Jewish Child Survived Holocaust as Nazi 'Mascot' After a Nazi death squad killed his family, Alex Kurzem, a five-year-old Jewish boy, found protection in an unlikely place — with a group of Latvian Nazis. Unaware that Kurzem was a Jew, the soldiers dressed him in tiny Nazi uniforms, and adopted him as their mascot.
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Jewish Child Survived Holocaust as Nazi 'Mascot'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

When Mark Kurzem was a child, his father, Alex, told him stories of his childhood - his life in Russia as the son of a pig herder and how he was later the elephant boy in a traveling circus. But there was one story he didn't tell.

When he was 5 years old, Alex Kurzem saw his mother, his brother and his baby sister murdered by Nazi death squads along with many others from his village. He escaped into the woods where he lived for months scavenging berries to eat and clothes from the body of a dead soldier until he found an unlikely group of protectors - a battalion of Latvian Nazis, who adopted him as their own, as their mascot, unaware that the boy they saved was a Jew.

Mark Kurzem didn't hear the true story of his father's childhood until he was an adult himself and then spent the better part of six years, helping his father to retrace his lost history.

Both Mark and his father join us today to talk about this new book, "The Mascot."

Later in the hour, we'll answer some of your questions about stem cell research. If you have questions about reports of breakthroughs and the ethical, scientific and medical implications, you can send us an e-mail now. That's talk@npr.org.

But first, "The Mascot." If you want to talk with Mark and Alex Kurzem or if the world forced you to live a secret life, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Mark Kurzem is the author of "The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood" and he joins us from BBC studios in Oxford, England.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MARK KURZEM (Author, "The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood"): Thank you.

CONAN: You were already a graduate student there in Oxford when your father made an unexpected trip to visit you from his home in Australia and he told you two words, Koidanov and Panok. What do they mean?

Mr. M. KURZEM: Well, it took us some time to unravel their meaning. At first, obviously, I had no idea. It took about six months of research to locate Koidanov. It's the pre-war Russian name of a town that was renamed Dzerzhinsk and it's about 20 miles southwest of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

CONAN: Then part of the Soviet Union.

Mr. M. KURZEM: That's right. Yes.

CONAN: Panok?

Mr. M. KURZEM: Panok was - took a lot longer to unravel. I suspected it was a name but, in fact, couldn't find the meaning for over a year. And in the end, we found it was the name generally of an extended Jewish-Belarusian family. And that it possibly was the name of my father's best friend as he was - when he was a very small child in the village of Koidanov.

CONAN: And Koidanov is the village where, at least record show, there was a massacre similar to the one your father witnessed.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes, exactly. And this massacre happened on the circumstances that - very similar to those of my father's very impressionistic memory of a massacre occurring in which he lost his mother, brother and sister, and friends, neighbors and members of his extended family.

CONAN: There's an extraordinary moment in the book where he says he - this must be a memory, he can't imagine what it was - could otherwise been, but he remembers looking and seeing other people from the village looking on as the massacre happened, as the Jews were shot and bayoneted to death, looking on as if this was just a sporting contest.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes. It's a very unfortunate memory but, clearly, it was in war time. We later found the date of - in late 1941, 21st of October, in fact, of 1941. And it was an extermination of the Jewish population that was taking place from Koidanov, Jews from Koidanov and from surrounding small villages, and the observers were non-Jewish members of the population.

CONAN: And then an extraordinary part of an extraordinary story, this was in the fall. If everybody's accounts square up your father, then 5 years old, going into the forests of Belarus in no more than a light sweater and a pair of shorts, survived one of the bitterest winters on record.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes. He survived. I mean, obviously, he was begging and perhaps - and foraging for food and did receive some help from isolated forest dwellers, et cetera. And he survived by all accounts until May, June of 1942 alone.

CONAN: Survived in part through the, I guess, unintended generosity of a dead soldier who provided him with socks and boots and an overcoat.

Mr. M. KURZEM: That's right. Oversized boots tied around his thin ankles. Heavy woolen overcoat that he managed to get off the soldier's body and wrapped himself in. And he continued on his foraging until the climate changed and warmed.

CONAN: And then he was captured, turned over to a Latvian police unit who, in fact, were people carrying out executions of Jews.

