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

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Author: Mark Kurzem

Published: November 1st 2007 by Viking Adult (first published February 2000)

Format: Hardcover , 418 pages

Isbn: 9780670018260

Language: English


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One man’s struggle with memory and prejudice on the way to recovering his past Mark Kurzem was happily ensconced in his academic life at Oxford when his father, Alex, showed up on his doorstep with a terrible secret to tell. When a Nazi death squad raided his village at the outset of World War II, Jewish five-year-old Alex Kurzem escaped. After surviving the Russian winte One man’s struggle with memory and prejudice on the way to recovering his past Mark Kurzem was happily ensconced in his academic life at Oxford when his father, Alex, showed up on his doorstep with a terrible secret to tell. When a Nazi death squad raided his village at the outset of World War II, Jewish five-year-old Alex Kurzem escaped. After surviving the Russian winter by foraging for food and stealing clothes off dead soldiers, he was discovered by a Nazi-led Latvian police brigade that later became an SS unit. Not knowing he was Jewish, they made him their mascot, dressing the little “corporal” in uniform and toting him from massacre to massacre. Terrified, the resourceful Alex charmed the highest echelons of the Latvian Third Reich, eventually starring in a Nazi propaganda film. When the war ended he was sent to Australia with a family of Latvian refugees. Fearful of being discovered—as either a Jew or a Nazi—Alex kept the secret of his childhood, even from his loving wife and children. But he grew increasingly tormented and became determined to uncover his Jewish roots and the story of his past. Shunned by a local Holocaust organization, he reached out to his son Mark for help in reclaiming his identity. A survival story, a grim fairy-tale, and a psychological drama, this remarkable memoir asks provocative questions about identity, complicity, and forgiveness.

