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updated: 6/15/2014 6:00 AM

Jewish man finds Nazi brother -- and forgiveness

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  • Video: Surviving Nazi Oppression

  • Author Steve Richard, left, with Kurt Wagner as the two discuss how much work went into researching and writing the story of Wagner's life.

       Author Steve Richard, left, with Kurt Wagner as the two discuss how much work went into researching and writing the story of Wagner's life.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Kurt Wagner at 10 years old when his mother signed papers to send him out of an internment camp and in turn saved his life.

      Kurt Wagner at 10 years old when his mother signed papers to send him out of an internment camp and in turn saved his life.
    Courtesy of the Wagner family

  • Picture of Kurt Wagner's mother, who when Kurt was signed papers to send him out of camp and in turn saved his life.

      Picture of Kurt Wagner's mother, who when Kurt was signed papers to send him out of camp and in turn saved his life.
    Courtesy of the Wagner family

  • Author Steve Richards holds the paperwork and picture of Kurt Wagner at age 10 years old when his mother signed these papers to send him out of camp and in turn saved his life.

       Author Steve Richards holds the paperwork and picture of Kurt Wagner at age 10 years old when his mother signed these papers to send him out of camp and in turn saved his life.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Kurt Wagner and Heinz Walker in 2001.

      Kurt Wagner and Heinz Walker in 2001.
    Courtesy of the Wagner family

  • Author Steve Richards with Kurt Wagner as Richards describes the ordeal of writing the book about the life of Wagner and his struggles of dealing with a father who was part of the Nazi party.

       Author Steve Richards with Kurt Wagner as Richards describes the ordeal of writing the book about the life of Wagner and his struggles of dealing with a father who was part of the Nazi party.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Kurt Wagner at his bar mitzvah in Chicago in May 1944.

      Kurt Wagner at his bar mitzvah in Chicago in May 1944.
    Courtesy of Kurt Wagner

  • Camp de Gurs, the internment camp in France where Kurt, his mother and grandfather were held during World War II.

      Camp de Gurs, the internment camp in France where Kurt, his mother and grandfather were held during World War II.
    Courtesy of Steve Richards

 
 

Ilse Walker had to make a heartbreaking decision. It was February 1941, and after three months of starvation and disease in Camp de Gurs, an internment camp in France, a group of Quakers was asking permission to take her son, Kurt, away.

She didn't know where he was going. She didn't know when, or if, she would ever see him again. She didn't know if he would be safe.

Ilse had already lost one child in a divorce from a man who later became a Nazi. She had already lost her synagogue when it was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht. She had already lost her home and her family's belongings when they were forced to leave Karlsruhe, Germany, with 30 minutes notice and officers waiting to put them on a train to the camp.

She found the strength to sign the papers and let him go.

As Kurt, 10, prepared to leave Camp de Gurs with 47 other children, he made his grandfather a promise: He would be a good Jew and make his bar mitzvah.

Within 18 months Ilse was dead -- taken to Auschwitz with her father and brother and killed.

At least eight children whose families couldn't bring themselves to sign the papers were all soon dead, too.

While the end of Ilse's story is similar to millions of other European Jews during the Holocaust, Kurt's story was just beginning when he left Camp de Gurs.

"She saved my life. I was very fortunate," says Kurt Wagner, now 83 and living in Arlington Heights.

More than 70 years after leaving his mother, he is still moved to tears just thinking of her sacrifice.

"She saw the handwriting on the wall, and what was coming for us," said Wagner, who carries the last name of his adoptive American family. "It must have been so hard for her to do when she had already lost one child, but she was so brave."

Ilse's bravery, Kurt's journey to America and his complicated relationship with his long-lost brother, Heinz, is the subject of a new book, "Sitting On Top of The World," recently self-published by family friend Steve L. Richards.

When Richards started working, he thought it would take just a little research to discover the details of Kurt's past. Seven years and 5,000 hours later, including a trip to France and Germany, "Sitting On Top Of The World" was published. All proceeds from the book are going to Camp de Gurs, now a memorial at the former internment site.

"I don't think of it as a Holocaust book. It's much more complicated than that," Richards said.

An intricate history

Born to a Jewish mother, Ilse, and a Protestant father, Julius, in 1930s Germany, Kurt and his brother Heinz wound up living two very different and separate lives.

The relationship between Ilse and Julius dissolved soon after Kurt was born in 1931. Neither could afford to care for both children, so Heinz went with Julius and baby Kurt stayed with Ilse, who moved in with her parents.

The brothers grew up living only blocks apart, but never meeting.

Kurt was told he had an older brother, but he had no memory of Heinz. Heinz didn't know Kurt existed.

The years passed, the Nazi Party came to power. Julius -- telling no one he was once married to a Jew and had half-Jewish children -- joined the party as a storm trooper, or "brown shirt."

By the time Ilse's family was rounded up for Camp de Gurs in October 1940, there had been no contact for years. Whether Julius even knew his former wife and his son were in danger, and whether he tried to help them, is unknown.

Thousands of Jews, including Kurt and his family, lived in Camp de Gurs for months, surviving with little food and medical care. Leaving, even for the unknown, was Kurt's best chance at survival, Ilse believed.

He and 47 other children were taken to Aspet, France. The war was on, and letters were unreliable. Still, Ilse's letter of Aug. 8, 1941 reached him.

"I hope that things will change for us one day and that we may be together again," she wrote.

