by Elise Coop­er

Holo­caust Remem­brance Day empha­sizes the response of Amer­i­cans to near-anni­hi­la­tion of the Jews in Europe. A recent­ly pub­lished book by Steven Press­man, 50 Chil­dren: One Ordi­nary Amer­i­can Couple’s Extra­or­di­nary Res­cue Mis­sion into the Heart of Nazi Ger­many (Harp­er), is a grip­ping sto­ry. The author superbly inter­twines the events of the Nazi tyran­ny toward the Jews with the theme of hope, show­ing how two Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, took up their call to duty, as they became involved with res­cu­ing refugees in 1939. Elise Coop­er recent­ly spoke to Steven Press­man about his work.

Elise Coop­er: Do you agree that this book is about Jews active­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in helping?

Steven Press­man: One of my friends, Paul Shapiro, who works for the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, says that this sto­ry punc­tu­ates punc­tures one of those myths: the sub­mis­sive­ness of the Jews. There were Jew­ish groups and lead­ers try­ing to save lives but they ran up against incred­i­ble obsta­cles, par­tic­u­lar­ly the U.S. immi­gra­tion laws. 

EC: Can you briefly describe the obsta­cles the Kraus­es faced, the first being the State Department?

SP: Gil’s tough­est obsta­cle was not the Gestapo in Berlin or Vien­na, but the U.S. State Depart­ment. It was tougher for Gil to get the chil­dren into the U.S. than it was to get them out of Nazi Ger­many. It is a minor mir­a­cle that he was able to work with­in the sys­tem and fig­ure out a way to get visas for those fifty chil­dren. He had to over­come high-lev­el State Depart­ment offi­cials, like Breck­in­ridge Long, who were open­ly anti-Semit­ic, had no sym­pa­thy for the plight of the Jews, and put up brick walls. I dis­cuss the argu­ments, com­ing out of the Depres­sion, about immi­grants tak­ing away Amer­i­can jobs. What about the chil­dren? A ten-year-old is not going to take away a job. FDR was not going to go to war to save Jews. He knew that pub­lic opin­ion polls showed that 95% of the Amer­i­can pub­lic were against lib­er­al­iz­ing the immi­gra­tion laws. I think in read­ing this sto­ry Amer­i­cans should be remind­ed that this coun­try fell short. Peo­ple should remem­ber that dur­ing this peri­od the Nazis want­ed the Jews to leave, although they were only able to leave with the shirts on their back. 

EC: What about the oth­er obsta­cles with­in the U.S.?

SP: The Kraus­es had to deal with their fel­low Amer­i­can Jews. For some it was pure jeal­ousy and for the orga­ni­za­tions there were turf wars. Yet, for oth­ers it was the con­stant fear of back­lash and anti-Semi­tism that Jews had to live with, even in Amer­i­ca. The book has a telling pub­lic opin­ion poll: while 95% of the Amer­i­ca pub­lic was against lib­er­al­iz­ing the immi­gra­tion laws a more strik­ing sta­tis­tic is that 25% of Amer­i­can Jews also did not want to increase immigration. 

EC: Can you describe the obsta­cles they faced in Nazi Germany?

SP: In Aus­tria there were ban­ners and storm troop­ers every­where. There were signs in almost all the shops that said Jews are for­bid­den here.’ They knew as Jews they were in the bel­ly of the beast. They lit­er­al­ly had to sit across the desk from a Gestapo offi­cer explain­ing how they planned on tak­ing the fifty Jew­ish chil­dren to America.

EC: How would you describe Gil?

SP: He was a very smart, savvy, deter­mined, and stub­born guy. My wife, his grand­daugh­ter, says he was the ulti­mate con­trar­i­an. If some­one would say up’ he would say down.’ One of my biggest regrets, since they already passed away, is that I could not sit down with them and ask what went through their minds.

EC: Can you dis­cuss how the chil­dren were chosen?

SP: They chose those they felt would be emo­tion­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly the strongest. The aver­age age was between eight and eleven years, with only a few teenagers. A pow­er­ful scene in the book is when five-year-old Hein­rich Stein­berg­er was tak­en off the list after becom­ing ill short­ly before the depar­ture from Vien­na. He died three years lat­er at the Sobi­bor death camp. His pic­ture is ingrained in my mind. I had an email rela­tion­ship with the wife of the per­son who took his place. Just think how these two lives had changed. Gil was only lim­it­ed to fifty because of the amount of hous­ing they had back in Philadel­phia. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, at that time no one antic­i­pat­ed that leav­ing any of these chil­dren behind meant they would die.

EC: What about the par­ents’ reactions?

SP: These two sec­u­lar Jews took action at a time when it was still pos­si­ble to save lives. They left their own two chil­dren at home while risk­ing dan­ger by enter­ing Nazi Ger­many to save the lives of chil­dren they did not know. Most of the par­ents felt they had no choice. Eleanor wrote that the moth­ers appeared more hope­ful than the fathers, per­haps because the men already had their busi­ness­es and liveli­hoods tak­en away from them and they now had to lose their chil­dren as well. I could not even fath­om [con­sid­er­ing] such a situation.

EC: Do you think your book relates to today?

SP: This is writ­ten sev­en­ty-five years after the Holo­caust, and hope­ful­ly will serve as a reminder of what hap­pened and a warn­ing of what can still hap­pen. There are recent reports of Jews in the Ukraine hav­ing to reg­is­ter, pay a tax, and dis­close their prop­er­ty. My first reac­tion was how could this be hap­pen­ing in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry? How is this pos­si­ble? It’s chill­ing to read these reports and took me back to 1939 Vien­na, the set­ting for my book.”

EC: Num­bers are sig­nif­i­cant in the Holo­caust. Do you agree?

SP: We are immersed in num­bers. Six mil­lion died, 1.5 mil­lion of them chil­dren. Yet, even though fifty is such a small num­ber in com­par­i­son, it is a num­ber peo­ple can grasp. 

This was the sin­gle largest group of unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren brought to Amer­i­ca. Yet, the num­ber is actu­al­ly much larg­er than fifty if peo­ple take into account that those chil­dren lived to have chil­dren and grandchildren.

EC: Since the book is based on the HBO doc­u­men­tary 50 Chil­dren: The Res­cue Mis­sion of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus are there any differences?

SP: I decid­ed to make the film first because I saw it as a new chal­lenge. Even though the book focus­es on the same sto­ry it is much more mul­ti­lay­ered and in-depth than the film. The book rich­ly and ful­ly explores the broad­er his­tor­i­cal con­text, the lives of Gil and Eleanor, and the details of the rescue. 

EC: What do you want read­ers to get out of the book?

SP: I hope this small sto­ry of the Holo­caust reminds peo­ple of the broad­er pic­ture. We are with­in about ten years when there will be no actu­al eye­wit­ness­es left. I also think it tran­scends the Holo­caust since it shows that indi­vid­u­als can do extra­or­di­nary deeds. As a Jew I feel some­what ful­filled that I was able to write the movie and this book about the Holocaust.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Relat­ed Content:

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.