30 review for The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood

  1. 5 out of 5

    Shrina

    This is an amazing story about a 5 year old Jewish boy surviving a masacre in his village only to roam the Belarus mountains during late autum/early winter. He is eventually "found" by a woodsman who takes him to a soldier's camp to be killed. Because the boy can think on his feet, he makes a connection with Sergent Kulis who saves him from the firing squad. Jekab Kulis is a Latvian sergent on a mission to "liquidate" the ghettos in 1941. The sergent, knowing that the boy is Jewish, saves him. H This is an amazing story about a 5 year old Jewish boy surviving a masacre in his village only to roam the Belarus mountains during late autum/early winter. He is eventually "found" by a woodsman who takes him to a soldier's camp to be killed. Because the boy can think on his feet, he makes a connection with Sergent Kulis who saves him from the firing squad. Jekab Kulis is a Latvian sergent on a mission to "liquidate" the ghettos in 1941. The sergent, knowing that the boy is Jewish, saves him. He also tells him never to let anyone know that he is Jewish. So the boy gains a new name "Uldis Kuzemniek," and becomes a little mascot of the Latvian Nazis. As an old man, Uldis has nightmares about killing and the war, and he (with the help of his oldest son, Mark) retraces his past to the 5 year old boy who ran away from the massacre. The real tragedy of the story is the lost identity of Uldis. He isn't sure if he is Jewish, Russian or Latvian. He is incredibly conflicted with the Latvian side of himself. He insists that he is not Latvian, although one can easily see that he identified with them for a long, long time. I wish the story had a little more about Sergent Kulis, for he shows the complexity of a human soul. He saves a Jewish boy, but doesn't blink even an eye about shutting a village of Jewish people in a synagogue and torching the building. It is truly amazing how a person can compartmentalize emotions and situations. Uldis later (in the '50s) receives a note from the sergent who ends up residing in New York. The notes tells him how the sergent regrets not adopting him, that he always thought of him as his son. Imagine! A Nazi sergent who thought of a Jewish boy as his son, all the while shooting and burning people just like the little boy. I also wish that Uldis ended up having a little more peace with his situation. That, I guess, is the problem with non-fictions. One cannot force a happy ending. All in all, a fantastic read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    The Mascot is such a powerful and compelling biography. It is not your traditional biography--Holocaust or not. It is the story of how one man's past is revealed, how a father chooses to share his memories--some quite vivid, others very vague or fuzzy--with his adult son. The father's life is revealed to his son in a series of conversations and through the son's research to validate his father's story. Mark, our narrator, always knew his father had his secrets. His father had a brown bag he carri The Mascot is such a powerful and compelling biography. It is not your traditional biography--Holocaust or not. It is the story of how one man's past is revealed, how a father chooses to share his memories--some quite vivid, others very vague or fuzzy--with his adult son. The father's life is revealed to his son in a series of conversations and through the son's research to validate his father's story. Mark, our narrator, always knew his father had his secrets. His father had a brown bag he carried with him everywhere. No one was allowed to see this bag's contents. But. Occasionally, the father would share with his family--his wife and sons--stories from the past. On these occasions, he'd pull out a photograph, an article, an item from the bag. Mark suspected that these stories were just that--stories, being part fact, part embellishment. But one day his father tries to tell him the truth, the whole truth, the whole UGLY truth about his past. Pieces and fragments. A memory here and there. What is certainly understandable is just how much is missing, how much he doesn't know about who he is and where he comes from. He was told by his rescuers (Latvian police men or Latvian soldiers?) that he was found in the woods or forest. Alone. Wandering. Obviously struggling to survive. He was taken in by the soldiers and "adopted" into their company. They gave him a name. They gave him a birthday. They gave him a small uniform--from 1941 to 1945 he was given three uniforms. Though he was taken into one man's home--"adopted" (though not legally) by a husband and wife--he stayed connected or associated with a unit of soldiers. He witnessed things NO CHILD of five, six, seven, eight, or nine should EVER witness. He saw men, women, children, babies being killed--in one instance herded together into a building which was then set on fire. Though he doesn't remember his name--his family name, the names of his brother and sister, father and mother--or the name of his village, the name of his country--he does remember one thing: he witnessed the slaughter of his mother, his younger brother, his baby sister. He witnessed the slaughter of an entire neighborhood or village. At the time, he didn't realize this violence, this bloody slaughter, was because they were Jewish. In fact, his very "Jewishness" was buried deep inside him. At times he seemed aware that he too was Jewish, that his life was at risk if his Jewishness was revealed. But at the same time, the only way he could cope with his present--with his new reality, his new identity, the company he was keeping--was forced to keep in a way--was to bury his 'true' Jewish identity and become the boy others wanted/needed him to be. To survive, he had to deny so very very much. So the story Mark hears from his father is fragmented, in a way, with very few clues. But it is emotional and intense. Almost too much for him to handle. In fact, it is almost too much for him--the father--to handle. And at one point, he asks himself and he asks his son why. Why bother remembering the past? What good--if any--can come from remembering, from seeking to remember, from uncovering the truth, from piecing everything together, from telling and sharing his story with his family, his friends, his community. For those expecting a clear answer to this, you might be disappointed. The truth is not that black and white. A son and father learn much about one another. The family is at times strengthened, but at other times put under great stress and pressure--by all this. There were things that seemed a little shocking to me, for one, that there were certain organizations (if organizations is the right word?) that denied and rejected his story. Who told him that he was NOT Jewish, that he did NOT suffer during the war, that his story was not part of the Holocaust. Still others (sometimes just individuals, other times groups of individuals) who denied his story, who essentially said that his story was all lies, that it could not happen, did not happen. I think this shocked the son as well, that people could hear the story, see the photographs, and come to the conclusion that this small child (he was found at the age of five) was a willing participant in the war, that he voluntarily joined the enemy, that he was a Nazi just like the others--the adult soldiers. Was he ethically responsible for the actions taken by others? True, you might argue, that the soldiers were trying to "train" him to be a little Nazi, a good, little soldier. But what choice--if any--would he have had?

