On a chilly evening in early January 1939, Eleanor Kraus looked around her dining room and carefully inspected the gleaming china dishes, polished silverware, and sparkling crystal wineglasses that had been neatly laid out on the table. Her husband, Gil, had not yet come home from his law office in downtown Philadelphia, but Eleanor was already dressed for the evening. Their niece was bringing her fiancé to dinner, and Eleanor, as always, wanted everything to shine.
A few minutes later, Gil walked through the front door of the couple’s spacious home, removing his overcoat and setting down his worn leather briefcase. “There is something I need to discuss with you,” he said. Eleanor followed him upstairs and sat down beside him as he shaved and dressed for dinner.
She listened quietly as Gil began describing what sounded like a far-fetched idea. The newspapers had been filled with articles about the increasingly brutal conditions for Jews living under Adolf Hitler’s regime. Less than two months earlier, in the horrific rampage known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—hundreds of synagogues in Germany and Austria had been desecrated and burned to the ground. Jewish-owned businesses had been looted and destroyed. Thousands of Jewish men had been summarily arrested and sent off to concentration camps.
Gil was determined to do something to help, even if it meant disrupting his comfortable life and putting himself in danger.
Earlier that afternoon, he and his friend Louis Levine had begun hatching a plan: to rescue Jewish children trapped inside Nazi Germany. Both men were leaders of Brith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization that had recently built a summer camp outside Philadelphia, including a large stone house with 25 bedrooms. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Gil said, if they could fill it with children—two to a room—who would otherwise face a terrifying future in Hitler’s Germany.
As he finished dressing, Gil turned to his wife and told her he intended to go to Germany to carry out the mission. He asked her if she would accompany him. “No one in his right mind would go into Nazi Germany,” Eleanor protested. “I’d be too scared to set foot in that country, assuming the storm troopers would even let us in.” Her thoughts turned to her children, 13-year-old Steven and nine-year-old Ellen. She and Gil had never been away from them at the same time.
But Eleanor knew how stubborn her husband could be, so she was not surprised when Gil told her he had already made plans to go to Washington, DC, to propose the rescue to U.S. government officials, in particular George Messersmith, a former U.S. minister to Austria who was now serving as assistant secretary of state. Messersmith had worked at the American embassy in Berlin and was acutely aware of the mounting Nazi threat.
In the following days, Gil immersed himself in the United States’ rigid immigration policy. Despite the desperate situation facing Jews in
Europe—and the fact that, at that point, Hitler was allowing them to leave—the United States imposed strict quotas on refugees. To make matters worse, throughout the 1930s, a number of State Department officials had done little to conceal their anti-Jewish attitudes. For instance, James Wilkinson, who worked in the visa division, once warned that easing the nation’s immigration laws would create “a grave risk that Jews would flood the United States.”
But Gil remained fixed on the plan to rescue children. While reviewing immigration records, he discovered that approved visas sometimes went unclaimed. Would it be possible, he wondered, to set aside unused visas for Jewish children whose parents were already on waiting lists to come here?
Messersmith, always the diplomat, said it was an “intriguing” idea. Within days, Gil sent a letter to Messersmith, detailing his proposed mission and stating that there were “ample private funds to provide transportation of the children from Germany to Philadelphia and for their support, maintenance, and education.” Finally, Gil said that he and Eleanor were prepared to go to Germany themselves to select the children and escort them back to the United States.
By now, Eleanor shared her husband’s commitment. She threw herself into the job of obtaining affidavits from friends and others willing to guarantee support of the children, despite the awkwardness of asking them to reveal their bank balances. By early spring, she had completed 54 documents—four extra, just in case.
Right before the couple were to sail, however, a State Department aide warned Eleanor not to accompany her husband: War was imminent in Europe. Despondent over going on his own, Gil persuaded Dr. Robert Schless, a family friend who was their children’s pediatrician, to join him. “I shed a few tears very quietly,” Eleanor said later. “I prayed for their safe return.”
Several days after arriving in Europe, the men made their way to Vienna. A year earlier, in March 1938, Hitler had swallowed Austria into the Third Reich and immediately began a campaign to rid the country of its roughly 200,000 Jews. Jewish leaders in Vienna had been working feverishly to help families leave, and Gil had been advised by American embassy officials to select children for the rescue mission from that city, where conditions were deteriorating at an alarming pace.
Once he got to Vienna, Gil placed an urgent telephone call to Eleanor. In spite of the State Department warnings, he asked her to join him as soon as she could. “There is so much work to do here and very little time,” he told her. “I need you to come.”
Eleanor booked passage on the next ship to Europe.