Mark Kurzem was brought up in Melbourne, Australia, and studied anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has also spent time studying at universities in Melbourne, Jochi, and Tokyo, and focused his academic research on Japanese society. He has worked in the fields of political research, international relations, teaching, and filmmaking and lived in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan.
In 2002, he wrote and coproduced a documentary about his father’s life titled The Mascot, after which he wrote the book of the same name which was published in 2007. Both the book and the film have received much international attention, and there has also been great debate about the extent of the veracity of the Kurzem tale—the film and the book, for instance, differ in quite a few details. Mark died in 2009 due to diabetic complications.
The Mascot tells the story of Uldis Kurzemnieks (Ilya Galperin by birth and known as Alex Kurzem), a man who lived around sixty years of his life hiding a huge secret: the fact that he was a Jew. And not just any Jew, but one surrounded and brought up by Nazis as one of their own during the Holocaust. As a child, he was their mascot soldier, their symbol, and their good luck charm.
Uldis finally cracks and lets the protective shell that he spent most of his life building around himself fall to pieces when he shows up at his son Mark’s doorstep in England one day, having come all the way from Australia. Slowly and patiently, Uldis recounts his tale to Mark in an effort to piece together the missing fragments and memories of his life’s story. They begin their investigation with only two strange and unfamiliar words that Uldis remembers, yet those two words take them well ahead.
One night when he was around five years old, Uldis’ mother approached him and told him that their entire family was going to die the following morning. As a young child Uldis could barely understand what was happening, but knew one thing for sure—he wanted to live. And so, in the middle of the night, he left. He ran into the forest all alone, leaving behind the only world he had ever known. The next morning, he watched from the safety of the trees as, one after another, all the people of his village were shot and made to fall into a hole. His mother, younger siblings, and best friend died before his eyes.
After the shooting he spent around six months wandering alone around the forest struggling to survive, living in an animal like way, until he was discovered by Latvian SS soldiers one day. The same men who showed no mercy to thousands of Jews took pity on the poor boy and took him in as one of their own. Sergeant Kulis was the only one who discovered that Uldis was a Jew, and, miraculously, did not give him away (his reasons for doing so remain unclear). Uldis began to accompany the SS unit on its duties and saw widespread cruelty and killing firsthand. He became a famous Nazi mascot and even appeared in numerous newspapers and propaganda films.
Although this book seems to center on a personal tale from World War Two, it is much, much more than that; it is about identity—about having, losing, building, and then reconstructing one—it is about courage and faith and memory, it is about a father and son struggling to unravel the mysteries that time and history have obscured from them. Uldis and Mark’s journey is a grim and terrifying one. It is a quest for truth, and portrays the world of the Holocaust through a child’s eyes.
As one moves through the compelling story, one cannot help but wonder how to define Uldis—is he a true Nazi, an associate, a collaborator? Or was he just a confused, lost little boy in need of care and protection?
As a reader, the one thing that slightly disturbed me about this book was the accuracy with which Uldis seemed to and claimed to recount events (even the smallest of details and dialogues) from the age of five onwards. Memories from that age are not extremely reliable; indeed, many critics of this story around the world agree. However, the provided documentation and photographs erase much of my skepticism; while some minor details may be false, I remain convinced that the major part of the storyline is correct. After all, truth can be stranger than fiction, can it not?
I also wish that the book would more deeply explore the character and story of Sergeant Kulis, for his actions really do restore one’s faith in the possibility of goodness even in the presence of absolute wickedness. He did not hesitate to burn down a blocked building filled with Jews, yet went to great lengths to save a Jewish boy whom it would be very, very easy to finish off. He seems to represent the complexity of humanity, of how human beings can be so terrible and so kind at the same time.
Although I would have liked to have seen Uldis make peace with himself and come to terms with his situation towards the end of the book, I am also kind of glad that the book did not force a positive, happy ending—after all, non-fiction is real, and reality can be disappointing.
I would encourage all those who have never tried historical fiction, or have tried and disliked it, to give this book a shot. It is extremely captivating and almost unbelievable, and raises as many questions as it seeks to solve. I am sure it will not disappoint!
All in all, this book is a fantastic read.
Image Source [http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1183052932l/1371718.jpg]