  3. 5 out of 5

    Carrie

    I've been drawn to Holocaust memoirs most of my life and have therefore read many. This, by far, is the most extraordinary story I've read -- and it's well documented as not being fictional (unlike some others I could mention). A remarkable human spirit and nearly feral desire to survive are demonstrated by a 5-year-old orphaned Jewish boy who, through his charm and desperation, manages to not only hide his ethnicity, but also survive World War II in Nazi-dominated Latvia as a "mini SS" soldier I've been drawn to Holocaust memoirs most of my life and have therefore read many. This, by far, is the most extraordinary story I've read -- and it's well documented as not being fictional (unlike some others I could mention). A remarkable human spirit and nearly feral desire to survive are demonstrated by a 5-year-old orphaned Jewish boy who, through his charm and desperation, manages to not only hide his ethnicity, but also survive World War II in Nazi-dominated Latvia as a "mini SS" soldier used to buoy morale in the ranks. The real story for me is why Alex Kurzem hides his bizarre childhood from his beloved wife and three sons -- until he can't take the strain of not knowing his real name, who he is, where he comes from, etc. The dichotomy of guilt and survival are eloquently narrated by his son, the author of the book, who undertook a 10-year research effort to find out his father's real identity and reunite him with long-lost family members. Simply stated, this is a fantastic, fascinating read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    I'm not much of a history reader, and not much into WWII, but this book was gripping and entirely captivating. I liked the personal focus that didn't try to do too much with the horror of the time and didn't try to do too much with sentimentality, it was just well balanced and incredibly unique. Of all the stories you hear about WWII, you have not heard this one. I particularly enjoy that the book unfolded, it is as much a mystery novel as it is a book of personal history.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Shauna Hruby

    This was our book club book, otherwise I would not have picked this book on my own because I shy away from dark, difficult subject matter for the most part. And this is some of the darkest: dealing with WWII, Nazis, Holocaust massacres, Russian and Latvian plots, and just unbelievable evil. It is also gut-wrenching to "watch" the author's father tap into his purposefully repressed memories of his horrific childhood. And yet there is something of the fascination of tragedy about it--like watching This was our book club book, otherwise I would not have picked this book on my own because I shy away from dark, difficult subject matter for the most part. And this is some of the darkest: dealing with WWII, Nazis, Holocaust massacres, Russian and Latvian plots, and just unbelievable evil. It is also gut-wrenching to "watch" the author's father tap into his purposefully repressed memories of his horrific childhood. And yet there is something of the fascination of tragedy about it--like watching disasters on television--they are so awful you want to cry, but you also can't tear yourself away. This book was fascinating the way it unfolded. First the memories, then the research to validate, then the critical debate. I was most surprised at those who threatened the revelation of the facts--it was hard to believe that after so much time, there was still so much fear and hatred. So even though it is true I wouldn't have chosen this book on my own, I really felt it was a worthwhile read, and it was, in its own dark way, rivetingly enjoyable.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    A survival story, a grim fairy-tale, and a psychological drama, this memoir asks provocative questions about identity, complicity, and forgiveness. When a Nazi death squad raided his Latvian village, Jewish five-year-old Alex escaped. After surviving the winter by foraging for food and stealing clothes off dead soldiers, he was discovered by a Latvian SS unit. Not knowing he was Jewish, they made him their mascot, dressing the little "corporal" in uniform and toting him from massacre to massacre A survival story, a grim fairy-tale, and a psychological drama, this memoir asks provocative questions about identity, complicity, and forgiveness. When a Nazi death squad raided his Latvian village, Jewish five-year-old Alex escaped. After surviving the winter by foraging for food and stealing clothes off dead soldiers, he was discovered by a Latvian SS unit. Not knowing he was Jewish, they made him their mascot, dressing the little "corporal" in uniform and toting him from massacre to massacre. When the war ended he was sent to Australia with a family of Latvian refugees. Fearful of discovery--as either a Jew or a Nazi--Alex kept the secret of his childhood, even from his family. But he grew tormented and determined to uncover the story of his past. Shunned by a local Holocaust organization, he reached out to his son Mark for help in reclaiming his identity.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Arabella

    An interesting underlying story, but the author's style drove me nuts and made the whole thing sound implausible.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Zinta

