The book Sitting on Top of the
World, a true story, is a complicated and heart-wrenching story that navigates
love and loss amidst the turmoil and horrors of a family divided during Hitler's
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