It is far easier to be morally outraged by a situation than morally engaged in confronting it. We look back at the horrors of slavery or the Holocaust and exclaim, “How could they have let this happen,” even as we effectively ignore the current waves of human miseries washing around our feet. Gil and Eleanor Kraus were no such antiseptic moralists.
In 1939, as Hitler’s persecution of the Jews reached new levels of torment, this prosperous, middle-class Jewish couple from Philadelphia took it upon themselves to select and bring back to America 50 endangered Jewish children from Vienna and to secure for them full financial support—with no government aid—until they could be reunited with their families or, failing that, adopted out. (They settled on 50 children by assessing the community resources available to them.)
Author Steven Pressman, who is married to one of the Krauses’ granddaughters and directed an HBO documentary about the couple, says they were not motivated by religion. Nor did they have any personal ties to the children they sought to save. For them, it was strictly a humanitarian effort. Gil was a lawyer, Eleanor a housewife. At the time they assumed the task, they had two children of their own, a son, 13, and a daughter, 9.
What stands out in 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany is how calmly, methodically and persistently the Krauses went about their work. Government officials discouraged them, as did other Jewish rescue groups who feared that such a high-profile undertaking would cause an anti-Semitic backlash. Moreover, they knew they would be in personal danger when they went into Austria and Germany to persuade the Nazis to let the children leave. Still, they plowed on. Assisting them in their endeavor was their friend and family pediatrician, Bob Schless, who managed to fall in love during the perilous and frustrating mission that took months to plan and complete.
Pressman’s account, which draws on a trove of Kraus family documents and pictures, illustrates just how resistant America was to admitting Jews—even Jewish children—when Germany was still willing to expel rather than exterminate them. This resistance makes the Krauses’ achievement all the more remarkable. As Paul A. Shapiro of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes in the afterword, “the United States took in a total of only about 1,000 unaccompanied children [during this period], of whom fifty—or one of every twenty—were saved by this one couple from Philadelphia.”