    A mesmerizing read, painfully revealing of the dark that lurks inside us, and beside that shadow, the light. I first heard about The Mascot on NPR, with both son and father being interviewed. 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 Holocaust. To the b A mesmerizing read, painfully revealing of the dark that lurks inside us, and beside that shadow, the light. I first heard about The Mascot on NPR, with both son and father being interviewed. 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 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. 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 close encounter the worst of humanity. 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. The irony of this is that the Latvian nation has suffered a similar fate and at almost the same 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, suffered through many years of strategic genocide. Kurzem accuses us of whitewashing our history. 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 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 urge the author, and this books 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 Graib 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.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    Wow, just wow. I don't know how to describe this book. It is in some ways like a detective story or putting together a jig saw puzzle. You read it and you wonder how the pieces will fit together. I've been in two death camps -- Auschwitz (5 times) and Majdanek (twice). The first time I travelled to Auschwitz in 1991 I went with a Polish Army Colonel whose uncle was killed there. I've read several books about the 'Shoah including "Night" and "the Diary of Anne Frank." I've pored over David Roskie Wow, just wow. I don't know how to describe this book. It is in some ways like a detective story or putting together a jig saw puzzle. You read it and you wonder how the pieces will fit together. I've been in two death camps -- Auschwitz (5 times) and Majdanek (twice). The first time I travelled to Auschwitz in 1991 I went with a Polish Army Colonel whose uncle was killed there. I've read several books about the 'Shoah including "Night" and "the Diary of Anne Frank." I've pored over David Roskies' "Against the Apocalypse" and read a little history like the "last of the Just." I stood with my wife and son during the 50th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Warsaw where that ghetto stood. I once did a seminar at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Holocaust. So, I came to this book with some background. I remember what Dr. Alan Mintz told me about dealing with it. He said you can't comprehend it, you can only talk to God about it. Yeah, this brings all that back. Some might suggest that the events recounted in this book are too improbable to be true. I totally disagree. The events recounted are all too real. Especially the witness recounting about how the Einsatzgruppen carried out the killing in Koidanov. If for no other reason than the recounting of the Koidanov massacre on pp. 323-4 you ought to read this book. Warning, this book does not resolve anything, it only recounts one (then) young Jewish boy's story -- what happened to him and how he survived it. But, the book is so much more than that. This book also makes us think about who we are, where we come from and who we come from. It may be the best recounting of a survivor's story that I have read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    The story itself was very interesting, but the "voice" of the book just didn't feel authentic. It was written from the perspective of the author having conversations with his father about his (the father's) past, and it felt a bit too forced for my taste. Not that his story isn't believable, but for me the way the story was presented lacked something for me. There was also a bit of "cloak and dagger" stuff that never really was explained, which took away from the main story too much. All in all, The story itself was very interesting, but the "voice" of the book just didn't feel authentic. It was written from the perspective of the author having conversations with his father about his (the father's) past, and it felt a bit too forced for my taste. Not that his story isn't believable, but for me the way the story was presented lacked something for me. There was also a bit of "cloak and dagger" stuff that never really was explained, which took away from the main story too much. All in all, it was a good (and different) Holocaust survival book, but just not a great one.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Think back to all the memories you have from when you were 5 years old. What can you learn and trust from memories you have at such a young age? This book is about a man who has been hiding the secret of who he was for such a long time that he can hardly remember what the truth is. He asks his son to help him find out who he is and who his family is. This book is the result.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Readingmonk

