Friday, August 28, 2015

50 Children, by Stephen Pressman

Of the stories of heroism during one of humanity's darkest hours there seem to be no end.  The crimes of the Nazis against their fellow man were of a scale and brutality unmatched in modern times.  OK, a couple of regimes have tried to match them, but Nazis take the cake as personification of man's inhumanity to man.  Stephen Pressman tells the story of the previously little-known heroism of a small group of American Jews in 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.  

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple living in Philadelphia, became concerned about the plight of Jews living in Europe.  They cajoled, networked, pulled strings, stubbornly fought, begged and pleaded, eventually building a network of support in the US, specifically families to sponsor Jewish children, and in Europe to gather a group of 50 children and relocate them to a camp in Pennsylvania.  Using Mrs. Kraus's almost forgotten first-hand account, Pressman tells their dramatic story.

Several things stood out as I read.  First of all, the willingness of Austrians to participate in and endorse Hitler's rise to power.  Austria embraced him with open arms.  His policy to get rid of the Jews met very little resistance from non-Jews.  Jews had their businesses and homes taken away and/or destroyed.  Their synagogues were destroyed or at least desecrated.  The criminal activity of Kristallnacht was perpetrated by Germans and SS, of course, but ordinary Austrians pitched in or stood by.  Everyday Austrians fully bought into the vicious anti-Semitism.  This boggles the modern mind.

Americans were not immune to the anti-Semitism.  Prominent voices resisted the immigration of Jews to the United States.  One ship of refugees was famously turned away, sent back to Europe where many of the passengers eventually were murdered in concentration camps.

Lest we look down our noses at our forebears, the situation that he Krauses faced has a couple of modern parallels.  I was interested to read the remarks of a U.S. senator who objected to welcoming Jewish children as refugees: "What is American citizenship worth if it allows American children to go hungry, unschooled and without proper medical attention while we import children from a foreign country?  Let the sympathies of the American people be with American children first."  It's not hard to imagine that a 21st century politician saying the exact same thing today, as we see children illegally entering the country on our southern border.  Children and their families are not being killed because of their religion in Mexico and Central America, but conditions are pretty brutal.  I don't think the case of Nazism is parallel to the case of the treatment of minorities in Mexico.  I have to admit that I'm torn, as many are, between wanting to help those in need and wanting to protect the sovereignty of the U.S.  I am much more sympathetic to giving people safe harbor from a brutal, murderous dictatorship like the Nazis that from conditions of poverty and corruption.

A much closer modern parallel is the plight of Christians living in areas that have been taken over by Islamic radicals.  In some parts of the world, Christians are being targeted for murder, just as the Nazis targeted the Jews.  In many cases, the brutality is worse than anything the Nazis came up with.  If there is ever a time when U.S. immigration policies should take a back seat to humanitarian concern, this is it.    We can be inspired by the Krauses to reach out to Christians who are being persecuted and murdered.

In an afterward to 50 Children, Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, writes that "American isolationism and anti-Semitism made it impossible to craft public policies that might have been more compassionate toward refugees."  As a result, American Jews were overly cautious in their advocacy.  Further, he calls the American claim that "we did not know what Nazi Germany, her allies and collaborators, were doing" a myth.  True, the extent of the brutality of the Nazi regime was not fully realized until after the war, but there was plenty of press coverage of Kristallnacht and other episodes of Germany's treatment of Jews.  The Krauses did not have access to top secret reports; they read the newspaper.  Today the brutality of ISIS is no secret.  We can see videos of ISIS criminals murdering Christians.  Anyone with an internet connection can learn about ISIS's brutality.

The Jews say of the Holocaust, "Never again."  Let us follow the example of the Krauses, and declare that never again will the United States stand by while a whole people group is marked for extermination.  It happened in Rwanda.  It's happening now under ISIS.  Let us look the model set by the Krauses and others who saved Jews from the evil hand of Hitler.  Perhaps we can be a part of saving some from the evil hand of ISIS.

(By the way, this book is a tie-in to an HBO documentary.  Somehow I missed that little fact as I read.  I really want to see it now.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

No comments:

Post a Comment