Alex Kurzem's storyThe Mascot

Despite being Jewish, he survived the war as a sort of mascot for a Nazi battalion. We find out how that happened, and why for decades Kurzem didn't tell anyone about his experiences during the war. LM �you were a young child when you fled your village. I wonder if you'd mind if I asked you how old you are now?� AK �not sure about my age, it's still a puzzle. But I think I'm roughly 72.� LM �and still living in Australia, yes?� AK �yes, in Melbourne.� LM �now you lived a long time as you said with this secret and the story gets more startling as it goes on. You decided after all those years in 1997 to enlist the help of your son Mark and you went to Oxford, England. Why did you decide to tell him what you remembered about your history and enlist him in your search for the missing pieces of the puzzle?� AK �Well I always thought I'd like to go back to the little village where I lived in Russia and put a flower on my mother's grave. But I said, well I have to start looking soon before I die.� LM �the grave as far as you knew was where in Russia?� AK �in a little village just outside Minsk in Belarussia.� LM �so the name of this town stuck with you and you weren't quite sure why it stuck in your mind but stayed with you through your entire life. I'm going to ask you to go back. this Latvian police brigade that I mentioned in the introduction, tell us the story of how they came across you and how you ended up becoming essentially their mascot?� AK �well after my family got shot in our village in October of 1940, I was left alone, I had nowhere to go. So I lived in the forest, I wandered from place to place and begged for food and so on. And after a long time, I knocked on a man's door and asked him for some bread and he recognized he as a Jewish boy so he said, I'll take you to be shot. So he dragged me to a school where they were executing people and he handed me to the Latvian soldiers and said, he's a Jewish boy to be shot. That's how I finished up there.� LM �And you were basically in the execution line and what happened?� AK �so I asked a nearby soldier, please before you shoot me can you give me a piece of bread? I'm hungry. And he looked at me and must've taken pity, he took me out of line and took me to the school and said, I don't want to shoot you but I can't leave you either. I'll tell the other soldiers that you're a Russian orphan and take you with me. So I was very happy, my life was saved.� LM �your life was saved by this man, Sergeant Coolis and you ended up becoming their mascot. And you even got a tiny soldier's uniform for you, this SS uniform.� AK �Well first of all they gave me a Latvian name and they taught me the Latvian language and they had to dress me so they tailor made a uniform especially for me, the same color as the other soldiers were.� LM �I want to introduce your son now, Mark Kurzem who's in Oxford, England. This book is your story as well, Mark. when your father came forth and asked you to help him piece together his background, how much of what he was telling you was a surprise?� MK �It was a total surprise. The family had grown up with a particular history, a rather vague history, a history full of black spots if you'd like. So to be suddenly confronted with the name of his Russian village and the second word, Panek, with no idea of what they meant but to see the very disturbing effect they had on my father's psyche, simply by speaking and uttering them, shocked me deeply, it made me realize that there was something else afloat.� LM �the second word you mentioned, the name Panek, was of a family who were all killed, this was in the village.� MK �it's very hard to convey, I hope the book does this well, the sense of time elapsing before the answers were found. For example, we didn't immediately find the name of the Russian town because it had been renamed after the war.� LM �how did you find out the details of this story? Was this part of the detective work that you had to do?� MK �yes, we proceeded piecemeal. Generally I was led by my father's memory of details or events and then I tried to verify them historically.� LM �there were some photographs. How did you have those photos of your father as the mascot?� MK �Well some of them, my father had kept hidden all his life in his little suitcase that he brought with him from Latvia when he emigrated to Australia.� LM �AK, that suitcase that you kept with you that you would not show anybody, I guess you knew that one day you would take out the contents and come forth with it. but it must've been awfully painful to keep that with you and keep it quiet for so long?� AK �yes well I kept the suitcase in a safe place and some of the photos locked away so I did not have not to look at them and kept my memories locked up. I kept the past away as much as I could living a quiet life in Australia. I buried the past, not to rekindle the trauma of my life.� LM �part of that trauma came as you were again acting as the young mascot to this Latvian brigade which eventually became an SS brigade. What was your job with them? What did you do?� AK �well there was no specific job but I kept myself occupied by polishing shoes, playing in water, going and collecting berries in the forest for the soldiers, I had shooting practice, and so my day went like that.� LM �did they ever ask you to kill anyone?� AK �no, no. they pretended to but not really.