This week’s book for adults starts out as if it’s fiction, but the book is a true story of the incredible rescue of 50 children from Nazi Germany. Gil and Eleanor Kraus, an American couple, spearheaded the rescue, which turned out to be “the single largest group of unaccompanied children brought to America.”
The book “50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany” was written by journalist and author Steven Pressman. He also wrote, produced and directed a HBO documentary film, “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus.” The film premiered on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 2013. The book was written after the film, with “50 Children” being published by HarperCollins, copyright 2014.
In the introduction, Pressman wrote that the book was based on a memoir written by Eleanor Kraus. It had been “tucked away” in a desk drawer in the Pressman home. Gil and Eleanor were the maternal grandparents of Liz, Pressman’s wife.
Also in the desk drawer were some German passports with the names and photos of some of the children on them. Pressman used the memoir, passports, historical documents and interviews with some of the children (now adults) to write the book.
The book begins one evening in January 1939, in Philadelphia, where Gil and Eleanor and their two children lived. Gil and Eleanor were getting ready to host a dinner party — in fact, the guests were due to arrive. Gil was late getting home from his law office. He didn’t have a party on his mind — far from it — and he wanted to discuss something with Eleanor while he shaved and got dressed.
Gil had spent the afternoon meeting with good friend and real estate man Louis Levine. Levine had gone to meet Gil in the capacity of grand master of Brith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization to which Gil also belonged.
The living conditions for the Jewish people were getting worse at the time, and Levine wondered if it might be possible to save some of the Jewish children trapped in Nazi Germany. He thought that perhaps Brith Sholom might be able to sponsor a rescue effort. After all, the organization had just built a children’s summer camp just an hour away from Philadelphia. The camp included a 25-bedroom house that was vacant.
Finally, Levine got around to the reason he had gone to see Gil. He wondered if his friend might consider taking on the rescue effort. Gil didn’t tell Eleanor just yet, but he already had agreed.
Eleanor had reservations. She knew how dangerous it would be to go into Nazi Germany. Gil also knew that it wasn’t going to be easy.
For one thing, America’s strict labor and immigration laws made it almost impossible to bring children, unaccompanied by parents, into the country. Gil met with officials in the United States. Eleanor agreed to help. Her job was to find sponsors for children, which included asking people questions about their finances and filling out paperwork — something that made Eleanor feel uncomfortable.
The couple, with the help of others, overcame the obstacles and finally traveled into Nazi Germany to interview parents and to come up with a list of 50 children who would be brought to the United States. The book is a detailed account of the rescue, including preliminary work, travels into Berlin and Vienna and the voyage home with the children.
Included in the book’s epilogue are sketches with information about 37 of the 50 children, 19 living as of summer 2013 and 18 deceased. The author was not able to find information about the remaining 13. There is also an afterword by Paul A. Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, and some photographs.
I recommend this book for several reasons. First of all, I was not aware of this rescue effort; perhaps other readers aren’t, either. Then, it is a book of courage, certainly where Gil and Eleanor Kraus were concerned and also for the parents who wanted their children to be safe and for the children themselves who traveled a long way into a strange country without their parents. Also, the reader learns about the views of Americans toward the rescue efforts during that time in history. It is a tremendous book.
“50 Children,” in hardcover, costs $26.99. The book can be purchased locally at Downtown Books. It also can be found with the new books at the Moffat County Library.