Mr. M. KURZEM: That's right. He was passed by - I don't know what word to use -a woodsman who suspected that he was Jewish - my father was Jewish - and took him to a schoolyard where some Jews, or (unintelligible) as soldiers often called them, were being rounded up to be shot. My father was tossed into the queue and by means that he will probably tell you of.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. M. KURZEM: He became isolated from the other people waiting to be assassinated and he was spared.

CONAN: He was spared by a sergeant, a sergeant named Kulis - I hope I'm pronouncing it correctly.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes. That's right. Sergeant Kulis. Jekabs Kulis.

CONAN: As far as we know, this man, Sergeant Kulis, is the only one who would learn over the next several years that your father was Jewish.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Exactly. Sergeant Kulis definitely ascertained that my father was Jewish. He examined him.

CONAN: He was circumcised, which at that time, in that place, meant you were Jewish.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Exactly. And - but as for other people, they may have suspected but never confirmed the fact that my father was Jewish.

CONAN: And after a brief period where he was unclear as to whether he would be accepted or not, he was adopted as this unit's mascot, accompanied them on their patrols through the forests, accompanied them as they - he saw them - as they rounded up a bunch of Jews, crowded them into a synagogue and burned it down.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes. Yes. He witnessed a number of atrocities but that, above all else, remains indelibly imprinted in his memory.

CONAN: A couple of people escaped that burning building and were shot to death by, among others, his hero and protector, Sergeant Kulis.

Mr. M. KURZEM: That's right, according to my father's recollection.

CONAN: And at that point, as you're listening to this story from your father, this man you've known your whole life, you have to be looking at him and saying, who is this person?

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes. That was definitely the situation. I wavered in and out of, I suppose, another consciousness altogether in which I saw this man before me as a stranger. Who is this man? What has this man experienced beyond my worst nightmares, worst dreams? It was a very difficult process to survive, to negotiate, and keep one's sanity if you like.

CONAN: Were there moments, as you did the investigation, where you wondered whether your father was in fact delusional, whether he was making this up -making at least some of this up?

Mr. M. KURZEM: I had to do some almost mental safety checks on myself. I had to tell myself perhaps the skeleton of this is true, but memory and time has embellished what my father remembers. The pain of going back has dramatized it beyond the way it was, what this is all about. I have no idea why - what was happening. It literally left me dumbfounded and still does in many ways.

CONAN: Toward the end of the war, Sergeant Kulis and the unit he was with turned your father over to a wealthy family in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The family - the father of the family was in charge of the local chocolate factory there…

Mr. M. KURZEM: That's right.

CONAN: … and they more or less adopted your father as the son he had always wanted - clearly knowing that he was not Jewish. And eventually through a long process, they, after the war, immigrated to Australia, took your father along with them and that's where you were born many years later.

Mr. M. KURZEM: That's right. That's right. I'd like to make a couple of corrections. We will never know for sure whether that family knew that my father was Jewish or not. I don't know whether in later years, even more information came out about my father. Whether Jekabs Kulis spoke to other people, other individuals, confided in them my father's religious ethnic identity. But nonetheless, the family took my father on and looked after him very well indeed. They cared for him as their own son.

CONAN: The irony: Wealthy people who were clearly living alongside the Nazis, if they were not collaborators themselves, and a Latvian S.S. man, your father's…

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes.

CONAN: …protectors.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes. It is the ultimate irony, isn't it?

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Kurzem about his new book, "The Mascot." It tells the story of his father, Alex Kurzem, who will join us next. We'll also take your calls. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to talk with Mark and Alex Kurzem about their remarkable story. You could also send us an e-mail, that address is talk@npr.org. You can check out what other listeners have to say in our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a few minutes, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca will join us to take your questions about stem cell research. If you have questions about reports of breakthroughs and the ethical, scientific and medical implications, you can send us an e-mail now, talk@npr.org and stay with us.

Right now, "The Mascot," Mark Kurzem's story of unraveling the mystery of his Jewish father's Nazi boyhood. We have an excerpt from his book at npr.org/talk. If you'd like to speak with Mark Kurzem or with his father Alex, or if the war forced you to live a secret life, give us a call 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

Mark's father Alex still lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he moved after the war. Alex Kurzem joins us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company in Melbourne. Welcome. We appreciate your staying up late to speak with us.

Mr. ALEX KURZEM (Holocaust Survivor; The Nazi Mascot): Thank you. It's rather early I think.

