Chicago lawyer discovers the family background of a Jewish Holocaust survivor whose father and brother were Nazis
The Immigrant Experience, Book Review
Many German Jews who survived Nazi Germany and escaped to America as children preferred to forget their painful stories rather than share them. Kurt Wagner was one of them—until Steven Richards, an attorney in Chicago, met Kurt and learned that he was raised a Jew and spent time in a concentration camp while his brother was raised a Christian and joined the Hitler Youth Corps.
How could this be? In an interview with The Immigrant Magazine, author and attorney Steven L Richards helps us understand the dynamics of such a painful and complex family history.
Who is Steven L. Richards and what is your immigrant heritage?
I am a personal injury attorney who practices in Chicago. My grandparents emigrated or in reality, fled from Russia and Yugoslavia to find a better life in America. I am the beneficiary of their efforts.
Do you have an immigrant culture and how do you think your heritage shapes the way you perceive and relate with immigrants today?
My Jewish heritage and faith, which forced my grandparents to find freedom in America has made me sensitive to those that try to immigrate to America today. Very few people that live in America today can go back but only a few generations in their own family, before they find a story of immigration. I laugh when some of these same people are critical of people who attempt to take the same path to America that their own family members did—total hypocrisy.
What prompted you to write this book?
There have been many stories written about the Holocaust. I found the resulting tragedies of two brothers born in Hitler’s Nazi Germany unique and powerful. I felt an obligation to be the caretaker of this story about two brothers (one raised as a Jew and the other a Christian) who are separated at a very early age and come to learn that their father is Nazi Brownshirt. If I did not take on the responsibility to write Sitting on Top of the World, I was afraid the story would be lost forever.
Sitting on Top of the World tells the story of a very unusual family dynamic, how common is this?
I do not pretend to be an expert on family dysfunction, but my life experiences suggest that this is a very common experience. The fact that this occurred during the years of the Holocaust confirms this.
It must have been tough for Kurt Wagner to divulge such a story that conjures a mixture of feelings. One is of empathy towards him and some not so proud feelings towards his father and brother. How does he feel about them today?
The initial interviews with Kurt were very difficult. As the months went by, he slowly began to embrace the process that led to the lost facts of his life. The question of his feelings is very important. On some level it became the engine that drives the story. The father died
during WWII. It is clear that Kurt hated his father, who was the embodiment of abandonment and betrayal. The fact that Kurt’s father was Nazi Brownshirt and was physically abusive towards Kurt’s orthodox Jewish mother made such hatred understandable for anyone, especially for a young boy. He also hated his brother because of a belief that his brother was also a Nazi. After Kurt immigrated to America and eventually learned the truth about his brother, the relationship between the brothers changed. It was unfortunately, never repaired to the point of becoming a normal sibling relationship.
This is truly a compelling story of endurance and survival, who do you think is more deserving considering the fact that they were both children when their lives took various turns? Does Kurt feel that his brother did what he knew best to survive getting killed?
The process of researching and writing Sitting on Top of the World over that past seven years was clearly illuminating for Kurt. This was also true for the German side of the family that I interviewed in the small town of Karlsruhe, Germany in 2008. Unfortunately, Kurt’s brother, Heinz died in 2007. I had many preconceived notions about this story. I learned that I was wrong on so many levels. For me the lack of communication and the reality of the resulting false assumptions by the brothers is a common theme in Sitting on Top of the World. It is clear that when an adult Kurt Wagner looks back on the facts of his life, he has no ill will towards his brother. Unfortunately, the brothers never were able to talk about the past. Their complicated relationship was therefore, never resolved.
The history of Nazi Germany and the persecution endured by the Jews all intertwined in one family; did telling this story in any way influence your perception of both sides?
Absolutely. I clearly was biased against the German side of the family. My failures to wait until the truth was unearthed have been an important issue for me. I like to think that Sitting on Top of the World has changed my life in terms of how I listen, think and asks questions. More importantly, I think the process of researching and writing Sitting on Top of the World has made me a better person.
In writing this book, what did you learn about yourself and the story of immigrants in America today?
It only reinforced that which I knew before I started the book. This country was built on the back and spirit of immigrants. I think that people who are born in this country are forgetful of what we have. The story of the present day immigrant who fights to get to America is a constant reminder of what we have. We should be thankful to them for that!
In celebrating his adopted home, America, what are his sentiments about Germany?
For many years Kurt hated Germany. He hated everything about Germany. Kurt wanted to be an American, he wanted to lose his accent —-he wanted to forget Germany. I think his return trip to Germany in 1978 to meet his brother for the first time softened some of his views.
Do you think writing this book may shed some light on the plight of immigrants and refugees today as we all debate Comprehensive Immigration Reform?
Yes! Kurt’s story alone will accomplish nothing towards this type of reform. His story in conjunction with all the other powerful stories of the Asian, European, Hispanic, Middle East, African immigrants will be part of this important process of change.
Trade softcover Published by Create Space Independent Publishing
516 pages, 20 photographs
Available at Amazon and wherever books are sold.
For more information visit www.sittingontopoftheworldbook.com
About the author:
Steven Richards is a trial attorney. He resides in Northbrook with his wife and three children.