The transport -- the famous Kindertransport of the early war -- was organized by Jews and British Quakers, who, after Kristallnacht, persuaded the British Parliament to relax immigration requirements and allow children to travel across borders without their parents.

The Quakers went to homes and internment camps looking for children. They arranged for transportation, food, safety and eventually their passage to America and Britain. Nearly 10,000 children were reportedly saved.

After more than a year in Aspet where he played with other children, got healthy and began to learn French, Kurt's group traveled to Marseille. There they boarded a ship that took them to Africa, stopping in Algeria and Morocco, before they crossed the Atlantic, headed for Bermuda.

"We were in a group, so it wasn't that scary," Kurt remembers. "It was like going off to camp."

Finally, on July 30, 1942, their ship, the Nyassa, pulled into Baltimore, full of refugees.

"We ate very wonderful food, as much white bread with butter and jam as we wanted, and milk as much as we could hold," wrote Kurt in a letter to his mother in August 1942. "I am very well-off here, and I have plenty to eat."

Kurt was sent to New York, and then by train to Chicago, where a foster family was waiting for him.

Kurt's letter never reached Ilse. The same month he arrived in the United States, his mother, grandfather and uncle were taken from Camp De Gurs to Auschwitz and killed within 10 days of their arrival.

The letter was returned to sender.

Everything changed for Kurt in Chicago. He made a life with I.J. and Belle Wagner, a wealthy family who would adopt him.

I.J., an advertising executive, and Belle had been trying to adopt and jumped at the chance to bring Kurt home, a chapter that Kurt now describes through tears as his favorite in the book.

On May 19, 1944, at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, Kurt made the bar mitzvah he had promised his grandfather more than three years earlier. In a speech after his Torah portion, Kurt spoke of his experiences in Europe and what he had learned upon coming to America.

"There, little children do not laugh and play; they are too frightened. The only music they hear is bombs and guns and curses. The only uniforms that they see are the uniforms of the Nazis," Kurt told the congregation. "Here children are not torn away from the arms of their parents. Here children are happy.

"And so on this morning of my bar mitzvah, I am glad that I am an American, and a Jew," he continued. "It is good to live in a country which says to the world, 'Why can't you learn to live in freedom as we do? Can't you see that all men are the children of God?' ... Someday all the countries of the world will learn it too."

A chance to reunite

Meanwhile, by his 13th birthday in 1943, Heinz was living in war-ravaged Germany, dealing with air raids and food rationing. That day, a family friend accidentally mentioned to Heinz how much he looked like his brother.

The secret was finally out. Heinz learned he had a Jewish brother, and mother, which meant that he too was Jewish, though no one knew what had happened to Kurt and Ilse. The very next day Heinz's grandparents suggested he join the Hitler Youth to hide his Jewish identity through the end of the war. So he did, but it was not an easy road.

In 1946, Heinz was able to locate Kurt in Chicago through the Red Cross. He wrote Kurt a letter saying he hoped the war had not been too hard on the family.

Kurt's adoptive parents didn't show him the letter, but asked him if we could find Heinz, would you like us to adopt him and bring him to America?

Thinking his brother must be a Nazi like his father, Kurt said no.

Building a new life

After his own experience with war, fighting in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Kurt decided to reach out to his brother. When Kurt was discharged in 1952, he made the first attempt, sending Heinz $100 and a letter congratulating him on his first child.

With the logjam broken, the brothers wrote letters for more than 25 years (it wasn't until 2008 while doing research for the book that Kurt found his brother's original letter).

They slowly built a relationship that had been taken from them by war, The broke down previous notions of what the other must be like. When the two finally met in 1978, there was still plenty to talk about.

"He was kind enough to take us into his home," Kurt remembered of the trip he took to Germany with his two sons. "It was very emotional."

The brothers compared war stories: Kurt talked of his starvation and illness Camp de Gurs, Heinz described how he hid his Jewish heritage in the Hitler Youth and struggled through the postwar depression in Germany.

Their father, Juilus, had died of a heart attack before the war ended.

"All along, I thought he had the best deal, but evidently not so much," Kurt said.

They talked about a lifetime of lost kinship and found similarities as well as some differences.

When Kurt once referred to their father Julius as a "no-good Nazi," Heinz jumped in and told him he didn't know the whole story.

"We agreed to disagree. We weren't going to get anywhere with that," he said.

The families visited one another a few more times before Heinz's death in 2007.

Kurt's feelings on his brother have evolved over time.

"I think there was a point in time where he hated his brother," Richards said. "He assumed he was a Nazi like his father, and that was certainly an understandable feeling at the time."

But as Kurt got to know Heinz and learned more about the Europe of his childhood, he came to understand that people didn't always have a choice.

"You have to look at it from his perspective. You were almost forced to be a part of the party. There was no other way out," Kurt said.

He remembers clearly one thing Heinz told him to be grateful for.

"He said I was the lucky one because I had two mothers, biological and adopted, and he never even had one," Kurt said.

Kurt became an American citizen in 1954, married and raised two children in the Chicago suburbs.

Over the years he refrained from telling his sons too many details about his childhood and his escape from Europe.

"I wanted to block it out of my memory," Wagner said.

Now Richards and Kurt, who just turned 83, travel to book clubs and temples around the suburbs speaking about the book and its message of family, hope and survival.

Reliving the experiences was emotional, but Wagner said it was worth it to find out his whole story.

"This has helped me process what we went through," Kurt said. "This book is like a legacy to my family."

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