Tag Archives: World War II

Family Lost and Found

CBR_Logo2Sitting on Top of the World
by Steven L. Richards

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.

SOTOTW-Book-CoverInstead 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.

Three-Star Review

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

April 2014, CreateSpace
History/Narrative Nonfiction
$22, paperback, 516 pages
ISBN: 978-1494925413

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.

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Life During Wartime

CBR_Logo2Grand Crossing:
Coming of Age on Chicago’s South Side During the Great Depression
by Jack McGuire

Memoirs are difficult to do well. A memoir is not an autobiography, which focuses on the author himself (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi or Malcom X). Rather, a memoir is about the times, the circumstances, or larger-than-life characters of the memoirist’s life. Often, memoir falls into nostalgia.

Grand Crossing—an “Irish-American Memoir”—has tremendous potential: the Great Depression, an Irish family in an ethnically diverse Chicago, a policeman as father. Unfortunately, the publication doesn’t live up to its possibilities.

9781457523441 grand crossingObviously, the reader knows this is Chicago during the Great Depression, but there is no sense of the time or the place in the vignettes that fill the book. While both are clearly in the author’s head, he fails to translate that to the page. The book doesn’t smell or taste of this great Midwestern city; it doesn’t say “Chicago.” It doesn’t impart the feel or texture of the Depression. And despite the subtitle, this is no coming-of-age work. The author doesn’t grow from youth to manhood; there is no revelation, no personal growth, no loss of innocence while gaining wisdom.

Although Grand Crossing has its engaging moments, they are not enough to carry the book. A car crash in Ohio while returning from vacation resulted in spending a night at a farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the reader learns nothing of the circumstances of the farmer’s home and life. The contrast of rural family life during the Depression to the author’s urban existence could have been revealing. A second story that held potential concerned the author’s oldest sister learning from their Aunt Elsie the truth about the sister’s conception and her parents’ marriage. Aunt Elsie’s motive reflects the aunt’s cruelty. Finally, near the end of the book, the reader learns of the involvement of the author’s father in a shootout where his father kills a man. This is truly riveting, but the conversation among the policemen in the car before the shootout is cloying and clichéd.

The bulk of the book is much blander and clearly outweighs these stronger stories. The reader is treated to two paragraphs on what kind of bath soap he and his family members use. An utterly predictable chapter is dedicated to the young boy looking at pictures of scantily clad women or sneaking peaks of girls through bedroom windows. “The Trial” chapter was undoubtedly amusing in the author’s remembrance, but the humor and poignancy don’t come out in the retelling.

Jack McGuire

Author Jack McGuire

The question of the priesthood for the author is a potential conflict. Throughout the book are references to Catholicism, and three chapters focus on this rich topic. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t explore the full fabric of the Catholic religion and what it means to him. The conflicting desires of father and son concerning the priesthood could have formed the basis for insight into religion, the father’s hopes and fears, and the son’s relation to his father.

Grand Crossing is framed by the author’s experience during and just after World War II. The conceit seems to be the author’s recall of his youth while living through the fighting in Europe. This frame may explain the often jarring switches between past and present tense. It also may explain the racial and ethnic slurs that appear occasionally throughout the book. The author may be trying to recreate a sense of the times when such slurs were acceptable. Only once—in the “Red & Me” chapter—are the slurs dealt with directly. Mr. James tells Jack McGuire that using such language is not acceptable. Did the author learn a lesson here? It’s not clear, since he is soon talking about getting a new job.

Grand Crossing is a straight retelling of a few high-jinks and stories with little color, tension, or insight. Self-published books are often referred to as “vanity press” titles. This book seems to fit that description: interesting for the author, less so for the reader.

