A Terrible Secret

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Wartime is harrowing — and people survive however they can. Imagine, though, that you're a 5-year-old child, the Nazis have just massacred your village, and you're hiding in the woods. What are your chances of survival — of even knowing what survival might mean? That's just what happened to Alex Kurzem. But his story took a dramatic twist when he was rescued by the Latvian SS. They fed him and clothed him — and adopted him as their own. They never knew he was Jewish. He became their "mascot," and for years kept the secret — even from his own family. When he finally told his son, Mark Kurzem, it took them ten years to piece together his fragmented family history — and Mark wrote a book about his father's experiences, called The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood. Today we'll talk to both father and son about the long road they took together.

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Mark Kurzem's story of his father's survival as a mascot under the Third Reich is one of the most heartbreaking and remarkable accounts ever told about the tragedies of WWII in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust wreaked upon so many.

It is truly horrific how as a child, Alex Kurzem, was forced to witness the death of his family members and hometown villagers and furthermore how he survived the trauma of the war whilst concealing his Jewish identity. It is a tale of bravery against all odds.

I can only state my highest praise for this incredible journey and biography told through the eyes of his son, Mark. There are very few stories which render on the page the raw realities of these experiences, perhaps the Diary of Ann Frank or the writings of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Viktor Frankl come to mind.

Mark Kurzem's evocative prose bring the starkness of these realities to the page. The images are burning and lasting and will stay with me for a very long time.

For all of these reasons, this is a biography which should be read. It is an important work and deserves the highest accolades. It is amazing Alex Kurzem was able to survive this ordeal. What is wonderful is how well his son, Mark is able to convey his father's story with such care and to demonstrate to us all: here was a child who was traumatized beyond belief; here was a child survivor of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust; here was a child who became a man with no hate for anyone and above all tried to protect his family from the horror of this past.

I am grateful to read Alex Kurzem's story in The Mascot and I remain haunted by this tale of bravery and survival. As William Faulkner once wrote in one of his memorable passages: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past'.

Sent by John | 5:57 PM | 11-21-2007

I jut finished reading this fascinating book. I couldn't put it down. However, I was left with a vexing question which was never answered by the author. The question is why his father's half-brother, Erick, intentionally led them to the wrong house in Koidanov. If the author wasn't sure why, he could at least have provided some plausible speculations for Erick's behavior. Overall the book was excellent, with this unanswered question the only shortcoming.

Sent by Kevin | 1:59 PM | 4-27-2008

It's too bad that Mark and his father didn't ask that old couple to identify the people in the photos. What a missed opportunity! They had the photos in their hands and didn't bring them out!? It's too late now.

Sent by Pat | 2:05 PM | 4-27-2008

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