The phrase "We must never forget" has long since passed into the realm of cliché, especially given its overuse and appropriation by bumper-sticker manufacturers post-9/11, but its core remains true: When atrocities occur, there are things we really need to remember, not the least of which is the people who did the right thing when few others would. San Francisco filmmaker Steve Pressman is helping us to remember with his documentary 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, premiering April 8 on HBO.50 Children tells the story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Philadelphia Jewish couple who travelled to Nazi-occupied Europe in early 1939 and returned to America with 50 Jewish children. This wasn't a commando raid, mind you; they did it by the book, filling out all the paperwork and getting visas for all the children, and being able to prove that they would be provide proper homes for the kids. And they pulled it off, managing to keep their cool in spite of many face-to-face encounters with Nazi officials.
It was as gutsy and heroic as anything in an Alastair MacLean story -- moreso, really, because the Krauses were just ordinary people who decided to go out of their way (way, way out of their way) to help those who were unable to help themselves.
Among the fascinating elements of 50 Children is its look at how deeply anti-Semitic the good ol' U.S. of A. was at the time, so much so that the Krauses were discouraged by Jewish leaders, who were afraid that their plan would just make things worse for the Jews in America. American Exceptionalism is represented in 50 Children by a (much higher-quality) clip of the long-forgotten Christian demagogue Father Coughlin, an early Hitler supporter who reveals himself to have more in common with Germany's chancellor than just his oratorical style and his floppy emo hair:
Yeah, Americans aren't always the good guys, and even people who claim to be on the side of God can get it very, very wrong. (Coughlin went to his grave certain that he was the one going to heaven.) But Steve Pressman's documentary demonstrates that sometimes the most humble of people can become the greatest of heroes.
Narrated by the always-comforting Alan Alda, with Mamie Gummer reading from Mrs. Kraus's memoir, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus is playing for the next few weeks on all the various flavors of HBO, as well as On Demand and HBO Go. For more information and the full schedule, visit hbo.com/documentaries. Check it out.