Review of Mark Kurzem, The Mascot:
Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood.
New York: Viking, 2007. Pp. ix, 418. ISBN 978-0-452-28994-9.
Kurzem's The Mascot is an astounding and complicated tale of
his Jewish father Alex's experiences as a "boy soldier" in the
Latvian Schutzmannschaft ("Schuma," or Police) Battalion during
World War II, as well as their attempt to reconstruct the elder
Kurzem's lost identity and birthplace. It is intended for a general
audience with an interest in the Holocaust or Jewish history. Though
not a professional historian, Kurzem studied at Melbourne, Oxford,
and Tokyo universities, and formerly served as an international
relations adviser to the mayor of Osaka, Japan.
Kurzem writes that his father always maintained that at the
beginning of World War II he and his parents were Russian
"pigherds," until one day, at age five, he became separated from his
family. Alex wandered through the forest for several months,
including throughout the severe Russian winter, until a Latvian
police brigade found him outside a deserted Russian village in May
1942. The soldiers took him in and, because, according to Alex, the
trauma of the forest had caused him to forget his name, re-named him
Uldis Kurzemnieks. After an unknown period of time at the front, the
unit's commander, Karlis Lobe, sent young Kurzemnieks (the name was
shortened to Kurzem upon his arrival in Australia in 1949) to live
in Riga, Latvia, with Jekabs and Emily Dzenis.
story begins to unravel in May 1997 when Alex Kurzem leaves
Australia and unexpectedly arrives at his son's residence in Oxford.
During his visit, Kurzem tells his son he remembers a few things
from before his time in the forest, in particular, two words
"Koidanov" and "Panok," and expresses doubt about his past (18). He
asks Mark to find out what these words mean because, "I want to know
who I am. I want to know who my people are before I die" (20).
after, Kurzem shows his son pictures of himself wearing a solder's
uniform and admits that the story of being found by the Latvian
soldiers is not true. He recalls escaping his village during the
night because his mother told him "We are all going to die tomorrow"
(39). Furthermore, Alex claims he watched the execution of his
family from a nearby hill and then
retreated into the forest, where he lived by eating berries while
keeping warm using a coat he took from the body of a dead soldier,
until his capture by a peasant. Because he was believed to be
Jewish, he was turned over to the 18th Schuma Battalion.
Lined up to be shot along with other Jews, Alex escaped from the
wall by yelling for bread and making the soldiers laugh, but was
quickly captured by Sergeant Jekabs Kulis. Kulis confirmed that
Kurzem was Jewish but persuaded the rest of the Latvian soldiers
otherwise, saving the boy from execution. After approving his
addition to the unit, Lobe presented Kurzem with his own uniform,
the rank of private, and a pistol.
While on duty at the front, Alex Kurzem performed routine duties
such as gathering firewood, entertaining the soldiers, and cleaning
their boots. He also recalls war crimes: he once watched
his unit herd Jews into a synagogue and set it afire, an act the
author suggests may be associated with the murder of Jews in Slonim,
Belarus. In another case, Kurzem implicates himself. While at Jekabs Dzenis's
workplace, Laima Chocolates, he participated in a deportation of
Jews from Riga. To entice the Jews to board the transport trucks
that were going to take them to their fate, Kurzem gave them chocolates as they boarded.
from the front, Alex also served as a propaganda tool for Lobe,
visiting hospitals and clinics and giving medals to wounded
soldiers. A key component of his story is yet another memory--a
German propaganda film about him shot at Lobe's home in Carnakava,
Latvia. Eventually promoted to corporal by Lobe, Kurzem spent most
of the war at the front with the 18th Schuma Battalion,
with only occasional visits to Riga, until fleeing to Germany with
the Dzenis family in October 1944.
Kurzem writes of his father's story:
was baffled about the fact that my father had remained silent for
more than fifty years. What almost superhuman strength had this
required? What toll had silence taken on his inner life? My father
seemed to inhabit two separate worlds. In one, he was my father with
an "official" history, an authorized and edited version of the past.
But in the other world he was still largely a stranger to me: a
boy-soldier, origins unknown, who was shunted about, wide-eyed, in
one of the worst blood baths in recent history (117).
Angered by the comments of a "Professor M." at Oxford that his
father's story was "altogether too implausible," Mark Kurzem
determined to discover his father's childhood name and his
birthplace, and to locate the propaganda film (169). Most of the
last eleven chapters of the book are devoted to these searches, as
well as to ascertaining whether Alex's memory of a burning synagogue
packed with helpless Jews relates to the killings at Slonim.
the help of Alice Prosser, a volunteer from an unnamed Holocaust
center in Australia,
Kurzem discovered that "Koidonov" was actually the former name of
present-day Dzerzhinsk, in Belarus. Through a colleague in Minsk, Frieda Reizman, Prosser learned that
Kurzem might have a family member living in that city. The publisher
of Reizman's memoirs, Erick Galpern, was born in Dzerzhinsk and his
father's family, including his eldest son Ilya, died in the
liquidation of the village on 21 October 1941. Now Galpern's father,
Solomon, had been a tanner in Dzerzhinsk and owned a house with an
outside workshop, just as Alex had recently recalled in a dream.
