Chicago attorney and first-time author Steven Richards tells the remarkable story of Kurt Wagner, a Holocaust refugee who was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1931, the son of an Orthodox Jewish mother and a Protestant father. His parents soon parted, and his brother was raised as a Christian with his paternal grandparents, unaware of his heritage. Kurt stayed with his mother’s family, all of whom were deported to an internment camp. With the assistance of Quaker and Jewish children’s organizations, Kurt was freed from Camp de Gurs in France and eventually adopted by a family in Chicago. His mother and her family did not survive. Kurt’s father, however, became a Nazi Brownshirt, while his brother Heinz joined the Hitler Youth.
Instead of launching into Kurt’s personal story, in Sitting on Top of the World Richards first presents Kurt’s parents’ history and details the history of anti-Semitism, going at least as far back as 1348 AD. This thorough prologue is helpful, but a table of contents might have been reassuring with regard to the book’s precise trajectory. Nor does it help that the very first page—the acknowledgements—is slightly awkward and repetitive. Fortunately, smoother prose follows with just a handful of typos.
Kurt’s camp and rescue experiences are laid out accessibly in great detail. The book’s latter half covers his arrival in Chicago, a city that bustles and glows. The traumatized young boy is puzzled by Americans. Descriptions of Chicago’s Jewish organizations show how they worked tirelessly to assist vulnerable children. Richards, who spent seven years working on the book, carried out significant research using primary source materials, many of which are shared in full. Confidential letters from social services professionals shed light on Kurt’s state of mind and on their struggle to help him. Their dedication makes a powerful, lasting impression.
Sitting on Top of the World is described as “narrative nonfiction” or “a marriage of storytelling and journalism.” It alternates between clear, informative historical accounts of anti-Semitism and imagined recreations of significant moments. The many semi-fictional dialogues help rapidly paint scenes of bewilderment, sorrow, and love, but they are also sometimes heavy handed. One senses the disadvantage of writing a second-hand account of another person’s Holocaust experience, especially in comparison to the famous works of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Anne Frank. Nevertheless, given the troubling nature of this story, one cannot help but appreciate Richards’s earnest, meticulous presentation.
It should be emphasized that Sitting on Top of the World focuses on Kurt’s experiences, not his father’s and still less his brother Heinz’s. In the final pages, the brothers’ difficult reunion is sensitively recounted with sobering brevity. A desire for privacy has evidently been respected. But readers will be left curious about Heinz, in which case Alfons Heck’s memoir A Child of Hitler or Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 film Europa Europa might shed partial light on the other side of this family tragedy.
Richards has made a worthwhile contribution to the body of Holocaust literature. Despite the book’s flaws, readers will not easily forget the boy whose resilient faith and intelligence carried him through tumultuous times and enabled him to discover a new life right here in Chicago. They also will appreciate the strength of community and the profound love of parents, both biological and adoptive.
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton
April 2014, CreateSpace
$22, paperback, 516 pages
JUF News reports that all proceeds from the sale of Sitting on Top of the World will go to a memorial fund for Camp de Gurs.