� LM �there were some things that did happen, maybe MK you want to tell us about this, things that were still pretty disturbing, things that AK you as a little kid had to watch.� MK �yes, obviously I want to respect dad's privacy on this as well but he's witnessed some terrible atrocities and in particular there's the burning of the synagogue.� LM �with people inside.� MK �yes, sorry. And also some other exterminations and tragedies.� LM �AK, do you mind if we talk a little bit about that?� AK �well the worst one was when I saw my family got killed in the Russian village in a village execution in which 1,600 people got killed on the 21st of October, 1941, amongst them my mother, my father, and my brother and sister and the rest of my relatives and friends. There was a few others amongst them but accidentally I saw a few others places and dates happening.� LM �There was one time when you tried to escape but then you were found. There was another point where you were sent to live with a family and tell us what that experience was like.� AK �well I got attached to the army, the soldiers were like my mother and father and when they sent me to this family in Latvia, I wasn't happy, I tried to get back to the soldiers because I got used to them and they were good to me. So that was one of the events.� LM �they were good to you. I think I want to ask you a little bit more about that. I wonder if you can tell me something: in these years since you've put these stories together, have you been able to make sense of the nature of people who can be both good and benevolent and considerate and evil at the same time?� AK �Well I didn't understand at the time what was going on. They took care of me, they dressed me, they gave me food, if any fighting happened they shielded me so I was protected, I didn't understand, I knew it was wrong but there was nothing I could do about. I didn't know what the war was all about, you see, I was too young and no one explained it to me. All I knew was it was people killing each other. There was nothing I could do about that, I don't want you to just put up with it.� LM �MK, as AK's son, as you helped him search for your identity, you were learning about your identity as well and there are some really amazing coincidences. One of them concerns a letter you sent to a historian in Belarus. The day this historian got your dad's letter, you happened to be talking to somebody right there and this turned out to be very fortuitous.� MK �that's right, she was given this letter on this particular day that she was meeting a man that was going to be printing her new work on the Minsk ghetto. And she read the letter and she just threw her hands up in despair, she recounted this to me, where on earth am I going to find anything about this poor man from Melbourne who's looking for any trace of his family that might possibly come from this Russian village. And this man who visiting, this printer said, well my family was originally from that village and just as they chatted about what scant details we had provided, this man said, he's talking about my family. And this man had a photo of his father and it arrived at our house in Melbourne and practically everyone who saw it thought it was an old black and white photograph of my father. And it was like being struck by lightning to look at it. so we thought the first thing we need to do is get to this Russian village and unite everyone and see where it'll all lead. And we didn't go, it turned out that this man turned out to be my father's half-brother. It seemed that my grandfather, my father's father, had not died. My father had been told by his mother had died, but in fact his father had gone into hiding and survived and had walked back to the village looking for his family, hard learnt that his family had died and so remarried and had another child, Eric, my father's half-brother.� LM �did your father ever meet his dad?� MK �no, no, that's a very sad thing because he lived until 1975, my father's father, believing he had lost everyone.� LM �AK, let me ask you this: aside from the words you mentioned, is there anything else that stays with your or any other memory that was sparked by the research that you and your son did?� AK �Well I went to the village looking for my father's house and I found my father's house and when we went and knocked on the door, the lady answered and called us in and showed us around. And she said, when I bought this house, I found a plastic bag of photos and she put them out which were over 50 years old and there were my family photos. First I saw my mother and father photos and it was a great discovery at the time.� LM �she just found them under the floorboards?� AK �yes, she found them when she moved into the house in the beginning of the 50s.� LM �The whole story is so amazing and so moving but you knew and probably I suspect some of those who read the book as well, you knew there were many people who wouldn't believe this story.� AK �Well I sometimes wake up and think it's a nightmare myself and I pinch myself to see if it's true. That's why I kept quiet all the years because I had to verify all the facts that it was true and not some kind of a fantasy. For example, the soldiers picking me up and dressing me up in uniform, I had to verify. And so we've found old evidence now, so it wasn't a dream.�

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