Furthermore, a photograph of Solomon Galpern, who survived both
Auschwitz and Dachau and died in the 1970s, allegedly bears so
strong a resemblance to Alex Kurzem that, so Mark Kurzem concludes,
Alex's true pre-war identity must be that of Ilya Galpern.
Undeterred by his mother's previous statements that his father had
perished before October 1941, Kurzem suddenly recalls having seen
his father leave the family home with two men after being
told he was dead.
While in Dzerzhinsk, trying to find his boyhood home, Alex Kurzem is
shown a house that Galpern claims was his father's former home, but
has no recollection of it. In yet another strange twist, Mark Kurzem
discovers through a conversation in broken English with local
citizens that the house Galpern inhabited prior to World War II was
in fact in another part of Dzerzhinsk. After searching that home,
now owned by Dina Gildenberg, related by marriage to the Galpern
family, Kurzem (again) suddenly recalls the floor plan of his
boyhood home, including a curtain used to cordon off one section of
it. Gildenberg's home has hooks to accommodate such a curtain, and
neighbors report that Galpern did have an outside workshop before
the war. While in the town, Kurzem visits Solomon Galpern's
best friend from the war, Volodya Katz, who confirms that Ilya's
best friend in Dzerzhinsk before the war was a boy named Panok.
Furthermore, an unidentified citizen of Dzerzhinsk states that the
execution of the Jews in the town took place over two days, not one,
because a torrential downpour made the work of execution impossible,
and the Jews were forced back into their homes. This is said to
explain why Kurzem's mother told her son that she knew they were
going to die the next day.
Belarus, the Kurzems travel to Riga where Alex recalls every detail
of the building where the Dzenis family apartment was located, as
well as the location of Laima Chocolates and of the Dzenis summer
home outside Riga in Carnakava, Latvia. While in Riga, Mark Kurzem,
with the help of an archivist, "Miss Slavits," locates the
propaganda film starring his father in the Latvia State Archive for
Audiovisual Documents. The German narrator, according to Kurzem,
clearly identifies his father as "the boy soldier."
principal source for this book is Alex Kurzem himself. Although photographs and an index accompany the narrative,
there is no
documentation of research sources. Furthermore, the author has
changed the names and identifying details of some individuals and
organizations, even though he was under no apparent legal
requirement to do so. It
is, consequently, difficult to discriminate truth from embellishment
or outright errors. The narrative is rife with amazing coincidences,
and no documentation of any type substantiates whether Solomon
Galpern was Alex Kurzem's father.
However, among the book's twenty-eight photographs, Alex appears
with Sergeant Kulis and others from the 18th Schuma
Battalion in the autumn of 1943 and, fully armed, in what appears to
be an SS uniform with several other solders near a train in an
undated photograph. In a newspaper photograph dated 1943, Kurzem
appears with Karlis Lobe and Jekabs Dzenis apparently visiting
wounded soldiers. Another photograph shows Kurzem taking a break
during the propaganda film. Also included is a still made from that
same film after its discovery in Riga.
Apart from such photographic evidence, there is a disturbing lack of
archival research. Mark Kurzem seems to have made no attempt to
explore the records of the 18th Schuma Battalion held by
the Library and Archives Division at the Hoover Institution in
Stanford, California; in fact, the author and his father dismiss
them out of hand. According to Alex Kurzem, "They [the official
records] may have been altered … in order to protect the reputation
of the eighteenth" (220), but no substantive reason is given for
thinking this. These records could have helped establish, for
example, the date when Kurzem became part of the unit as well as the
possible location of the atrocity of Jews burned alive in a
synagogue. According to historian Andrew Ezergailis, who has studied
the records, the 18th Schuma Battalion likely did not
engage in any killing in Slonim; if it had, this would be the only
known case of a Latvian Schuma battalion ordered to perform
killings. Furthermore, there is no attempt noted in the book to
corroborate Kurzem's claim that his mother knew they were going to die the next
this is not to say that the book is without value. Alex Kurzem's
memories of the soldiers frequently using alcohol reinforces other
research about the heavy use of alcohol by police battalions.
The book also shows Kurzem's range of emotions stemming particularly
from survivor's guilt as well as a different type of guilt, that of
a perpetrator: "Am I responsible, like the soldiers, for what went
on? I don't know what to think. Those people in the yard at Laima
were murdered, and I eased them on their way, not with a gun but
with those damn chocolates. Even though I was only a child, I should
have known. I must have blocked it out. It was only later that I
understood what I had been party to" (135).
While the intriguing story told in The Mascot is partly supported
by photographic material, Kurzem adduces far too little evidence to
verify its major elements. The result is a book that readers must
approach with extreme caution.
 See Nachum Alpert, The Destruction of
Slonim Jewry: The Story of the Jews of Slonim during the
Holocaust, trans. M. Rosenfeld (NY: Holocaust Library,
 Very likely the Jewish Holocaust Center in
 According to evidence uncovered by Prosser,
Koidonov was re-named prior to World War II. Why, then, did Alex
Kurzem remember the former name of the village and not its name
 See The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944: The
Missing Center (Riga: Hist. Inst. of Latvia/Washington: U.S.
Holocaust Mem. Museum, 1996).
 See Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men:
Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
(NY: HarperCollins, 1992).