    As a parent of a one-year old baby girl, one of the most difficult things for me to read about and yet find so intriguing is the subject of children in times of war. Perhaps it is the stark contrast between childhood innocence (and helplessness) and the animal-like cruelty that Man is capable of inflicting to himself. Children and war. It is a pain that strikes me in deep the heart, the same way I feel when I read about babies abandoned at birth or children neglected and abused. War is that great As a parent of a one-year old baby girl, one of the most difficult things for me to read about and yet find so intriguing is the subject of children in times of war. Perhaps it is the stark contrast between childhood innocence (and helplessness) and the animal-like cruelty that Man is capable of inflicting to himself. Children and war. It is a pain that strikes me in deep the heart, the same way I feel when I read about babies abandoned at birth or children neglected and abused. War is that great thief who robs children of their basic birthrights to unconditional love, to not hunger and want for food, to be protected, to grow, to learn what is right and what is wrong; to know joy and understand the revelations that come with curiosity. So while it is true that in war, old men argue and young men die - it holds even more truth that children suffer the most. They must live through the fear and trauma without the ability to comprehend the events that consume their innocence. Sad stories abound of children in such times of cruelty and The Mascot is one such true story set during the Holocaust. This is the third book after The Book Thief and the Hitler Book that I've read this year dealing with the subjects of Nazism and genocide during WWII. But this book is more explicit and very very much more personal. The Mascot is told by Mark Kurzem, who relates the journey of self-discovery by his aging father, Alex Kurzem who reveals to him the dark secret he has kept his whole life, from the time he was a boy in Belarus up until his eventual migration to Australia after the war. In short, 60 years of silence. At the age of only 5, Alex Kurzem is told by his mother one rainy night that come morning, they would all be killed. He sneaks out early the next morning, leaving his mother and siblings and heads for the woods. In the dark, he falls into a pit and in it he finds people, dead and dying. He falls asleep in the arms of a woman who is half buried and before the sun rises, he wakes and continues on. A while later, from the hills, he witnesses his whole village - including his mother, brother and sister, being shot and bayoneted before being tossed into the same pit he had fallen in a short while before. He runs away farther into the woods and there he wanders for the next few months. Alone, eating berries and sleeping up in trees, he survives the elements and is found by a Latvian SS unit. He is marched to a clearing where another group of people are huddled together. There, the soldiers push him towards the group. An old man holds him and tells him not to be afraid. He soon realises that this group of people were being lined up for extermination. Desperate to live, the small boy asks for bread and starts to do acts to amuse his captors. The senior officer of the unit steps out - Seargeant Kulis. Kulis pulls the boy out of the firing line, and with that spares his life. Given a set of uniform made to his size, the young Alex Kurzem becomes a mascot for the SS unit and travels with them as they go on patrol, hunting for partizani (partisans) and exterminating Jews. The Mascot is about the search by Alex Kurzem of his true identity, erased by his supposed captor-saviours starting with vague memories of his childhood (seeing his father saying goodbye to him and his family, playing with his best friend, picking apples from a tree in his backyard for his mother) to horrific scenes of massacres that he is forced to watch as a Corporal in the SS unit (the head of the unit, a Commander Karlis Lobe accepts Kulis' request to keep the boy with the soldiers and after making him a Private, promotes him to a Corporal). Unable to distinguish between what his real memories are, or what are images planted in his mind as a child by his captors, Alex endures the torment with the help of his son. They seek help from the Holocaust Center, and persist despite anonymous threats and intimidation by both elements within the Latvian community (who feel that the Kurzems' actions will expose their complicity in genocide during the war) and that of the Jewish community (with visits by Israeli agents looking for more leads in their hunt for Nazi war criminals). Through the help of an elderly lady working in the Holocaust Center - Alice Prosser, the Kurzems are able to network with historians in Latvia and from there, they travel to Belarus to find more information about two words that Alex Kurzem could remember from his childhood - "Koidanov" and "Panok". As if Fate had shown compassion and foresight in the midst of all the killing, these two words imprinted somehow in the mind of the young boy would somehow be the key to his journey home to where it all began. I must admit that some parts of the book are just too amazing to be true - how can a boy of 5 have such a clear recollection of events around him? How could he have remembered things his father said to him, or the dialogue of adults surrounding him? But I put aside my disbelief and read on and what an amazing journey it turns out to be. Father and son slowly confront the past, both sitting at the kitchen table every night in the wee hours - Alex recollecting, and Mark recording. Their travel to Minsk, Belarus and then to Dzerzhinsk (which is later revealed to be the name the Soviets used to replace the original name - Koidanov) reveal a clearer picture of who Alex Kurzem was before his capture. We learn of the Koidanov massacre that saw the extermination of his family, the meaning of Panok, and the discovery of a half-brother (Erick Galperin) from his father's second marriage. In Koidanov, he meets an old couple who remember him as Ilya Galperin, the eldest son of Solomon Galperin who survived Auswitch and came home looking for his family, only to discover them all dead (and never knowing until his death in 1975 that his eldest son had in fact escaped the massacre). Through the arduous process, the pieces are put together and missing links discovered. But not everything is solved, and some questions remain. There is no finality to Alex Kurzem's search for himself (as the reader soon finds out). The author himself admits to this much. We find out how Alex Kurzem survived the war, and how he eventually ended up in Australia. We also see the pain through the eyes of a 5 year old child, forced to see things no child should ever see, or even try to understand, and through that, we see also how it came to be that so much of his past became suppressed within himself for such a long time. "Would it have been better if you'd never spoken of the past?' Mark Kurzem asks of his father. 'I honestly don't know, son,' Alex Kurzem answers. 'Even after sixty years, it unsettled me in a way that I could never have imagined. I thought I was in charge of my life but it wasn't so. How I survived even now dictates my life and all I can do is follow at a safe distance, chained to it. It's as if there are two persons in my body. There is the Alex everybody knows and there's another Alex who was a secret. They'll have to learn to accommodate each other again.' In closing, Mark Kurzem wrote - 'I had my answers to the questions I had harboured since that day at the Cafe Daquise in London when my father had suddenly become a stranger to me. I believed that now I was closer to an understanding. 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.' This book is unforgettable and I doubt I will ever come across another book as special as this one. I find it hard to look at the black and white photographs without feeling sadness for the little boy in them. No child should ever go through this experience. Over and over again, it fills me with amazement that that child survived and grew into adulthood. I am glad Alex Kurzem found the strength to break his silence and eventually brought to light the truth that so many had tried to hide for so many decades. Just as Alex came to realise, the reader will also come to the conclusion that behind the supposed kindness of his captors, there was something evil there as well. These men, Mr Dzenis, Commander Lobe, Sergeant Kulis - all had their selfish reasons for taking in the boy, and they made it very clear in the end when Alex Kurzem started to dig up the past. I strongly recommend this book, not for any lessons that it may hold, but more for the amazing story of an old man's search for the truth, and that common desire we as humans all share .. that simple need to belong to someone, to belong to somewhere. To have a start, and a finish.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bella

