Monday, January 14, 2008

The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood by Mark Kurzem


Book Review by Zinta Aistars




Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (November 1, 2007)
Price: $26.95
ISBN-10: 0670018260
ISBN-13: 978-0670018260



A mesmerizing read, thorougly engaging, painfully revealing of the dark that lurks inside each and every one of us, and right beside that shadow, the light. I first heard about "The Mascot" on an NPR station, with both son and father being interviewed--and I knew this was a story I needed to read and ponder. After all, it touched upon some part of my own heritage as a Latvian born of immigrant parents, come to the United States during WWII as refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation in Latvia.

This is the story of Uldis Kurzemnieks, by birth Ilya Galperin, a Jewish boy caught in the turning wheels of the Nazi onslaught and Holocaust. To the best of his memory, Uldis/Ilya tells his story to his son, the book's author, Mark Kurzem, and his memory seems remarkable indeed for one so very young. In bits and puzzle pieces, the now elderly man recalls his childhood of close escape from Nazis executing Jews in Belarus, his mother and siblings of those who did not survive. After six months wandering in the woods, eating berries, wrapping himself in the coat of a dead soldier, the boy is rescued by a group of Latvian SS soldiers who subsequently transform him into something of a miniature soldier-mascot. They treat him well. But here is the flux of the circumstance: the very ones who save his life are also the same who execute more Jews, and not all of them realize that the boy is Jewish, too. This is the story of extreme paradox, in which we see that one man, one group of soldiers, can exhibit mercy just as they exhibit unspeakable cruelty. Perhaps all soldiers can say the same.

The horror of the Holocaust is incomprehensible and unforgivable. Many are accountable, by commission just as by ommission of deed. No doubt, young Uldis witnessed in very close encounter the worst of humanity and suffered lifelong for it. What makes my Latvian heart ache, aside from this, however, is that the author of this book sweeps with just as broad a brush across another nation--the Latvians--as was swept across his--the Jews--as if an entire nation of peoples can be called wholly good or evil. Indeed, very few individuals can be called one or the other, but contain a blend of both, let alone an entire country be crossed off as such.

The irony of this is that the Latvian nation has suffered a very similar fate and at almost the same moment in time. This is a tiny Baltic country that has been occupied by one great power or another through almost its entire history. We, too, have been herded onto cattle cars in the dark of the night at gunpoint, our children and elderly executed, deported to concentration camps in Siberia, our property, our homes and land and businesses annihilated or stolen from us, our families dispersed, our freedom denied us, and lived through many years of strategic genocide. Kurzem accuses us of whitewashing our history to hide our sins against the Jews. I would argue that ALL histories are a mix of truth and propaganda; look to its source to find its slant. We, too, carry a mark of guilt on our foreheads, and I will not deny it. We owe apologies, even as apologies are owed us. Caught between two superpowers, two great evils, we made hard choices that I am not equipped to defend or accuse in that I myself have never stood in such a position, nor my own child, my own home so threatened. Only those who have stood in such a place, their own families under threat, can truly say what they would do to save their own.

Consider, too, the source of at least some of Kurzem's most damning evidence against this battalion of Latvian soldiers: the Soviets. I will not make excuses or rationalizations, only urge the author, and this book's readers, to consider that no one entire nation should be so marked as wrong or right, but each individual called to judgment for his or her actions. Just as Americans would hope not to be judged by Abu Ghraib in Iraq or My Lai in Vietnam or the Trail of Tears in the South U.S., so let us practice tolerance and understanding for all until proven otherwise, and not curse an entire nation for the actions of a few.

That aside, I plan to give this book to read to my friends and family. It is a remarkable story. While not all details can be verified, memory being what it is, enough is evidence-based that we can, and should, learn from this story and engrain it in ourselves: this must never happen again.

7 comments:

dan said...

zinta this story might NOT be true. questions are coming up and the author is refusing to speak to the media. Why? see blog post
http://globalwishingwell.blogspot.com

dan said...

