50 CHILDREN by Steven Pressman

 

(Gil and Eleanor Kraus and the 50 children they saved)

One of the most controversial aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews during World War II is whether the United States could have been done more to rescue the eventual victims of this genocide.  Historians have pointed to the lack of sympathy for the plight of Jews or the outright anti-Semitism in the State Department, the immigration quotas that existed going back to the 1924 legislation, and the political approach that the Roosevelt administration took towards the problem as it did not want to upset certain segments of the American electorate.  While all of these road blocks to save European Jewry existed many did find a way to assist in saving Jewish lives and were able to maneuver and overcome the numerous obstacles that were placed in their path.  Two individuals, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, whose story is told in Steven Pressman’s new book, 50 CHILDREN, took upon themselves the challenge of confronting Nazi persecution in Germany and Austria in 1939 and were able to succeed where others failed in obtaining fifty exit visas to allow fifty children to escape their plight and come to the United States in May, 1939.  The book is based on the writings of Eleanor Kraus, interviews with those involved who are still alive, and a degree of historical research.  The story that is told is a remarkable one and should be praised as such.  However, as a historical monograph, much could have been added.  Since the book goes hand in hand with the excellent HBO documentary, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, which aired in April, 2013, it should be seen as an addendum to the program.

The story itself is a sobering one.  Pressman provides general details of events in Europe that affected their Jewish populations and integrates them into his narrative.  The most important would be the union of Germany and Austria, or Anschluss that took place in March, 1938, and Krystallnacht, the night of the broken glass that occurred in November of the same year.  These two events reflect that there was no future for European Jewry.  The Nuremberg Blood Laws that existed in Germany since 1935 were now applicable to Austria and after the pogrom of November, 1938 took place Herman Goering fined the Jewish community 400 million marks for the damage the Nazi thugs were responsible for.  Pressman’s description of these events are accurate, but he could have gone into greater detail and analysis in applying their repercussions as Gil Kraus developed and implemented his plan to save Jewish children.  After a discussion with Louis Levine, the head of the national Jewish fraternal organization called Brith Sholom, Kraus, a successful Philadelphia lawyer developed his plan to rescue fifty Viennese Jewish children in response to the events of 1938.

Pressman tells the story of how Kraus enlisted his wife Eleanor to take care of the massive bureaucratic paper work involved, and Robert Schless, a Philadelphia pediatrician, to accompany him to Vienna to carry out his plan.  What stands out a part from the Nazi persecution of Jews was the obstacles that Kraus and his cohorts had to overcome.  American immigration policy became the back bone of the opposition to allowing Jews to immigrate to the United States.  That policy was enforced by the State Department, particularly by certain officials such as Breckinridge Long, an Assistant Secretary of State, who sent a secret internal memo to members of the Foreign Service “to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visa.” (136)  Long’s instructions were followed carefully as we see the obstacles that were placed in front of the Kraus’.  From nitpicking affidavits, raising financial issues, outright lies and denials, many in the State Department did their best to make sure that the Kraus’ mission to Austria failed.  If it were not for the cooperation of George Messersmith, another Assistant Secretary of State who had served in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, and Raymond Geist, a Foreign Service officer serving in Berlin during the Kraus’ visit in 1939, the Kraus mission would have failed.  Pressman correctly points out that Messersmith and Geist, though sympathetic to the cause of saving the children covered themselves by manipulating documents to reflect their implementation of immigration policies.  Pressman citations of his sources are rather scant in this section of the narrative.  He seems to rely on one book, Henry Feingold’s THE POLITICS OF RESCUE, written in 1970 for much of his background information.  I would have suggested to the author that he consult David Wyman’s THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS, 1933-1939, Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman’s FDR AND THE JEWS, and Erik Larson’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS for a deeper and more recent understanding of State Department policy during that period.

Pressman does a wonderful job describing how the children were chosen.  The interviews that the Kraus’ conducted with the children and their families was heartwarming.  The transcript of these conversations was important for the reader to witness to gain insights into what parents were going through by sending their children to a foreign country, not knowing if they would ever see them again.   Another area that Pressman should be commended for was his discussion of the opposition from within the Jewish community for what the Kraus’ hoped to achieve.  This subject touches a nerve as many historians have noted throughout the Holocaust that different factions within the American Jewish community worked at cross purposes to the detriment of the victims of Hitler’s death camps.  Pressman also spends a great deal of time exploring the social and political climate in the United States during the Depression.  He discusses the hostile environment as people feared an influx of Jews at a time when jobs were at a premium.  He goes on to explore the depths of isolationist feeling that dated back to World War I, in addition to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that scared American Jews who did not want to rock the boat by overtly supporting Jewish immigration.

When the author sticks to the plight of the children and the plan to save them he is at his best.  However, at times he strays from the story to bring in what appears to be a more human interest component.  Constant references to Eleanor Kraus’ feelings, wardrobe, and vignettes about her experiences detract from the overall narrative as do other examples.  The historical narrative of the Kraus mission and the obstacles they overcame are more than enough to carry the story, anything that detracts from it should not have made their way into the book.

Pressman concludes the narrative by tracing the lives of 37 out of the 50 children that were saved and what became of them and their families.  Overall, the book is well written and presents an unimaginable and heroic adventure that saved many lives and told a story that needs to be retold over and over so we will not forget the lessons of the Holocaust.  For the general audience the book will prove to be a quick and satisfactory read, but for those who would like more insight and documentation I think the book is somewhat lacking.

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