One-Star Review

April 2014, Dog Ear Publishing
Biography/Memoir
$15.95, paperback, 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4575-2344-1

—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs

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The Diary of A(nother) Young Girl

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Home Front Girl:
A Diary of Love, Literature,
and Growing Up in Wartime America

 by Joan Wehlen Morrison

 

9781613744574 hi res cover imageWartime diaries written by young girls are something of a rarity, so it is more than likely that Joan Wehlen Morrison’s engaging Home Front Girl will be compared to such titles as Anne Frank’s World War II classic Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata Filipovic’s more recent entry Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo. Such comparisons are apt, so long as they don’t detract from the unique voice captured in Wehlen’s work.

Pulled from journal entries and school notebooks, Home Front Girl reveals the daily goings-on, thoughts, and feelings of young Joan Wehlen. Written between 1937 and 1943, the book captures Wehlen between the ages of fourteen and twenty while a student, first at Greeley, then at Lakeview, and finally at the University of Chicago Junior College (what today is the Lab School) in Hyde Park. Readers who follow her journey watch her grow and mature as she does all the things young girls do at that age—go to school and do her homework, gossip with friends, go on dates, argue with her parents—as well as things that today’s teens couldn’t possibly imagine: knit sweaters and scarves for soldiers, collect Red Cross donations, and say goodbye to friends heading off to war.

Wehlen and her family lived in Chicago, moving several times from the North Side to the South Side, and Home Front Girl is full of local color. Wehlen visits the Art Institute and the Field Museum, she travels by L and bus, she takes trips with friends to Palos Park and Calumet City. She spends her summers at camp in Michigan. She goes to the movies with her father, plays bridge with her friends, and spends a lot of her time reading classic literature. In fact, one is struck by how well read such a young girl is. Not many teenage girls today reading—much less quoting—Homer, Keats, Yeats, Stevenson, or Ibsen.

A bright, curious, thoughtful girl, Wehlen’s writings reveal a young woman full of hope and optimism, even though she can see that the world is turning toward darkness. In fact, Wehlen is at times more prescient than one might expect of someone so young, as, for example, when she writes in October 1940—more than a year before the United States would enter World War II—“Born at the end of one disastrous war and bred between two wars with always the foreknowledge of this war that is come upon us as we reach adulthood.” Wehlen here has managed to capture the feeling of many who lived during the interwar years, remarking with deep thoughtfulness on what the coming war would mean for her generation.

She is again astute when, in March 1939—six months before Germany would invade Poland—she writes “What else could Germany have had after [World War I] except that a dictator would spring up—if not Hitler, another.” Wehlen was only sixteen years old when she wrote those words.

Home Front Girl is full of such insightful commentary, surprising for one so young and without the benefit of hindsight. Such incision is accompanied by entries that are touching, sensitive, evocative, and, at times, even lyrical.

Of course, not every diary entry is heavy with meaning or historical importance. Many are what one would expect from a teenage girl—chatter about classmates, makeup, and movies and ruminations over boys, dates, and kisses.

But even these more mundane entries tell a story, revealing a day at a time the life of a girl growing up in the midst of the interwar period, thick in the Great Depression. Wehlen tackles such issues as lend–lease, the Fifth Column, pacifism, and isolationism. She discusses Hitler, Mussolini, FDR, and Churchill (to whom she refers as “Pigface”). And she reveals her thoughts about contemporary celebrities such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Norma Shearer.

Though written for a young adult audience, the book is by no means a children’s book. Readers of all ages will find young Joan Wehlen engaging and amusing. In fact, older readers may get more out of the book, especially when it comes to some of the contemporary references. For instance, a number of footnotes mention movies and actors of the time, most of which will be wholly unfamiliar to today’s young readers. (Not all cultural references get this treatment, however. Why some books and movies are explained in footnotes and others are not is a mystery.)

Home Front Girl is rich in detail. It is witty and bright and thoughtful and insightful. With as many as 1,200 World War II veterans dying every day, the publication of Wehlen’s diary is important. It is a remarkable document, one that should be treasured for the contemporary, first-hand glimpse it offers of a world that soon will be lost to those living among us.

Four-Star Review

November 2012, Chicago Review Press/IPG
YA Nonfiction/Autobiography
$19.95, hardcover, 252 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-61374-457-4

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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