What caused you to write the book?
In the spring of 2007, I became aware of the book, Playing With the Enemy. I contacted the author, Gary Moore, and a couple of months later Gary came to my house and spoke to fifty friends about his book. He gave a very moving talk, both about the book and its impact on him. In the paperback edition of his book (which will soon be made into a movie) Gary was kind enough to write about the experience of speaking at my home. I eventually told Gary the little I knew about Mr. Wagner’s story and Gary said, “You should write a book! You could do it.” I, of course, dismissed him for all of the obvious reasons. I wish I could say I had a subsequent epiphany about writing this book, but it just came down to Gary’s words and Mr. Wagner’s incomplete, but still powerful story intersecting at the right time in my life.
Who are the main characters in the book and over what period of time does the story take place?
Heinz Walker, Kurt’s brother
Ilse Walker, the mother of Kurt and Heinz
Julius Walker, the father of Kurt and Heinz
Isack Ettlinger, Kurt’s maternal grandfather
I.J and Belle Wagner, Kurt’s adoptive parents
The story begins with Kurt’s maternal side beginning in the 1700's in Germany and covers up to his adoption in 1947. There is an epilogue that identifies what happens to the main characters after the adoption.
Why did you name the book I am Sitting on Top of the World?
In the late summer of 2007, Kurt Wagner and I appeared at the Daley Center Courthouse in Chicago to open his adoption file. After the court hearing was concluded we drove back home on the Kennedy Expressway just as the sun was setting. Kurt put his sunglasses on as we began to talk about his recollections of the adoption. There came a point when he clearly became evasive and non-responsive to one series of questions about what he did when he and his newly adoptive parents, the Wagners, got home. He eventually told me that he put on an old Al Jolson record that Studs Terkel had given him. At that moment I saw a single tear begin to slide out from under his sunglasses. I felt uncomfortable, but I pressed again, “What was the name of the song?" Kurt paused, turned away from me and looked out the passenger window and said, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” We did not say another word the rest of the trip. When I arrived home I immediately Googled the lyrics to the song, although I already knew in the quiet minutes of our trip that I had the title to the book.
Where are you in the book writing process?
I recently completed my final draft of 200,000 words. I have just begun the difficult process of trying to secure a publisher.
If you do not have a publisher why do you have a website?
Not a day goes by that someone does not ask me about the book. I hope by having a website I can not only answer those questions, but introduce others to this story.
What has the process of writing a book been like?
What I naively thought would be a six month commitment turned out to be 3 ½ years of research and writing. So little was known about the story that I focused on the research during the first year, while occasionally writing unconnected partial chapters that I hoped to use. I would be a liar if I said it was all fun. It has been and still is an all consuming endeavor that has required a commitment that I did not think I was capable of. A very insightful person told me that the writing process can become a demon that won't let you go once it grabs you. Having said that, I am the luckiest person I know because of the opportunity I have been given to tell this story.
What were the fun and difficult things about doing this project?
The honest answer is that they were one and the same. Since Kurt knew so little about what had happened to him as a small boy the book could not have been completed without the painstakingly slow research that included the following;
Interviewing of fellow internees at the concentration camp in Gurs, France and a safe house in Aspet, France, Hugo Schiller, Renee Krause and Richard Weilheimer.
Interviewing of author and friend of I.J. Wagner, Pulitzer prize winner Studs Terkel; Andre Lefeur of the Camp de Gurs Memorial; American cousins, Rolf Weil and Lynne Galvin, family members residing in Germany, Irene Walker, wife of Heinz Walker, Gerhardt Schmalz, cousin of Heinz Walker and Kurt Wagner, Berndt Walker, son of Heinz Walker and Jenny Walker, granddaughter of Heinz Walker; boyhood friend of Kurt Wagner, Harold Lukatsky; Jolene (Kastel) Shapiro, the daughter of Kurt Wagner’s first foster parents; Edith (Mann) Cohen, a foster child who resided with Kurt Wagner at the Kastels and Kurt Wagner.
Locating and reviewing hundreds of original documents from the Chicago Board of Education, Francis Parker School, the Jewish Children’s Bureau of Chicago, Jewish-European Aid, letters from Alice Resch, letters from I.J. Wagner and Belle Wagner, letters from Ilse Walker to Kurt Wagner from Camp de Gurs, archival documents authored by the government of Germany and original writings of Kurt Wagner’s biological father, Julius Walker.
Locating and reviewing photographs in the United States and Europe, numerous video tapes from the Shoa Foundation, mini-biography written by Belle Wagner, biography of Rolf Weil, ship manifest for the Nyassa, original writings and photos of Camp de Gurs and Maison des Pupilles, Kurt Wagner’s adoption file from the Circuit Court of Cook County, numerous books and newspaper articles.
An amazing trip to France and Germany in 2008 .
Who is this book written for?
This book may appear at first glance to be another one of the powerful stories born from the tragedies of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, but it is so much more. In reality, what started out to be the story of Kurt Wagner and his personal journey from Germany to America in the 1930’s and 1940’s gradually turned out to be about two “brothers”. I believe the potential audience for this book includes a wide variety of readers who enjoy history, or novels or non-fiction told from the main character's perspective that explains not only what happened, but why.
What did you learn during the process of writing this book?
Perception versus reality. I was wrong on many accounts about what I thought about certain people who appear in the book and why certain things happened. This question is too complicated. You will have to read the book.