    I was very intrigued by this story and I feel as though I would have really enjoyed it overall with the way the father speaks. That being said, the father's story is wonderfully told and I enjoyed his side of things, what I could not get through was the son's narrative. It took nearly forty pages of the son to get to the father. These stories must be told but by the people who experienced it. It would have been wonderful just to have the son relay the story, not his interjections and questions t I was very intrigued by this story and I feel as though I would have really enjoyed it overall with the way the father speaks. That being said, the father's story is wonderfully told and I enjoyed his side of things, what I could not get through was the son's narrative. It took nearly forty pages of the son to get to the father. These stories must be told but by the people who experienced it. It would have been wonderful just to have the son relay the story, not his interjections and questions that interrupt the flow.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    A truly heartbreaking tale that made me reflect on how we define good and evil, and how both can exist in one person. A true testament to resilience and the power of seeking the truth. I wish there had been more - more about the aftermath of the journey as described in the book, which is alluded to but never shared.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bev

    Really liked this.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Geri Cafarella

    Excellent book very interesting as it is a true story.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Lippincott

    Initially I was reluctant to dig into Mark Kurzem’, sensing that the content would be challenging and brutal. However, it had been strongly recommended, enough to overcome my reluctance. I can’t say it was a treat, but it was rewarding to read. As I expected, there were horrifying scenes that would give me nightmares if I dwelled on them. It was also brutal in ways I had not expected, like discovering all the ways a very young boy was ensnared, robbed of his childhood and identity and used for n Initially I was reluctant to dig into Mark Kurzem’, sensing that the content would be challenging and brutal. However, it had been strongly recommended, enough to overcome my reluctance. I can’t say it was a treat, but it was rewarding to read. As I expected, there were horrifying scenes that would give me nightmares if I dwelled on them. It was also brutal in ways I had not expected, like discovering all the ways a very young boy was ensnared, robbed of his childhood and identity and used for nefarious purposes. But mostly it was a truly tender and touching story of a young man helping his reluctant father dig into the past he’d kept locked up tight for over fifty years to find the truth of who he was. Alex Kurzem’s story is utterly fascinating, both his youthful years as the “mascot” of the Latvian 18th Regiment (they found him wandering in the woods where he’d fled weeks earlier to escape extermination with other Jewish residents of his home village) and the later months fifty years later that he and his son spent unraveling mysteries that refused to remain hidden any longer. Mark Kurzem does a masterful job of weaving these two threads together, telling the earlier story through flashbacks his father reluctantly shares while mingling them with intervening encounters with key people from the past and members of the Latvian community in Melbourne where Alex had moved at a young age. I don’t know what I had expected at the end, but certainly not what I found. Anyone will appreciate Kurzem’s eloquent writing and superb description skills. He is especially adept at conveying emotion. A tissue was never out of reach as I read. Since he was working side-by-side with his father on this project, he was legitimately able to report his father’s emotions as well as his own, and he did not shy away from describing his own times of doubt, dismay, despair and distress as he struggled to make sense of this stranger in his father’s skin. In addition to the personal story, the book gives excellent insight into the inner workings of the Latvian army and to some extent, the Latvian ethos. He refrains from passing judgment on two key figures, Commander Karl Lobe and “Uncle” Jakabs Dzenis. Lobe was never convicted of complicity in the Slonim massacre, and evidence both ways is considered. No conclusions are drawn as to the nature of Dzenis’s role in atrocities. The book is recommended reading for any student of human nature. Anyone involved with a relative who is working through survivor trauma, or even those keeping it bottled up, will benefit from this book. Those who contemplate writing intergenerational memoir will not find a better example.

