Fifty ChildrenFifty Children
by Steven Pressman

This book has been sticking in my mind for reasons I hadn’t foreseen when I picked it up. All the while I’ve been reading this account of the predicament of Viennese Jewish refugee children in 1939, I’ve also been reading the daily newspaper accounts of the predicament of Central American refugee children in 2014. ¬†The two stories have woven themselves together in my thoughts so thoroughly that my mind keeps moving from one to the other whenever I think of either.

The book describes the journey of three wealthy Philadelphians into Nazi Germany and Austria in the final months before the start of World War II. Lawyer Gil Kraus, his wife Eleanor, and their friend Doctor Bob Schless, all themselves Jewish, ventured into that dangerously unwelcoming territory in order to bring a handful of Jewish children to the United States before it was too late. In light of the millions soon to die, the fifty they were able to rescue was a small number. Yet that small number was a remarkable success in light of the severely unwelcoming attitude of their own country towards refugees. Those 50 children were the largest single group of unaccompanied Jewish children to arrive in the United States from Nazi-controlled Europe, making up 1/20th of the roughly 1000 children admitted here.

Just 1000 children — that’s all this country was willing to allow in, during a time of crisis when England admitted 10,000 via the Kindertransport program. Even regular, non-refugee immigration was severely restricted in the 1930’s. Things had changed that much in the few decades since Emma Lazarus spoke for the Mother of Exiles in New York harbor, saying, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me ..” When my own great-grandparents came to this country at the turn of the 20th century, up to a million immigrants were passing every year through Ellis Island and other east coast entry points. By the 1920’s though, something had gone sour, and the open doors were closed. New arrivals trickled slowly, one at a time, through narrow turnstiles, cut off at strict limits. The limit for Germany and Austria combined was about 27,000 in 1939.

If my reaction