CONAN: It's rather early. Okay. One way or the other.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yes. Okay.

CONAN: We've heard a little bit about your extraordinary story. How much of it did you remember over the years before you started to speak at that late date with your son Mark?

Mr. A. KURZEM: I remembered most of it. It just was locked away and I never brought it up to my memory. I sort of just had it in my background and I knew what happened, approximately, but I wasn't quite sure where and when.

CONAN: Why did you speak about it with no one?

Mr. A. KURZEM: Well, when I left the continent Europe for Australia in end of '49, I made up my mind that that part of my life was a black spot, and I said forget it. If you want to start new life, you've got to forget the past and try to - because you'll never live a normal life thinking about it all the time.

CONAN: You moved to Australia with your adopted family from Riga, did you never speak with them about this?

Mr. A. KURZEM: Never ever. They knew I had been with the soldiers but they didn't know how I got there.

CONAN: One of the things that you remembered vividly was being in uniform as a young man. At various points, you were dressed by these soldiers in their - first, their police uniform, then later a Wehrmacht - an army uniform - and then finally in an SS uniform.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yes. That's right. They changed uniforms quite frequently. And whatever the adult soldiers got their uniforms, I got a little new one made for me, too.

CONAN: Did you think of - you were a young boy at the time, it's impossible, I guess, to ask this question - but did you think of what was going on, of the terrible symbolism of that?

Mr. A. KURZEM: I really didn't understand it fully. I knew there was a war on. I didn't understand who was fighting whom and what it was all about. No one told me. And at that age, unless someone tells you what's happening, it's hard for you to guess it all.

CONAN: You tell your son Mark in the book, though, when you saw atrocities being committed, you knew there were bad things going on.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Oh, yes, I knew definitely bad things going on. But there's not very much I could do about it so I just witnessed it. I turned my head and saw dreadful things happening, but I knew that I couldn't do much about it.

CONAN: Of course, you could do nothing, you couldn't do much about it, you were just a little boy at the time. Nevertheless, you repeatedly tell your son Mark in the book that you feel - felt guilty. Guilty because, at one point, the soldiers used you to lure young women toward them - women who later end up being raped.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Well, I - at that time, I didn't understand what was really happening to those people. I thought it was just like a game, playing, you know, but later on in life, I understood the consequences of my involvement in that particular part.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners on the line to ask you some questions. Our guests are Alex Kurzem, who you just heard, and his son Mark Kurzem, who's the author of the new book, "The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood." Our number is 800-989-8255.

Let's begin with Ellen(ph). Ellen with us from Santa Rosa in California.

ELLEN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me. I know this is a very personal and painful question, but I was led to believe that it was so dangerous for young children because - especially boys, they couldn't hide that they were circumcised. And I was wondering how this experience related to yours being adopted by a non-Jewish family.

CONAN: Alex Kurzem?

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yes. Well, I had to be aware every moment of the day that no one discovered who I was. Only one man knew and he told me to keep it a secret. And I knew that if they unraveled my secret, I would be dead. So that played on my mind all the years I was with the soldiers. And everywhere afterwards, I had to hide my Jewishness all the time, which was hard to do sometimes.

CONAN: There are descriptions in the book of scenes where one of the soldiers -not Sergeant Kulis who knew, but one of the other soldiers is trying to make you take a bath and you struggled to hold on to your underwear. And again, the same thing when your new adopted sister being very nice trying to give you a bath and you, too, hold on to your pants.

Mr. A. KURZEM: That's right.

ELLEN: Well, thank you. I'll go off line now. I'm really happy that you survived this horrible ordeal and thanks for sharing it with us.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Ellen. Let's see if we can go now to - this is John(ph). John is with us from Tucson, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Well, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: This is an incredible saga and you are an incredibly powerful and strong boy and man both spiritually and mentally. I wanted to find out when you were taken by this wealthy family and moved to Australia, did you practice any kind of religion with this family?

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yes, I went along to the Lutheran or the Protestant Church and participated in their functions.

CONAN: And do you consider yourself a Lutheran today?

Mr. A. KURZEM: I really don't know who I am. All I know is I was born in the Jewish faith, I was brought up in a Protestant family, but I married a Catholic girl, so here I am.

CONAN: John?

