Full title: 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany
Extraordinary and true story about how Gil and Eleanor Kraus saved fifty Jewish children from the Nazi Holocaust. I watched the HBO documentary after I read this and, though similar and emotionally powerful, I enjoyed the book more because it provides a detailed history for each child (that Pressman was able to locate). My only complaint about the book is that, though the story is gripping, it moves very slowly. My book club had a fascinating and educational discussion about 50 Children and, all said, I am very glad that it was the final club pick of 2016.
Did you know about this episode from US history?: “The fifty boys and girls whose lives were saved by Gil and Eleanor Kraus comprised the largest single known group of children, traveling without their parents, who were legally admitted into the United States during the Holocaust.” pg 9, ebook. I didn’t realize that in the late 1930’s, that Jewish people were allowed, and even violently encouraged, to leave the Third Reich. The trouble was that, like other large displaced populations more recently, no country on earth was prepared to let that many people in or provide the social services required. Fortunately, Gil Kraus was a well-connected lawyer who was willing and able to work within existing immigration and labor laws to find a way to bring the children into the US.
I knew that the situation was awful for Jewish people in Europe before and during World War II, but, until I read this book, I didn’t realize the complete hopelessness that was experienced even before concentration camps became the ‘final solution’: “Within the first ten days of the Anschluss, the Viennese police reported nearly one hundred suicides throughout the city, virtually all of them Jews. By the end of April, the number of suicides had jumped to at least two thousand. Among the victims was Henny Wenkart’s pediatrician, who took his life by jumping out a window.” pg 42, ebook.
The American diplomats in Austria and Berlin had a front row seat to the horrors that the Jewish population were experiencing, but their hands were tied by national policy and immigration caps. George Messersmith and Raymond Geist helped the Krauses as much as they could, within the law: “The Jews in Germany are being condemned to death. Their sentence will be slowly carried out, but probably too fast for the world to save them,” Geist (US foreign service officer in the Third Reich) wrote in a private letter to Messersmith (State Department secretary, stationed in Washington D.C.) in December 1938, less than a month after Kristallnacht.” pg 61, ebook.
Why was the American publication so anti-immigration?: “The United States still bore the scars of the Great Depression, and restricting immigration was seen as a way to protect jobs for Americans, who for years had been plagued with staggering unemployment rates. But challenging economic considerations were not the only factors at play in the immigration debate. The American public simply was not moved by the dire situation in Europe.” pg 68, ebook. And, antisemitism was far more prevalent than it is today. All of these things made it difficult if not impossible for the Jewish people who were trying to escape the Nazis.
Even after the Krauses were able to get the children to the United States, they faced harsh criticism from other Jewish charity groups for their actions. I was absolutely blown away by that. You’d think that people would have banded together and said, “Look what’s possible!”, but instead, they fractured and accused the Krauses of breaking immigration laws. “Was it envy that prompted others to criticize what had clearly been a stunningly unique and successful rescue? Whatever their motivation, some of these same people now wondered if they might simply duplicate Gil’s strategy. pg 201, ebook. But, since this was the largest group to get out, clearly the others didn’t succeed.
At book club, we talked about how the 1939 situation is similar to what the world is facing today with the Syrian refugee crisis and, though we all thought that immigration policy needs to be re-examined, that the real tragedy is that the world still hasn’t found a way to respond to the wars and conflicts that cause such displacement in the first place. Is humanity ever going to figure out a way to either co-exist peacefully or provide sanctuary for those displaced by the fighting? I don’t know, but it’s a question that we should think about.
Recommended for anyone interested in the Holocaust, immigration, or testimonies from World War II- as uplifting as it is unsettling, 50 Childrenis a timeless lesson for everyone about the evils that happen when those able to help choose not to or look away.
Thanks for reading!