Don’t miss the extraordinary documentary “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” by first-time director Steve Pressman, airing tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO. Narrated by Alan Alda, with Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) who reads from Eleanor’s memoirs.
The movie tells the extraordinary story of Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, an upper-middle class Philadelphia couple who left their comfortable home and children and traveled Nazi-occupied Vienna and Germany in 1939 to save 50 Jewish children from certain death in the impending Holocaust.
Once they arrived in Europe, the couple were constantly in danger and fearful they would be arrested or even killed by Nazi officers. But they were undeterred in their mission to bring the children to the U.S. against almost insurmountable odds.
Pressman is married to Liz Perle, one of the Kraus’s grandchildren, who knew the story of her grandparents since childhood as did the rest of their family, but never spoke of it. It was the grandchildren who decided to make the story public.
Alda was at the premiere of the movie last week at the HBO offices in Times Square, where he mingled with guests, posed for photographs and talked about the film. Now 77, he still looks and sounds great.
Other guests at the screening included Peter Kraus (grandson), Henny Weinkart, one of the rescued children, Israel’s Consul General Ido Aharoni and Sheila Nevins, the savvy president of HBO Documentary Films.
Nevins told me that the film came to HBO when an associate of Pressman’s, who worked at HBO, brought her the documentary “in a somewhat rawer form.” She said, “It was so moving and spectacular and we doctored it up a little with Alan Alda to narrate.” She had met him some 40 years ago and thought, “This is an older person’s film and I’m an older person and he’s an older person, let’s call him.”
The movie feels like a suspense thriller and until the end of the movie, it’s not clear whether the Krauses will succeed. As someone in the film points out, before the doors in Europe where shut, “Jews could get out, but no one would let us in.” The children needed visas, which were almost impossible to obtain, and passports, which had to be authorized by Nazi officials. The couple used their brains and considerable charms – they looked like movie stars – to accomplish their feat.
Alda, who most people still think of as Hawkeye from “M*A*S*H,” told me when he got the call from HBO he agreed to narrate because the Kraus story, which he did not know, moved him. “I don’t think most people know the rescue story, which is so emotional,” Alda told me.
The story and the entries in Eleanor’s memoirs, which related what the couple experienced during their efforts, keeps the audience constantly in suspense. There’s a lot of tension in it because you really don’t know that they’re going to make it out. “You can imagine what they must have felt, hope and then despair and then hope,” he said. “And that they got them out is such affirmation of that kind of effort to help people that you don’t know exist, and they’re children.”
Alda added, “That’s an amazing kind of courage and responsibility they took, and a story like that I really think needs to be told. Even though we get each year farther and farther in time from this horrible event in world history, we’ve got to tell these stories more, not less.”
As for Pressman, who was a print journalist for 30 years, he told me even the Holocaust Museum in Washington didn’t know about the story until the Kraus family made them aware of it because of manuscripts, documents, and passports that the family had in their possession for more than 75 years.
“I’ve never made a film before, and here I’m directing Mamie Gummer and Alan Alda,” Pressman said. “I thought I was in a parallel universe at that point.”
The film airs tonight on HBO. It is co-presented by the United States Holocaust Museum.