‘Sitting on Top of the World’
Kurt (Walker) Wagner was the younger of two boys born to an Orthodox Jewish mother and Protestant father. Kurt's parents separated shortly before his birth. Upon Kurt's birth, his 10-month old brother, Heinz, was sent to be raised by his paternal Christian grandparents, while Kurt was to be raised by his mother and maternal grandparents as an Orthodox Jew. Kurt knew he had a brother; Heinz did not. Neither realized they were living but a few blocks away from each other. Their father had long worked for the railroads and was a member of the Nazi party, later becoming a member of Hitler's brown shirts. Heinz became a member of the Hitler youth only one day after he is accidently told by a friend's mother that his brother and mother exist and that he too is, in fact, a Jew.
Stunned when a Jewish friend in 2001 casually remarks that he thinks he has a grandfather who was a Nazi brown shirt, first time author Steve Richards spent the next six years mulling and repeating the scant details of his friend's vague story to anyone will would listen. The story was so compelling to him, that in 2007, Steve commits to a journey of more than 5,000 hours of research and travel to resurrect the true account of Holocaust survivor Kurt Wagner.
While much of the book focuses on Kurt, the focus is not myopic. We meet his mother and brother, his neighbors, and adopted parents. We root against his Nazi oppressors and celebrate his Quaker and Jewish protectors. We read a letter Heinz wrote to Kurt in 1946-a letter Kurt only first saw in 2008 as an accidental and priceless gift unearthed by the author's research in telling Kurt's incredible survivor story. As a result, we are caught up in someone else's very real life. Our heart breaks for all the inhumanity and senseless suffering as we wonder how things could have been different for the families had the brothers always known one another, having had the chance to grow up together.
Steve has no familial relation to any of the many lives he chronicles in the book. It begs the question as to why a person would dedicate so much time and emotional energy to a stranger's story? Steve replied that Sitting on Top of the World is the "every man's" story. He continued that he never had the opportunity to know the more than six million Jews that perished in the Holocaust-Kurt's story was the one he had the opportunity to know. At first, Steve, a lawyer by profession, approached his interviews with Kurt through a clinical lens. To a man most familiar with calculated questions and responses, this made the most sense. However, to a man like Kurt, talking to a virtual stranger about his story-his life-for the very first time, this approach was met with what Steve describes as a "lack of enthusiasm." So he had to change tactics. And as a new and unfamiliar process evolved for both men, an organic and unforced relationship began to naturally develop between them.
It is clear in speaking with Steve that he is in awe of Kurt's life story and the courage it took to survive it. He found himself questioning his own psychological resolve had he been given the same set of circumstances. Could he have built a life, a family, been a productive citizen after such atrocities? Steve contemplates not just Kurt's suffering, but also the burden of survivorship that so many of these very real people in the book carry for very different reasons.
While originally a project that Steve guessed would only take months to complete, seven years later, he's putting the final touches to the story. Steve admits had he known how all-consuming this project would become he might never have begun. But at the same time, Steve says he realized early on that he had crossed a metaphorical bridge in the story-telling process and couldn't turn back until all the people had been fleshed out, their truths unearthed, their memories honored.
All proceeds from the sales of Sitting on Top of the World go to a memorial fund for Camp De Gurs in honor of the brothers Heinz and Kurt Wagner.
For more information, visit www.sittingontopoftheworldbook.com.
Annice Moses is a mother of four, a community volunteer at organizations working with teens and young adults, and a regular contributor to Oy!Chicago.