  18. 4 out of 5

    LibraryCin

    The author's father, Alex Kurzem, has been keeping a secret from his family forever. It's only when he is older and all his sons are grown up and long gone that he starts to confide in Mark. Mark grew up in Australia and was living in England when he father, who Mark believed grew up in Latvia, began to reveal his secrets and to ask for help to find out who is really is. He remembers only two words as clues, and remembers that when he was 5 or 6, he saw his mother and siblings shot by the Nazis. The author's father, Alex Kurzem, has been keeping a secret from his family forever. It's only when he is older and all his sons are grown up and long gone that he starts to confide in Mark. Mark grew up in Australia and was living in England when he father, who Mark believed grew up in Latvia, began to reveal his secrets and to ask for help to find out who is really is. He remembers only two words as clues, and remembers that when he was 5 or 6, he saw his mother and siblings shot by the Nazis. He escaped and was later found by soldiers who dressed him up like a little soldier himself, and used him to bolster spirits. The story goes on, and Mark tries to research to help Alex figure out who he really is. Wow, what an amazing story. As Mark tried to get help, some people didn't believe the story, but Alex had photos and newspaper clippings to back up what he remembered. Alex's story coming to light even became dangerous for them all. Of course, it was also extremely difficult and emotional for Alex to relive all these memories. Some questions were answered by the end of the book, but there were still some mysteries surrounding it all. Definitely an intriguing story.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Meghan

    This is an amazing and heartbreaking story of a young boy who witnessed the death of his mother and siblings at the hands of SS soldiers only to go on to become a young "soldier" himself in order to survive. The narrative is told through the eyes of the "little soldier's" adult son, who helped his father sort through the fragmented memories in order to find out his true identity. It is one of the most unbelievable stories of survival I have ever read. One cannot blame the Oxford professors who f This is an amazing and heartbreaking story of a young boy who witnessed the death of his mother and siblings at the hands of SS soldiers only to go on to become a young "soldier" himself in order to survive. The narrative is told through the eyes of the "little soldier's" adult son, who helped his father sort through the fragmented memories in order to find out his true identity. It is one of the most unbelievable stories of survival I have ever read. One cannot blame the Oxford professors who first listened to the memories of this man and did not believe him. It is only as you read through the book that you see how the pieces fit together and what a labor of love it was for the son to help his father, even through the pain of understanding his own father's role as a boy in the persecution of Jews in Latvia.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Simone

    So Lea recommended this to me forever ago. And I finally got around to reading it. Probably because it's not exactly the kind of book that makes you want to run right out and read depressing stories about Nazi's. However, this was really interesting. In part because it's not the typical Holocaust narrative, this isn't a story you've heard before, and it doesn't go where you thought it might. Either way, interesting. Glad I finally read it!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Montana Davis

    This book is about a man trying to rediscover his Jewish past. Over sixty years he kept his story a secret until finally sharing it with his son and wife. In this book he finds his past. I would recommend this book to people who would like to learn about World War Two without it going into any extreme detail about the Holocaust. It was fairly interesting but also had some dull areas. Overall, I think this book is good and I would recommend it to others.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ruth

    I would give this a 3.5 book rating. The story is fascinating but the writing is not the best I have ever read. Still, the circumstances of the writer's father is so interesting that it is worth reading.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Carole

    The whole idea of this book was intriguing, but I didn't feel like it was very well written. An interesting, but rather odd book. When I finished it, I had a lot of ambiguous feelings toward the people portrayed. Since it is about real people, maybe that was the way I was supposed to feel.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mary Lynn HR

    Read a copy borrowed from the library, after a recommendation from a friend. Thank you Adele for your review.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tom Schulte

