-Jewish Children's Aid requested that the Krauses stop their fundraising. The Krauses did agree to stop public fundraising, but reaffirmed their commitment to their rescue mission.
Despite the criticism from other organizations, the Krauses also received assistance and support from others. For example, the Jewish Community in Vienna offered the Krauses office space and supplies during their mission and assigned several staff to assist them in the management of their rescue.
Arrival in Europe
Robert Schless and Gilbert Kraus departed for Germany from New York on April 7, 1939. Upon arriving in Berlin, the Consular Chargé d'Affaires, Raymond H. Geist, informed them that their best chance of finding children eligible for immigration would be in Vienna. Shortly after, Kraus and Schless made contacts within the Jewish community in Vienna and began screening candidates.
On April 17, Eleanor received a telephone call from Gilbert. Giving little away other than noting that they had begun operations in Vienna and that he was safe, he asked her to purchase passage aboard the United States Line ship George Washington, which left port at midnight on April 20 for Hamburg. Excited and nervous at the prospects before her, Eleanor made all of the necessary arrangements for her family and, two days later, arrived at New York harbor with few hours to spare before her departure.
From Berlin to Vienna
When Kraus and Schless arrived in Berlin on April 14, 1939, they believed they would assess children in the German capital before moving to other cities. However, when they arrived, they learned from Geist that there were over 200 eligible children in Vienna. They immediately left for the Austrian capital. There, Gilbert met with Consul General Leland Morris and Vice Consul Thomas Hohenthal. The two men noted that many of the Viennese families with children had registered for immigration to the United States, but were unable to leave Europe because they could not find sponsors in the United States or were unable to pay the Nazi-imposed property confiscation fines in order to leave the country.
Kraus and Schless spent a couple of days determining the criteria for selecting which children they would take to America. They decided to consider only children between four and fourteen who were “healthiest in mind and body.” On April 19, they began screening candidates. Each child underwent physical and psychological examinations. The interviews continued until the end of April.
When she arrived in Vienna on April 28, Eleanor almost immediately began assisting in the interview process. With the help of Eleanor and other colleagues, the group decided upon 26 children and delivered a list of their names to Vice Consul Hohenthal on May 2. Hohenthal confirmed that each child was eligible for immigration and the Krauses' team began matching the children with an appropriate affidavit. They soon added more children to the list. Within days they had selected the 50th child, but learned—potentially disastrously—that there were no visas remaining in Vienna. Morris suggested that the Krauses travel immediately to Berlin to secure any visas remaining at that consular office.
By May 20, the Krauses had finalized most of their arrangements. That evening, they attended a farewell meal with the children and their families at the Kultusgemeinde [the Viennese Jewish Community]. The following day, they departed for Berlin. Many of the parents accompanied their children to the train station, where they saw them off.
The Berlin office was able to accommodate the Krauses' request for visas. The children arrived in Berlin on May 21, and were scheduled for physical examinations and final processing for the following day. The Krauses purchased fifty-three passages on the SS President Harding, which would leave for New York from Hamburg on May 23.
The children rescued by the Krauses came from diverse backgrounds. Some had parents who were born in Austria, while others had parents from present-day Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. Some were from poor families, while others were raised in the middle class. All of the children had experienced life in Nazi-occupied Vienna. Furthermore, all of the children and their families had intended to leave Austria, but were unable to because they lacked sufficient resources.
Just days before they were to leave Vienna, one of the children, Heinrich Steinberger became ill. Because he was too sick to travel, the Krauses chose another child, Alfred Berg, to take his place. According to archival records, Heinrich and his mother were sent to Izbica on June 14, 1942. From Izbica, their train was routed directly to the Sobibór camp, where they were most likely killed upon arrival.
Life in America
The children's voyage to America was far from ideal. They were scattered throughout the ship in order to accommodate their numbers. Some of the children experienced seasickness. Others worried that the ship would sink at any moment.
After eleven days at sea, the Harding arrived in New York Harbor. The children were met by Louis Levine, Congressman Sacks, nearly two dozen people from Brith Sholom, and reporters. Within hours of arriving in New York, the children were taken to Pennsylvania. They arrived at the Brith Sholom retreat, where they remained for several months. Within their first days, the children received medical attention and food.
At the retreat, they took courses in civics and US history, as well as intensive English-language training. By August 1, Gilbert realized that the children needed more structure than was offered at the retreat, and began looking for foster families.
Many of the children went to live with friends and colleagues from Brith Sholom. The children had varied experiences with their foster families. Some longed for their own parents and felt that their foster parents were ill-suited to care for them. Others quickly adapted to their lives in America and rejected their parents when they immigrated to the United States. Many of the children were never reunited with their families. The Krauses took two children in, Robert and Johanna Braun. The Braun children lived with the Krauses until after the war, when they were reunited with their parents.
Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus intended to bring additional children to the United States but there were no subsequent rescue missions by Brith Sholom. Their efforts were one of the largest private rescue operations before the beginning of World War II.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have affected Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus’s decision to attempt to rescue Jews in Europe?
- How did the US State Department assist or hinder the efforts of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus?
- What responsibilities do other nations have regarding refugees from oppressive regimes?
- How can individuals contribute to or assist in the rescue of endangered citizens of other nations?