Would You Entrust Your Child to a Stranger if it Meant You Could Save Her Life?

Last night I watched a documentary called 50 Children, the Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus (available on HBO until 5/5), about a Philadelphia couple, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who set off in 1939 on a mission to bring 50 Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Austria. The Krauses faced several daunting obstacles along the way—they themselves were Jewish, to start, and the mission required traveling through Berlin and Vienna; they were also hampered by an American bureaucracy that was surprisingly apathetic in its humanitarian efforts.

The Krauses’ story is told partly through Eleanor’s journals, which I found to be quite moving. In the excerpt below, Eleanor describes the hundreds of Jewish families who, upon learning of their mission, begged for the privilege to send their kids to America:

“To take a child from its mother seemed to be the lowest thing a human being could do, yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Every parent we met seemed to say: ‘Here. Yes. Freely. Gladly. Take my child to a safer shore.’ ” 

Mr. and Mrs. Kraus and the 50 Jewish children they rescued aboard the ship that brought them to the U.S., 1939

Mr. and Mrs. Kraus and the 50 Jewish children they rescued from Austria, aboard the ship that brought them to the United States in 1939 (photo courtesy of the New York Times)

This sentiment reminds me of a story passed down to me by Felicia, my grandfather’s oldest niece. Felicia was born in 1938 and is the only living Kurc able to share her first-hand memories of the war. By the time she was five, Felicia had narrowly survived a mass shooting; she’d escaped the Radom ghetto (twice); and she’d witnessed, crouched beneath a kitchen table in an apartment in Warsaw, the brutal death of a fellow Jew discovered in hiding.

Shortly after the Warsaw incident, Felicia’s mother Mila realized with despair that it was impossible for her to keep her daughter safe. So when she caught wind of a Catholic convent outside of the city accepting children, she went right away and begged the Mother Superior to take her daughter in. At the convent, Felicia’s hair was dyed blond. She learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, and Hail Mary. And her name was no longer Felicia Kurc, it was Barbara Cedransk.

I believe this photo was taken of the family in the Radom ghetto, in 1942 before Mila (second from the left at the top) and Felicia managed to escape

I believe this photo was taken of the Kurc family in the Radom ghetto, in 1942, just before Mila and Felicia (sitting on her grandfather Schlomo’s lap) managed to escape

As a parent, it’s impossible for me to consider what it would take to give up my child, with the hope that he may be safer without me—hope being a key word. I’m heartbroken when I imagine what it must have felt like for Mila to leave her daughter for days (and often weeks) between visits to the convent. “It wasn’t easy for either of us,” Felicia told me. “When my mother would come, she’d stand outside the playground fence. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I could see her, but I had to pretend I didn’t know her. So I’d  make my way casually toward the fence and bend over, pretending to tie my shoe; upside-down, I’d smile and wave.”

Felicia in Rio de Janeiro, 1950

I love Felicia’s expression in this photo (especially compared to the one in the wartime photo above), taken in Rio de Janeiro, 1950

As difficult as those visits must have been, it’s a blessing, I realize, that Mila was able to check in, to see with her own eyes that Felicia was alive and well. How must the families in Austria have felt, I wonder, sending their children with two strangers across the Atlantic to an unfamiliar land, not knowing when, or if they’d reunite?

Eleanor Kraus wrote in her journal that she begged each of the parents not to wave goodbye from the tracks on the day the train carrying their kids pulled away from the station in Berlin. “To lift their hands,” Eleanor wrote, “would resemble a salute to Hitler—an illegal act for a Jew, punishable by death.” The image of those parents standing at the tracks, unable even to wave as their children, plucked fresh from their arms, disappeared before their eyes, will haunt me for years to come.