Saving the 50
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 to the U.S.? 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 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 begun 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 phone 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.
When she arrived, Gil warned her that the secret police would monitor their every move. Their rooms would be searched daily. Signs proclaiming “Juden verboten”—”Jews forbidden”—greeted them wherever they went. Buildings were covered with swastikas, and images of Hitler hung in every shop window.
Hundreds of Austrian Jews were desperate enough to want to send their children away—without knowing if they would ever see them again. As word spread about the transport mission, families lined up outside a Jewish community centre for a chance to meet with the Krauses. One child recalled years later, “I’ll never forget standing in that line with my mother. People threw stones and tomatoes at us and called us all kinds of names.” The children’s parents had already applied for visas to America, but the waiting list was daunting. More than 25,000 Jews from Vienna had applied in the last 10 days of March alone.
Gil, who spoke a little German, interviewed parents who pleaded with him to take their children. Eleanor found it almost unbearable to imagine what was going through their minds. “To take a child from his mother seemed to be the lowest thing a human being could do,” she wrote later. “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.'”