Steven Press­man is the direc­tor and pro­duc­er of the HBO doc­u­men­tary film 50 Chil­dren: The Res­cue Mis­sion of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” which led to his new book, 50 Chil­dren: One Ordi­nary Amer­i­can Cou­ple’s Extra­or­di­nary Res­cue Mis­sion into the Heart of Nazi Ger­many. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I feel extreme­ly for­tu­nate to have been able to tell this very dra­mat­ic, and hereto­fore almost com­plete­ly unknown, Holo­caust res­cue sto­ry that came to a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion 75 years ago this month.

I say that it was almost” com­plete­ly unknown because, in a sense, the sto­ry of Gil and Eleanor Kraus, the Philadel­phia Jew­ish cou­ple who car­ried out the res­cue mis­sion of fifty chil­dren from Vien­na, was basi­cal­ly hid­ing in plain sight for many of those 75 years.

My wife, Liz Per­le, is one of four grand­chil­dren of the Kraus­es — and she had long been aware, at least gen­er­al­ly, of what her grand­par­ents had done in the spring of 1939. More impor­tant­ly, in terms of my being able to piece togeth­er this extra­or­di­nary sto­ry, Eleanor Kraus had typed out an account of the mis­sion some years after it had tak­en place. Liz had an onion­skin copy of her grand­moth­er’s pri­vate mem­oir — and that remark­able doc­u­ment pro­vid­ed me with an essen­tial blue­print for writ­ing my book.

What I real­ly loved about this project was hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dig so much deep­er into this sto­ry, con­sid­er­ably beyond Eleanor’s per­son­al account. The main focus of the sto­ry, of course, remains on this brave and coura­geous cou­ple who over­came immense obsta­cles, both in the Unit­ed States and in Nazi Ger­many, in their effort to save a group of chil­dren and bring them to safe­ty in America. 

But doing jus­tice to the qui­et hero­ism of the Kraus­es also required me to tell a much broad­er sto­ry about cul­tur­al, social, and polit­i­cal con­di­tions that exist­ed through­out the 1930s both in Amer­i­ca and in Europe dur­ing the rise of Nazi Ger­many. In order to accom­plish this, my research quite lit­er­al­ly took me around the world — from Philadel­phia and Wash­ing­ton, DC, to Vien­na and Berlin — and even­tu­al­ly to Jerusalem. That’s where I came across an aston­ish­ing stash of doc­u­ments (orig­i­nal­ly locat­ed in Vien­na but moved to Israel in the 1950s) that pro­vid­ed even more graph­ic proof of Gil and Eleanor’s hero­ic actions. Tucked away in a set of dusty archives at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty were thou­sands of pages of fam­i­ly ques­tion­naires filled out by Jew­ish fam­i­lies in Vien­na who, by the late 1930s, had become increas­ing­ly des­per­ate to escape from Hitler’s grasp. Includ­ed among those doc­u­ments were the fam­i­lies with chil­dren hop­ing to be cho­sen by the Kraus­es for the jour­ney to America.

While sift­ing through this trove of doc­u­ments, I came across a two-page, hand­writ­ten list of the fifty chil­dren even­tu­al­ly select­ed by the Kraus­es. My wife, who had joined me on the research trip, held up those pages in her hand and instant­ly rec­og­nized her grand­moth­er’s dis­tinc­tive­ly ele­gant hand­writ­ing. It was a moment of aston­ish­ing dis­cov­ery and an intense­ly per­son­al fam­i­ly con­nec­tion that I will nev­er forget.

Steven Press­man was born and raised in Los Ange­les and received an under­grad­u­ate degree in polit­i­cal sci­ence from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Berke­ley cam­pus. He spent many years as a jour­nal­ist, work­ing for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions in Los Ange­les, Wash­ing­ton DC, and San Fran­cis­co. Steven and his wife, Liz Per­le, have two grown chil­dren and live in San Francisco.

Relat­ed Content:

A jour­nal­ist with over 30 years’ expe­ri­ence, Steven Press­man is the writer, direc­tor and pro­duc­er of the HBO doc­u­men­tary film, Fifty Chil­dren. He is mar­ried to for­mer New York pub­lish­er Liz Per­le, who is the grand­daugh­ter of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. They live in San Fran­cis­co, CA.Steven Press­man is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.