With dual careers as a radio broadcaster and an estate-planning attorney, homes on Buttonwood Drive and in Chicago, a loving family that includes wife, Linda, son, Josh, grandson, Blake, and another on the way, David Milberg describes his life as “immensely full and satisfying.” And he owes it all to Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus.
In 1939, the Krauses traveled from their Philadelphia home to Nazi-occupied Vienna to rescue 50 Jewish children. Helga Milberg (then Helga Weiss), David Milberg’s mother, was among them. A recent documentary, “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” details the heroic quest. It intersperses Eleanor Kraus’ diary entries with commentary from Jewish scholars and interviews from nine of the refugees. Narrated by Alan Alda and Mamie Gummer, it aired April 8 — Holocaust Remembrance Day — on HBO.
In “50 Children,” Helga Milberg recalls the crowded housing Jewish residents were forced into following the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria. A giant Nazi flag hung outside their building, which, they were told, had to remain spotless or else they would all die.
“We prayed every night that the birds would stay away and not leave any droppings,” she said.
She winces remembering the final image of her mother as the train pulled out of the station. Her mother, who later died in a concentration camp, couldn’t wave goodbye, because Jews could be arrested for any gesture remotely resembling the “Heil Hitler” salute. Helga Milberg’s father, who was arrested and sent to Dachau, in Germany, before she left Europe, reunited with her in 1940 in Detroit.
Helga and David Milberg got a special prereleased copy of the film, which they watched Sept. 1, 2012, at Helga Milberg’s home in Tucson, Ariz., mere hours before she suffered a fatal stroke.
“It was sobering and surreal to see her story come alive on the screen,” David Milberg said. “We cried, of course, but she liked it very much, especially knowing how it would inform viewers.”
Never one to shy away from painful memories, Helga Milberg shared her experience with military groups, the FBI and her family up until her death.
“Other kids got bedtime stories; I got a recounting of the Holocaust,” David Milberg said.
One of his mother’s stories that did not appear in the documentary involved Nazi soldiers taking children into the woods under the guise of outdoor recreation, then setting their German shepherds loose for attack practice. The dogs killed a few children and maimed others. Guards told the survivors their families would be murdered if they ever spoke of it.
“You would assume the trauma would leave her terrified of German shepherds for life, but she went on to train them to assist handicapped people,” David Milberg said.
Like his mother, David Milberg considers it his honor and duty to show the documentary and share his mother’s experiences with subsequent generations.
“My descendants and I would not even be here if it were not for this story,” he said.