"Steven Pressman never met Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, but he's devoted the last few years to telling their story, first in an HBO documentary, and now in his new book. "50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany" (Harper, $26.99, 265 pages), recounts the Krauses' often harrowing quest to rescue Jewish children on the eve of World War II.
It's an astonishing story of bravery and tenacity. The couple, working in connection with the national Jewish fraternal organization Brith Sholom, traveled to Germany and Austria in 1939, encountering enormous resistance -- much of it from their own government -- to bring the children safely to America.
The Krauses, nonreligious Jews living in Philadelphia, certainly knew the risks. Gilbert, a lawyer from a philanthropic family, and Eleanor, the mother of two small children, arrived in Vienna to find the streets filled with posters of Hitler and signs warning "Juden Verboten." Undaunted, they made their way through bureaucratic tangles, interviews with hundreds of families -- far more than they could possibly assist -- and unforeseen delays, finally obtaining visas for 50 children, whom they brought to America and housed in a summer camp in Collegeville, Penn. All eventually were placed with American families or reunited with their own. In some cases, their immigration paved the way for parents and siblings.
Pressman, a longtime journalist who lives in San Francisco with his wife, writer Liz Perle, and their two children, has a family connection to the story: Eleanor Kraus was Perle's maternal grandmother.
Still, he says he was unaware of the story until 2001, when Perle handed him a folder full of neatly typewritten pages on onionskin paper. It was Eleanor's account of the rescue mission.
For Pressman, it was an "aha" moment. "I started reading it, and I thought I was reading fiction," the author says. "I just couldn't believe I'd never heard of this story." Aside from a few of Perle's family members, he says few others had, either.
Pressman, who has spent much of his career covering legal affairs for various publications in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, began searching for the surviving children and their relatives. Drawing on Eleanor's account, documentation at the U.S. State Department and archives in Vienna, Jerusalem, and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he developed the story as an hourlong documentary, also titled "50 Children," which premiered on HBO in 2013. Yet even as he finished that project, he decided to tell the story in book form.
Pressman acknowledges that he started both projects with trepidation. "When I first started digging into this story, a lot of people had a very cynical response," he says. "There's this notion -- 'another Holocaust story?' " But he says he's always thought of "50 Children" as an essentially American story: "Obviously, the Krauses had to go to Nazi Germany to get the children. But the tougher challenge was figuring how to get them into the U.S."
The book does a fine job of detailing what Pressman calls the "profoundly hostile social and political environment" surrounding the Krauses' efforts. By 1939, the United States and other countries had tightened restrictions on immigration; public opinion polls from the time, he notes, showed that anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment were "off the charts." Even as Britain was receiving 10,000 Jewish children via Kindertransport, the United States allowed only about 1,100 -- including the 50 children rescued by the Krauses.
"50 Children" also describes the Krauses in meticulous detail. Gilbert was determined, methodical; Eleanor, tender but just as resolute. Her writing about the children -- she was heartsick at the thought of separating them from their families -- yields a particularly moving account.
Although her diary supplied a wealth of detail, Pressman says he often wished he could have spoken with Eleanor and Gilbert.
"I would have asked him how he kept going," the author says. "And I would have asked her how she felt packing for Germany, with two children at home."
Today, Pressman says the project was enormously rewarding -- particularly for the connections he made with some of the "children," who, by the time he met them, were elderly adults, nearly 70 years after the fact.
In all, he was able to account for 40 of the children, about half of them still living. Of the 18 he made contact with, most knew little about the couple who had rescued them.
The other 10, he says, remain a mystery. "I spent countless hours searching," Pressman says. "They've simply left no trace. It's frustrating -- I had this personal goal of learning the fates of all 50. To a certain extent, I'm still doing that. Every once in a while, I go back to that list and type in the name to see what comes up. At some point, I'll probably have to let it go."
Harper, $26.99, 265 pages