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Holocaust book author humbled to be short-listed for Taylor Prize

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Max Wallace seen with Miriam Ziegler, left, an Auschwtiz survivor, and Noreen Taylor, founder of the Taylor Prize. (Barbara Silverstein photo)

On the morning of Feb. 23, the five finalists for the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction met at TVOnatrio’s (TVO) headquarters in Toronto for a taping of The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

The finalists’ appearance on TVO’s flagship current affairs show was part of a whirlwind week of media interviews and special events, leading up to a gala luncheon at the Omni King Edward Hotel in Toronto, where the winner of the Taylor Prize was announced.

Canada’s richest award for non-fiction, which is worth $25,000, is named for Charles Taylor, a noted historian and writer. The finalists all received $5,000 apiece.

Investigative journalist and historian Max Wallace, 55, was one of those authors. His book, In the Name of Humanity: The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust, had made the cut.

Paikin asked Wallace why he felt there was a new story to be told about the Holocaust when so much research had already been done.

Wallace explained that when he was interviewing Holocaust survivors for the Shoah Foundation in Montreal back in the late 1990s, he heard about Recha Sternbuch, an ultra-Orthodox woman credited with rescuing thousands of Jews.

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Wallace, a staunch secular Jew, said he spent the next 15 years “immersed in the ultra-Orthodox world,” poring over archives that showed how Sternbuch, “an ordinary Jewish housewife, took command over this group of Orthodox men and engineered this deception that may have ended the final solution and saved as many as 300,000 Jews.”

Fast forward to Feb 26. On this sunny afternoon, 260 people, many of them well-known Canadian writers, were milling about the 17th floor of the King Edward Hotel at the cocktail reception that preceded the Taylor Prize luncheon.

It was just a day after the finalists had been feted at another elegant affair at the King Eddy – a brunch for 200 people organized by Ben McNally Books.

The authors were all introduced at the gala luncheon and each one gave a brief description of their respective books.

Wallace also recounted an experience he had a few months earlier, when he was doing a book signing at Costco.

An elderly woman named Miriam Ziegler came up to him and pointed to the cover of his book – a photograph of 12 youngsters taken the day Auschwitz was liberated. She told Wallace that she was one of the children in the picture.

“It later struck me that the events that I was writing about is the reason why Miriam had survived,” he said.

Ziegler was actually invited to the luncheon and when Wallace introduced her, everyone in the room gave her a standing ovation.

By the end of the dessert course, the suspense was over. Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, was the big winner.

Wallace later said he felt humbled to be short-listed for the prize, adding that he had particularly enjoyed “the camaraderie” with his fellow authors.

In the Name of Humanity is on the Globe & Mail’s bestseller list, Wallace said. “I think it’s attracting international attention because I discovered key documents linking the destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria in November of 1944 to the secret negotiations orchestrated by Recha Sternbuch, which deceived the Nazis into ending the genocide.”

Wallace has written, or co-written, four other books.

The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich was published 2003.

He co-authored two books on Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain with Ian Halperin: Who Killed Kurt Cobain? (2002) and Love and Death: the Murder of Kurt Cobain (2004), which became a New York Times bestseller.

His book, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay Vs the United States of America, was published in 2001. Ali even wrote the forward.

The book was made into a Hollywood movie directed by two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Stephen Frears. Wallace said it was very exciting to spend time on the set during a day of filming in New York City in 2013.

In the Name of Humanity may also become a film,  he said. “We have already received feelers from Hollywood.”