Finding the 50
On a chilly evening in early January 1939, Eleanor Kraus looked around her dining room and inspected the china dishes, silverware and crystal wineglasses that had been neatly laid out on the table. Her husband, Gil, had not yet come home from his law office in downtown Philadelphia, but Eleanor was already dressed for the evening. Their niece was bringing her fiancé to dinner, and Eleanor, as always, wanted everything to shine.
A few minutes later, Gil walked through the front door of the couple’s spacious home, removing his overcoat and setting down his worn leather briefcase. “There is something I need to discuss with you,” he said. Eleanor followed him upstairs and sat down beside him as he shaved and dressed for dinner. Gil began describing what sounded like a far-fetched idea. The newspapers had been filled with articles about the increasingly brutal conditions for Jews living under Adolf Hitler’s regime. Less than two months earlier, in the horrific rampage known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—hundreds of synagogues in Germany and Austria had been desecrated and burned to the ground. Jewish-owned businesses had been looted and destroyed. Thousands of Jewish men had been summarily arrested and sent off to concentration camps.
Gil was determined to do something to help, even if it meant disrupting his comfortable life and putting himself in danger.
Earlier that afternoon, he and his friend Louis Levine had hatched a plan: to rescue Jewish children trapped inside Nazi Germany. Both men were leaders of Brith Sholom, a national Jewish fraternal organization that had recently built a summer camp outside Philadelphia, including a large stone house with 25 bedrooms. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Gil said, if they could fill it with children—two to a room—who would otherwise face a terrifying future under Hitler’s regime?
As he finished dressing, Gil turned to his wife and told her he intended to go to Germany to carry out the mission. He asked her if she would accompany him. “No one in his right mind would go into Nazi Germany,” Eleanor protested. “I’d be too scared to set foot in that country, assuming the storm troopers would even let us in.” Her thoughts turned to their children, 13-year-old Steven and nine-year-old Ellen. She and Gil had never been away from them at the same time.
But Eleanor knew how stubborn her husband could be, so she was not surprised when Gil told her he had already made plans to go to Washington, D.C., to propose the rescue to United States government officials, in particular George Messersmith, a former U.S. minister to Austria who was now serving as assistant secretary of state. Messersmith had worked at the American embassy in Berlin and was acutely aware of the mounting Nazi threat.
In the following days, Gil immersed himself in America’s rigid immigration policy. Despite the desperate situation facing Jews in Europe—and the fact that, at that point, Hitler was allowing them to leave—the U.S. imposed strict quotas on refugees. To make matters worse, throughout the 1930s, a number of State Department officials had done little to conceal their anti-Jewish attitudes. For instance, James Wilkinson, who worked in the visa division, once warned that easing the nation’s immigration laws would create “a grave risk that Jews would flood the United States.”