Keep Your Doors Open: Lessons from Henny Wenkart
Since Donald Trump took office in 2016, the United States has enacted regressive policies to limit the number of immigrants who enter the country. His is not the first administration to turn its back on those from other countries whose lives are endangered. In the 1930s and 40s, as Hitler came to power, the US largely kept its doors shut to those in desperate need of sanctuary, allowing scores of innocent lives to be lost. It’s devastating to watch our country repeat a dishonorable past.
Ninety-one year old Henny Wenkart can attest to this regrettable reality.
Henny was 11 in 1939 when German troops marched into Austria. Like every Jewish family, her parents were desperate to save their children’s lives. Fortunately for her and 49 other youngsters in the community, a Jewish couple over 4,300 miles away in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania cared deeply about their fate and felt compelled to act.
Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus had no connection to Henny or anyone else in Europe victimized by the Nazis. Neither had relatives who were personally threatened by Hitler’s rise to power. But the Krauses had a remarkable moral compass. They felt compelled to devise a plan to save the lives of Jewish children by bringing them to the US.
The Krauses sought help from seemingly likely sources—the Roosevelt Administration and the leaders of the Philadelphia Jewish community—but neither were willing to assist. In many parts of the country, the Jewish leadership feared actions that could further fuel the antisemitic fervor.
Yet, the Krauses’ determination was not diminished. They discovered that a Jewish sleepaway camp operated by Brith Sholom, a Philadelphia-based Jewish fraternal organization, had 50 unused beds. Buoyed by the realization that temporary housing was available, the Krauses made the courageous decision to go to Europe. As Jews, this was a highly dangerous time to travel, but it was the only way their rescue mission could succeed.
The Krauses needed German visas for every child and these were becoming increasingly difficult to secure. They also needed 50 affidavits signed by people in America who were willing to guarantee that they would support these children.
When the Jewish community in Vienna became aware of the Krauses’ plans, Henny’s parents were among the hundreds who brought their children to the city’s Jewish Center to learn more. The children were chosen by the Krauses based on their ability to leave their families and withstand a long journey to America.
Henny was offered one of the available spots, but her sister was too young to be selected. Once the children for the journey were identified, the families had one week to decide whether to send their children away. Henny immediately knew that she would say yes. But she waited days before telling anyone.
“I stayed in bed all week. I couldn’t sleep or eat. I didn’t have a decision to make. The minute they said that I could go, I was going,” she said to me.
It was a complex situation: Henny’s parents encouraged her to accept the offer and participate in the mission. Yet Henny was laden with guilt. While she’d have a lifetime of opportunities if she went to the United States, her parents and sister would face imminent danger in Austria.
“I never got over the realization that I was leaving my parents and sister in danger and saving my own life. I have never fully dealt with it,” she said.
After months of planning, the rescue mission was ready to set sail. The SS President Harding left Hamburg, Germany on May 23, 1939 and arrived in New York Harbor on June 3, 1939. All the children who sailed with the Krauses were allowed to enter the US. Soon after she arrived, Henny received the good news that her parents and sister were able to obtain visas to join her in America.
The effort to bring Henny and 49 other Jewish children to this country is beautifully depicted in the documentary 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. & Mrs. Kraus. The movie, which is available on HBO, is based on a book written by the Krauses’ grandson-in-law Steven Pressman. Henny is among a handful of speakers in the film who were saved by Mr. and Mrs. Kraus.
In the documentary, Henny makes a poignant observation about the situation in 1939: “It wasn’t a matter of people being unable to leave Europe. Anybody was still able to get out. The trouble was, there wasn’t anywhere to go. If there had been more doors open, everybody could have been saved. Everybody.”
This is a sobering statement. The US government had the resources to assist many whose lives were endangered during WWII. But isolationist and anti-immigrant attitudes prevailed. The Krauses’ mission was not the only rescue effort, but sadly, the total number of children brought out of Europe during World War II was minuscule compared with the enormous need and the US’s extensive capacity to accept refugees.
It’s been decades since that war and, once again, our borders are closed to vast numbers who face danger in their homelands. When we turn our backs on those who desperately need entry, we repeat a shameful history.
When Henny mentions the multitudes that might have been saved if borders had been opened, she was referencing 1939. It’s a message that is hauntingly relevant in 2020.
Henny Wenkart earned a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University and a doctorate in teaching from Stern College. She was one of the original Board members of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
This essay originally appeared on Susan Goodman’s blog ACTING OUR AGE: WOMEN’S LIVES AT 85+ and has been adapted for JWA with permission from the author.
How to cite this page
Goodman, Susan. "Keep Your Doors Open: Lessons from Henny Wenkart." 25 February 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 1, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/keep-your-doors-open-lessons-henny-wenkart>.