Steven Pressman is the director and producer of the HBO documentary film “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which led to his new book, 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to tell this very dramatic, and heretofore almost completely unknown, Holocaust rescue story that came to a successful conclusion 75 years ago this month.
I say that it was “almost” completely unknown because, in a sense, the story of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, the Philadelphia Jewish couple who carried out the rescue mission of fifty children from Vienna, was basically hiding in plain sight for many of those 75 years.
My wife, Liz Perle, is one of four grandchildren of the Krauses — and she had long been aware, at least generally, of what her grandparents had done in the spring of 1939. More importantly, in terms of my being able to piece together this extraordinary story, Eleanor Kraus had typed out an account of the mission some years after it had taken place. Liz had an onionskin copy of her grandmother’s private memoir — and that remarkable document provided me with an essential blueprint for writing my book.
What I really loved about this project was having the opportunity to dig so much deeper into this story, considerably beyond Eleanor’s personal account. The main focus of the story, of course, remains on this brave and courageous couple who overcame immense obstacles, both in the United States and in Nazi Germany, in their effort to save a group of children and bring them to safety in America.
But doing justice to the quiet heroism of the Krauses also required me to tell a much broader story about cultural, social, and political conditions that existed throughout the 1930s both in America and in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. In order to accomplish this, my research quite literally took me around the world — from Philadelphia and Washington, DC, to Vienna and Berlin — and eventually to Jerusalem. That’s where I came across an astonishing stash of documents (originally located in Vienna but moved to Israel in the 1950s) that provided even more graphic proof of Gil and Eleanor’s heroic actions. Tucked away in a set of dusty archives at Hebrew University were thousands of pages of family questionnaires filled out by Jewish families in Vienna who, by the late 1930s, had become increasingly desperate to escape from Hitler’s grasp. Included among those documents were the families with children hoping to be chosen by the Krauses for the journey to America.
While sifting through this trove of documents, I came across a two-page, handwritten list of the fifty children eventually selected by the Krauses. My wife, who had joined me on the research trip, held up those pages in her hand and instantly recognized her grandmother’s distinctively elegant handwriting. It was a moment of astonishing discovery and an intensely personal family connection that I will never forget.
Steven Pressman was born and raised in Los Angeles and received an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California’s Berkeley campus. He spent many years as a journalist, working for a variety of publications in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco. Steven and his wife, Liz Perle, have two grown children and live in San Francisco.
- An Interview with Steven Pressman
- Essays: The Research
- Essays: On the Holocaust
- Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight From Nazi Persecution to American Freedom by Philip K. Jason
- Children of the Holocaust by Stephanie Fitzgerald
- Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and Their Daring Rescue of Young Jews From Nazis by Suzanne Vromen