Sitting on Top of the World

HeinzTHE NEW YEAR-1947

“When Kurt came into this home at age 12 1/2, he started we might say at ‘scratch’ as far as his emotional background was concerned. According to the Wagners he was at first somewhat overwhelmed over the amount of affection he received, told them that the only kiss he recalls was one from his maternal grandfather at a time he was taking a trip…”

JCB entry by Dorothy Alter dated January 13, 1947.

When the door bell rang on the evening of January 9, 1947 Kurt ran to the door yelling, “I got it.”

“Kurt---look at you! You look like a man, not like a little boy,” remarked Dorothy.

Kurt led Dorothy to the living room where she was embraced by Belle, and kissed on the cheek by Wag. “Please give me your coat. How have your holidays been?” beamed Wag. She had no chance to respond as Kurt excitedly talked about their post New Year’s party where eventual household names such as Irv Kupcinet, Paul Harvey and Studs Terkel attended.

When Kurt spoke, his speech was instinctive, no longer guarded and totally absent of any German accent. “Did you know that Daddy hired Mr. Terkel for his radio show? Have you ever listened to it? Mommy loves the show.”

“Well Kurt…”

“In fact, when Mr. Terkel came to our house he brought me some records. And Mr. Kupcinet and Mr. Harvey…”

“Enough Kurt,” said Wag. He playfully grabbed Kurt from behind and placed his hand over his mouth. By the time Belle returned to the living room with coffee and cookies, Kurt had broken free from Wag.

He peppered Dorothy with questions, punching out each word with his fists into Wag’s palms.

“How”- BOOM-“Are”-SMACK-“You”-SMASH-“Mrs.”-POW-“Alter”-BANG?”

“This is the way it is every night Dorothy,” laughed Wag.

Dorothy punched the air. “I enjoyed the boxing match.”

Wag, out of breath, joined Dorothy and Belle on the couch. “Kurt, I saw Studs today and he wanted me to give you some new records. They are on my bed.” Kurt ran off as Wag yelled, “There are two Burl Ives and one Al Jolson. You can listen to them now, but excuse yourself first.”

Seconds later, Kurt was sliding on the wooden floors with the records. “I hope you had a happy Hanukah and a great New Year,” said Kurt. He kissed Wag. “Thanks for the records Pop. So, do we all want to listen?”

“I have an idea Kurt,” said Wag. “Since Mrs. Alter is only going to be here for a quick visit, why don’t you listen to the records a few times and pick out the one you think we might all want to hear.”

“You got it Pop!” said Kurt before he ran into his bedroom where his Hanukah present, a new phonograph player was proudly displayed.

“September 16, 1941 censure no. 3
…Dear little Kurt!

I too want to add my best wishes for the New Year and hope that I shall still get to know you. I am looking forward to the day when this might happen. Your dear mother tells me that you are well and so are we. It is a pity that none of us knows when we shall meet again. Then we shall have a lot to tell one another. For today only another greeting and a kiss from your loving Aunt Jenny...”
Wag picked up a pot of coffee and filled the empty cups. “Belle told me some good news about Kurt. We have been tested like many other people in our situation. We wanted a family so badly and for whatever reason it didn’t happen. There was so much emptiness for the both of us and then to have Kurt come into our lives….”

“My God Kurt,” laughed Belle as Burl Ives’ “Blue Tail Fly’ interrupted the candid moment. “Aye, aye, aye” protested Wag, smiling. He placed his hands over his ears and mouthed, “I will be right back.”

When Wag returned, he wasted no time in picking up where he left off. However, this time he was more direct. “Dorothy, Belle tells me so many good things are happening. We are so excited and we look forward to making everything legal and doing whatever is expected of us. So where do we go from here?”
“You know I have always tried to be honest with you, but we have a new problem.”

The color in Belle’s face drained. “What do you mean a new problem?” Belle muttered, “I’m so tired of seeing papers.” Dorothy placed a document on the glass coffee table, while the booming sounds of Burl Ives’ “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” carried throughout the apartment. Wag placed the single sheet of paper between himself and Belle:

”Letter from Lotte Marcuse to Mary Lawrence dated December 17, 1946. I do not know who opened the letter which was forwarded to us by the American Joint Distribution Committee. I thought I should know of its contents before sending it on, and I must confess that few letters from survivors have disturbed me quite as much as this one: The brother writes that the father died in 1943 of a heart attack. He hopes that the mother, grandparents and Uncle Julius are with Kurt! He assumes that Kurt suffered greatly through the war, etc.

I wonder whether you would want us to write to Heinz and describe the situation?”

