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Book Review - "50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany"

The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category link on the far right side bar.

9780062237477_p0_v3_s260x420Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 28th emphasizes the response of Americans to the widespread persecution 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, is a gripping story. The author superbly intertwines the events of the Nazi tyranny towards the Jews with the theme of hope, showing how two Jewish Americans, Gil and Eleanor Krause, became involved with rescuing refugees in 1939.

The book is based on the HBO documentary ( 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, yet has a much more in depth description of the Krauses life and the rescue itself. The first part of the book discusses the events in Germany and America that led to the desire by Gil and Eleanor to initiate a plan of rescue.  The second part of the book goes into a fascinating account of the rescue itself and how the children were chosen. The author explains that in 1939 Jews were encouraged to leave after all their possessions were seized.  The last part of the book allows the readers to gain a glimpse of the children’s lives as they adjust to America and afterward.

Pressman told, “I wanted to weave the rescue with the historical events happening in Europe at that time.  I did not think the story could be told without telling the story of Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks against the Jews, and that story could not be told without explaining how Austria was annexed by Germany.  I wanted to show the broader historical context but also to explain how 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.”

Pressman is hoping that readers understand that the Krauses faced many obstacles, some obvious and some not so obvious.  The obvious is the Nazi regime itself.  Pressman noted, “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.”

Anyone who has read about pre-WWII might have grasped how America’s immigration laws, leaders, and different administrative departments prevented many Jews from being rescued.  The State Department actively thwarted Jews from legally entering America.  Pressman gives a very good detailed account how the number of visas in the 1930’s actually exceeded the number of immigrants actually entering the US, mainly due to the State Department’s employees who had no sympathy for the plight of the Jews and were openly anti-Semitic, such as Breckinridge Long. A powerful quote from one of those who were rescued, “This was a time when everybody could get out but nobody would let us in.”

The not so obvious obstacle Pressman informatively discusses is that the Krauses had to deal with their fellow American Jews.  For some it was pure jealously and for the organizations there were turf wars. Yet, for others it was the constant fear of backlash that Jews had to live under, 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 telling statistic is that 25% of American Jews also did not want to increase immigration. 

50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany is a brilliantly written book that takes the reader on a journey back in time.  Yet, it is relevant today because Gil and Eleanor’s story proves that individuals with courage and strength can overcome the odds.  In this case the fifty children saved by the Krauses turned out to be the single largest group of unaccompanied children brought to America.  Everyone should take the time on April 28th to remember that fewer than 1,200 unaccompanied children were allowed into the United States throughout the entire Holocaust, in which 1.5 million children perished. Steven Pressman’s book does just that and is a very insightful read.