''I'm aware of that, Dan. I've heard interviews on news magazines, too, and read several reviews. I suspect it is an exaggeration. ''

dan said...

so maybe you should change the headline of your post?

dan said...

I was prompted to write this following Dan's email yesterday. I think he nailed it. This is a bit long, but there is a lot in there. I feel that with all the hard work that is happening, you all should know what I know - the full picture.

Firstly you may notice I have cc'd in my very close friend and confidante. He has previously taught Political Science and European History at university level in his native Canada, England and Australia. He completed his PhD at the University of London, where he was the last student of the eminent scholar of European History Prof F.L. Carsten on German Student Resistance to the Third Reich and has been published in both English and German.

He has met Alex many times, and I seem to remember at a party at our place, shortly after Alex had opened up, where Alex spent a long time telling Ross the story. As the dossier evolved, Ross was my sounding board, my advisor, my proof reader. I would hate to think what the dossier would look like if Ross hadn't given unflinchingly of his time and expertise.

Because he has been in on the attempt to expose Mark right from the very start, has seen every email and been involved with every draft of the dossier letters to Penguin etc etc I would like him cc'd in on every email we exchange. It would save me a lot of time.

I feel he could chime in with valuable insights as he does not have the emotional family connection I have. Feel free to ask him questions.

And he has a great turn of phrase.

dan said...

It would be intriguing to have a look at Marks' academic record. Marks' supposed field of expertise was anthropology/Japanese society and certainly not history. How long did he study where? What studies did he complete? Did he publish anything? The book attempts to give the impression that Mark is a scholar and researcher and hence credence to anything he says.

As mentioned in the dossier, Mark was working in Japan in '95 when he and my cousin Baiba thought that Alex was remembering things about his life and might be willing to talk about them. As Mark was working in Japan at the time, it was agreed that Baiba would try to get Uldis to open up and talk. I seem to remember reading an email, but I don't have it, that part of the reason Baiba should do it, was that Mark thought that his relationship with his father wasn't one where Alex would confide in Mark. Baiba would have a better chance.

Baiba was keeping Mark, who was in Tokyo, informed. As the story became more momentous, Mark hijacked Uldis story. Mark asked Baiba to come to Tokyo to discuss the project, and upon her arrival, his behaviour was suspicious. Very early on Baiba realized that all Mark he was trying to do was get her notes and research materials in which he was unsuccessful. On her return to Australia and with subsequent developments Baiba realized that Mark didn't want her involved. To achieve this Mark's tactics eventually traumatized Baiba and Uldis was pressured to chose between Mark and Baiba.

"

dan said...

Alex's story is not finished yet.
In recent years he has become entangled in something that is seriously wrong in the publishing of non fiction literature.
This story involves the manipulation and exploitation of a man by his son.
This story involves the fight to expose a lack of concern for truth in non fiction literature by publishers, probably on a world wide scale.
This story is of a man being used.
This story is about yet another attempt to exploit the Holocaust.

This story still has to be told and written and maybe even filmed. And maybe this time in telling the story truthfully Alex might get some recompense and a chance for his dream to come true."

Let me finish by using my friend Ross's quote which I have used before with permission:


"We owe it to our ancestors and those who come after us to record history as accurately as possible, be it on the grand scale of nations or the tableau of personal experience."

dan said...

maybe an update here

before text of review begins

[UPDATE: June 9, 2009: Some scholars and historians are now raising
questions about the veracity of this book. Stay tuned. See
http://globalwishingwell.blogspot.com for background on this new
information coming in.]

A mesmerizing read, thorougly engaging, painfully revealing of the
dark that lurks inside each and every one of us, and right beside that
shadow, the light. I first heard about "The Mascot" on an NPR station,
with both son and father being interviewed--and I knew this was a
story I needed to read and ponder. After all, it touched upon some
part of my own heritage as a Latvian born of immigrant parents, come
to the United States during WWII as refugees fleeing the Soviet
occupation in Latvia.