January 31, 2008
The Mascot is stranger than fiction. Only a few years ago, Benjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments received critical acclaim as a truly great memoir of one person’s survival during the Holocaust, only to be exposed as a fabrication. Prior to that, Jerzy Kosinski’s almost classic The Painted Bird, which the author claimed was based on his own experiences surviving the Nazis, also turned out to be more fiction than reality. With these in mind, it is with great skepticism that one approaches The Mascot, a story that seems so fantastic as to arouse even greater suspicion than the aforementioned examples.
Yet, the story of how a five-year-old Jewish boy managed not only to survive the Nazi mass murder of the Jews but to become a poster boy for Latvian SS soldiers and have a Nazi propaganda film made of his exploits as part of their regiment is true.
The Mascot is the story of Alex Kurzem as told by his son, Mark. After 63 years of silence, the father decided to reveal the details of his childhood to his son, wherein he witnessed the massacre of his fellow Jewish villagers and the murder of his mother and siblings by the Nazis. Mark Kurzem, who grew up a Christian, learned how his father hid in the freezing Russian forest, stole clothes off dead soldiers, tied himself into trees to escape wolves, and eluded the fate of his brethren only because he was rescued by a Latvian death squad unaware of his Jewish identity.
Like the protagonist of the true story recounted in the 1990 film Europa, Europa, Alex Kurzem quickly learned that survival meant hiding his circumcision. Subsequently, he ingratiated himself with his rescuers and even rose to the rank of “corporal” in the Latvian SS, with his own uniform and boots; pictures of him with his “hosts” are strewn throughout the book.
Like Daniel Mendelson’s Lost, Mark Kurzem’s book is part history, part detective story as he attempts to uncover the facts of his father’s childhood and verify the authenticity of the story.
Following the war, Alex Kurzem migrated to Australia to start life anew. He married a Catholic who knew nothing of his Jewish past and hid his secret from his children until he turned up one day at his son’s doorstep at Oxford University, where Mark was engaged in research, ready to share his memories, evidently no longer afraid that his past as a Nazi would be uncovered.
There are unresolved memories and troubling facts about Alex’s childhood that continued to plague Mark, who, having become privy to his father’s incredible story, was determined to fill in the missing pieces of his father’s past. Thanks to Mark’s efforts, Alex discovered that his own father had been sent to Auschwitz and survived the war; he died never knowing that his son was alive. Mark also uncovered the film featuring his father that the Nazis used for propaganda purposes. Subsequently, Mark was able to retrace his father’s childhood years and locate his mother’s grave and those of his half-brothers.
Having provided his father with many details of his past, Mark closes this riveting book with the following summary of what it all has come to mean:
“There was no resolution, no absolution, no closure, no moving on, no getting over it, no pop-psychology solution. Only an accommodation of the past. My father had somehow known this all along. I realized that I, too, had to find a way of living, comfortably or not, with this, my legacy.”
Aside from offering this exceedingly bizarre story, the book raises questions about culpability, collaboration, and just how far we will go to survive. That Alex Kurzem was just five when his travails began only adds to the complexity of the story. He lived with the guilt of his past, but, given his childhood, what was he guilty of? Read the book and decide for yourself.
Jack Fischel, emeritus professor of history at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, is the author of The Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1998) and The Holocaust and Its Religious Impact (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Jewish Popular Culture (Greenwood Press).