Sitting on Top of the World Introduction

IIse in strollerINTRODUCTION

The story took only a minute or two to tell. He was born Kurt Rudolf Walker in Karlsruhe, Germany on May 17, 1931, to a Jewish mother, Ilse Ettlinger, and a Protestant father, Julius Walker. His parents separated before his birth and eventually divorced in 1934. Kurt’s older brother, Heinz, would live with his father’s parents and be raised as a Christian and Kurt would live with his mother’s parents and be raised as a Jew. Years later in October 1940, Kurt and his mother’s family were given 30 minutes notice before they were taken to the town’s train station. At that same moment, thousands of Jews from surrounding towns were also removed from their homes and like Kurt, were taken to a concentration camp in the small town of Gurs in southwest France where they were ravaged by disease and malnutrition. Relief organizations did their best to come to their aid, but for so many, especially the elderly, it was too late. For a few such as Kurt, a brief window of opportunity was realized at the end of February 1941 when his mother made the tortured decision to say ”Yes” so that Kurt could leave Gurs.

Over the next 18 months Kurt lived in a former tuberculosis sanitarium in the Pyrenees Mountains, until he was taken to a shack on the outskirts of Marseille, France. After days of uncertainty he boarded the first of two ships that took him to Casablanca, Bermuda and finally on July 30, 1942, Baltimore, Maryland. In the early years that followed he “Moved on” with his new life in Chicago and when innocent inquiries were made of him he would refuse to talk about Ilse and Julius. There would also be no mention of his brother, Heinz and the unspoken truth that both bound and burdened them: their father was a Nazi Brownshirt. Decades later when Kurt was again asked about his past, an adult Kurt Wagner would say unflinchingly about his life’s journey, “I have nothing to be guilty about. I did nothing wrong.”

After I first heard these few facts there was nothing to suggest that I would or even could write a book about my friend’s father’s experiences in Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, I found myself repeating Kurt’s story to friends and family. There were always the same moving questions: How could a mother give up her children? What was Kurt’s brother told? Did Heinz and Kurt ever learn the truth about what really happened to each other? Was the family ever united? But most importantly, they all asked, why did this happen? Of course, there must have been answers to those questions and the many others that were asked, but they were unknown to me.

It would take four years of growing curiosity before Kurt and I finally met on August 13, 2007. We did not know each other, but there I sat in the kitchen of his modest suburban Chicago home attempting to question him about the missing pieces to middle of the story. To my dismay it became readily apparent that Kurt did not appear to know many things about his early life. The few additional things I did learn in that guarded meeting caused me to wonder how I would have fared if I had lived those early years of Kurt’s life. Could I have been so strong, so resilient? Could I have met the challenges of the choices made by his mother, his father, and his country? The answer was clearly no. By the end of the meeting, it was also obvious that the selfish curiosity that had been the impetus to find the lost middle of the story was replaced with a respect for the man, who had been the boy that had lived this improbable story.

Over the months that passed in which we talked and the research progressed, I gained his confidence and he gave me a great gift, he confided in me the recollections of his early life that had remained dormant for many decades. However, it was not until my visits to the small towns of Drancy, Aspet, and Gurs, France, and a final poignant and unsettling meeting on August 21, 2008 when I sat in the kitchen of a modest home in Karlsruhe, Germany that the final questions were tearfully answered. And it is with the gift of those answers, eighty-three years after the birth of a little boy named Heinz Christian Walker, and eighty-two years after the birth of a little boy named Kurt Rudolf Walker, that the beginning, end, and elusive middle of their story can be told.


“…I must confess that few letters from survivors have disturbed me as much as this one…”
December 17, 1946 letter from Lotte Marcuse of the German Jewish Children’s Aid, to Mary Lawrence of the Jewish Children’s Bureau. The referenced letter written by Heinz Walker to Kurt Walker was intentionally withheld from Kurt. He did not see it until 2008.