    In a way, this is a story too good to fact-check: According to the spellbinding story, Alex Kurzem (father to the author) is the former boy mascot of the collaborationist Latvian police Schutzmannschaft Battalion 18. Certainly, photographs and survivor interviews support this mascot role. Controversy remains as to whether Alex is Jewish and if he actually witnessed the other Jewish residents of his shtetl massacred by an open pit by (an early Nazi massacre mode I read of in Black Earth: The Holo In a way, this is a story too good to fact-check: According to the spellbinding story, Alex Kurzem (father to the author) is the former boy mascot of the collaborationist Latvian police Schutzmannschaft Battalion 18. Certainly, photographs and survivor interviews support this mascot role. Controversy remains as to whether Alex is Jewish and if he actually witnessed the other Jewish residents of his shtetl massacred by an open pit by (an early Nazi massacre mode I read of in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning) soldiers allied with those that took him in. That the old man could be incorrect about his childhood memories does not surprise me. That he was a "puppy" in Battalion 18 seems beyond doubt - whether he even is Jewish. Regardless, the well-paced story of unraveling this mystery makes for one of the best Holocaust memoir page turners I have read. I hope in years to come, some DNA testing bring some resolution to the matter, as it did (mostly) for the Thomas Jefferson affair as I read of in The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    I had to choose many shelves/tags to classify this book because it actually fit it all these in some way or another. The title of the book is a good summation of what the book is obviously about. The photo on the book jacket is one from his father's collection which he(the father) guarded zealously because of his shame, although he was only five years old when he was adopted as it were by Nazi soldiers after his act of running away from the mass execution of Jewish people including his mother an I had to choose many shelves/tags to classify this book because it actually fit it all these in some way or another. The title of the book is a good summation of what the book is obviously about. The photo on the book jacket is one from his father's collection which he(the father) guarded zealously because of his shame, although he was only five years old when he was adopted as it were by Nazi soldiers after his act of running away from the mass execution of Jewish people including his mother and younger brother and sister. The author helps unravel the mystery as his father didn't remember the circumstances fully and he felt necessary to assuage his conscience, although,he was too young to be complicit in the genocide of his people. He was five when adopted, and nine when the war was over. Yet he felt the guilt of having associated with the Nazis. He remembered two words which after many months of research led to the discovery of his true identity as the Nazis gave him a new name and birthdate. It was a bittersweet ending. Photos are included. Recommended if you are interested in reading about the Holocaust and the terrible suffering and loss of Jewish lives.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bill Gardner

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Stunning! Many things about this book reminded me of Roots - especially the unbelievable coincidences that make it possible for a person to rediscover their "roots" when it seems impossible or at least unreasonable. A Jewish boy of five escapes murder at the hands of the Nazis only to be turned over to a group and lined up for the firing squad before being "rescued" and used as a lucky charm or a mascot for a troop that kills his fellow Jews. So traumatized that he keeps his childhood a secret f Stunning! Many things about this book reminded me of Roots - especially the unbelievable coincidences that make it possible for a person to rediscover their "roots" when it seems impossible or at least unreasonable. A Jewish boy of five escapes murder at the hands of the Nazis only to be turned over to a group and lined up for the firing squad before being "rescued" and used as a lucky charm or a mascot for a troop that kills his fellow Jews. So traumatized that he keeps his childhood a secret for fifty years he finds that he suddenly must talk to his oldest son (the author) who captures the story and the journey back to the homeland. It's a true story that you'll find hard to put down!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

    This is quite possibly the saddest book I have ever read, but it manages to maintain an optimistic tone despite the incredible trauma and moral injury the author's father suffered during World War 2. This story lifts the veil on the complex moral choices people were forced to make in war-time. Reads like a page-turner mystery.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Clare Knight

    One extraordinary boys story Having a deep interest in the holocaust history, this book was an incredible story of such a young childs remembrance of his early life with such cruel, sad dramatic memories. I truly felt for Alex , a must read a truly incredible man and his tragic early life leaves the reader wanting to smother a young Alex with lots of family love

  30. 5 out of 5

    Francesca Boschi

    3.75 stars (I put 4 because it deserves more recognition) This is a story about WW2, about jews, but it's different. And this is what makes it so important. It's a true story, and it needs to be told, it needs to be known. I really enjoyed it. There were some parts that left me hooked, others that I found a little more boring, but I liked it and I really do recommend it.

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