Dorothy placed the referenced letter on the table. “Apparently it was the Red Cross who made contact with Heinz.”

“July 30, 1946
Dear Brother Kurt:
It was with great rejoicing that I learned today on the 39th(sic) of July, through a committee, that you are alive and that you are happy and well in New York City. However, with all this great joy, I feel very sad. Where is our mother, our grandparents and our Uncle Julius?

I wish with all my heart that they too are still alive. I can hardly believe after such a long time I finally heard from you. The horrible war and the Nazism are finally over. Unfortunately, our dear father did not live to see the end. He died already on August 16, 1943 of a heart attack. I myself am still with the grandparents in Bunte Street.

Karlsruhe is a city almost completely destroyed. We too are partially bombed out. My Aunt Martha lost everything, but we are still alive, and lived through these terrible times. But you dear brother have probably suffered a great deal. However, how happy can you be dear Kurt that you survived the horrors of the Nazi hell. None of us will ever forget these horrors. In spite of that we want to be grateful for our faith and hope for a better future.

Of all the other things, I shall write to you after I hear from you. Until then, my best and heartiest regards, and many kisses from your brother,


P.S. Hoping that our dear Mother, our grandparents, and our uncle Julius are with you, I send them my best regards too.


P.S. Many warm greetings and best wishes from my grandparents, Aunt Martha, Uncle Rudi and Gerhard. Write soon.”

“So what does this mean?” asked Wag. He looked at Kurt’s closed door.

“This means we have a problem,” whispered Dorothy.

Belle, answered assertively, “We do not have a problem. Nothing has changed. We proceed with the adoption. Everything you have showed us is full of speculation and errors.”

“Dear, please keep your voice down---remember Kurt,” said Wag. He pushed the documents back to Dorothy and pulled Belle back onto the couch.

“Dorothy, are you telling us we have gone from adopting Kurt to losing him?” Belle rose to her feet again and repeated her version of the truth. “This is what I know. Ilse is dead, the Nazi father is dead, Isack is dead. They are all dead.”

“September 16, 1941 censure no. 3

My Dear Little Kurt!

I have received your letter with the little heart enclosed, it gave us all great joy. Aunt Johanna died last week from dysentery…”

“What about Heinz, Belle? What about Heinz!” pressed Dorothy.

“Listen to me Dorothy! Heinz is dead, and if he isn’t, what does a Nazi teenager have to do with Kurt’s adoption? I’ll answer the question---nothing!”

“Your voice, Belle,” begged Wag again. Burl Ives’s voice became louder with the opening of the bedroom door. “Belle, please bring Kurt some cookies and milk,” said an unflappable Wag.

“So how do you feel? Your wife has demonstrated, to say the least, a strong position.”

Wag chuckled. “When it comes to Kurt, I would agree.”

“But what do you think? But before you answer, I want to go over the documents that I showed Belle.” Dorothy handed Wag the December 2nd memo and December 10th letter from Mary Lawrence. “I wasn’t aware of this,” said Wag.

“Dorothy, my sense is that Belle is correct. Isack is dead, Ilse is dead, Julius is dead. I don’t know after hearing all of this, if Heinz is alive. I mean, the letter is five months old. Is it possible Heinz is living with Isack or the father’s parents or even the father? There seems to be so many documents that say conflicting things or things that are just wrong.”

Wag moved closer to Dorothy, while Belle and Kurt sang together with Al Jolson. “Dorothy,” whispered Wag. “I think Kurt should know everything and be involved in this. He should not be on the platform watching the train go by. In fact, he should be the engineer of the train. In a few months he will be 16 years old. There were American kids not much older than Kurt fighting and dying in Europe and Germany a short time ago. We have no right to keep this from Kurt.”

Later that evening, when Wag was alone with Kurt he asked, “If we could find Heinz, would you want Mommy and me to bring him to America?”

There was no hesitation. Kurt answered, “No.”

When Dorothy met with Mary Lawrence the next morning the discussion was brief. “Mary it’s clear that there is a problem and the problem is not with Mr. Wagner, but with Mrs. Wagner.

“…when I met with Mr. Wagner, I was inclined to feel that it was not Mr. Wagner but his wife who really felt threatened by this information. In fact, Mr. Wagner, as I discussed casually the possibility of locating relatives, stated emphatically that he thought Kurt ought to know at any time that any information will be revealed about his brother or grandparents…they would be perfectly willing to take a chance of going through with adoption papers provided our agency and the Court would see fit to issue an adoption decree…I told them…we were planning to take this situation up with our Board, after which they would be told the decision.”

Dorothy Alter JCB entry 1-17-47.