JOHN: That's absolutely incredible and I hope someday you're going to embrace the Jewish faith again. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Igor(ph). Igor is with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

IGOR (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

IGOR: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

IGOR: I just have a question. I, myself, am originally from Russia. I just moved here eight years ago and I'm Jewish as well. I'm just wondering - I mean, it's amazing the story. And I had a lot of - you know, my grandmother went through the nine months in Saint Petersburg of being blocked, you know, by Germans - and I was just amazed…

CONAN: The Siege of Leningrad it was known then. Yes.

IGOR: Yeah. As Leningrad it's known then, yes. I'm just wondering what makes you to write this book and I'm just - I guess the question, why you decided now and not earlier to write that book.

CONAN: I guess that's at least in part a question to Mark Kurzem. Why write the book, Mark?

IGOR: To Mark as well.

CONAN: Yes.

IGOR: Yes, definitely.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Because once I knew the truth about my father's past and as you do, you tell people, close friends and others about aspects of his history. So many people were captivated by it and moved by it - his story, I decided that I wanted to, you know, make notes about it and I felt it was a story worth telling. A record of family - a rather unique human experience.

CONAN: There was first a documentary film in Australia, correct?

Mr. M. KURZEM: Sorry?

CONAN: Was there not a film also produced in Australia?

Mr. M. KURZEM: Yes, yes, I produced - I wrote and produced, co-produced a documentary film also titled "The Mascot." But for various reasons, I was dissatisfied with the outcome and I felt that writing - written language would provide a much more textured and richer portrayal of what had affected my father during his childhood.

CONAN: And Alex Kurzem, let me ask you, the documentary film and the book which have already been released, of course, in Australia, have not been universally well received. What do you think of the response?

Mr. A. KURZEM: So far, it's been great. I have been to a few countries now and followed the results and they've been very, very well received. Very well received.

CONAN: Yet some people are upset with this information.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Oh, well, you can't please everybody. The truth came out and so some are upset and some are happy. You can't please everybody.

CONAN: Igor, thanks very much for the call.

IGOR: Well, thank you very much. Appreciate it. I'm definitely going to buy the book and I'm just going to read it. It's amazing. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks. Let's go now to - this is Ed(ph). And Ed's with us from Portland in Oregon.

ED (Caller): Hi. I'm actually curious - obviously, I haven't read the book yet and maybe the book answers the question, but I'm curious to say if you ever found out - these questions are for Mark, if you ever found out what happened to the officer that took your father in.

CONAN: There were several key military officials, Sergeant Kulis, who we mentioned. There's also a Commander Lobe - I think I'm pronouncing that correctly - who is his superior. Mark Kurzem, what happened to them?

Mr. M. KURZEM: Commander Lobe's fate, I gathered he died peacefully in Stockholm. I found him in the early 1980s and went to visit him. But, of course, Commander Lobe died with a firm belief in the validity of his actions on behalf of the Latvian nation even though there were shadows hanging over his reputation as a soldier and possibly a war criminal. But he and his wife were living, as I as said, in anonymity in Stockholm and died peacefully in '80s -1980s. Sergeant Kulis - I tracked a potential Sergeant Kulis to New York, I gather a suburb in New York called Belmont Park.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. M. KURZEM: But I could not proceed further with my investigations and the search tailed off.

CONAN: In general, to your knowledge, was anyone specifically convicted in war crime trials after the war of the atrocity that your father witnessed - the massacre of his mother, brother and sister and the rest of the Jews from his village?

Mr. M. KURZEM: No. But, you know, in recent years, the - some of the soldiers my father who were with were members of what later to became the 18th Battalion, 18th Latvian Battalion. And there's an ongoing historical controversy as to whether members of the 18th Battalion participated in certain of the atrocities in Belarus, certain of the very significant massacres that took place there. And I gather most historians believed that the evidence is conclusively against those soldiers. There was a show trial, an alleged show trial of some members of the 18th Battalion who remained in the Soviet Union after the war. There's also a very firm, sort of, block of Latvian historians and neo-nationalists who argue that the 18th Battalion had nothing to do with these massacres.

CONAN: We're speaking with Mark and Alex Kurzem. Mark is the author of a new book called "The Mascot," which tells the story of his Jewish father's Nazi boyhood.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Ari(ph). Ari is with us from Denver in Colorado.

ARI (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ARI: How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

ARI: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ARI: I wanted to ask the father a question. I'm just about to graduate as a psychotherapist from a master's degree. And I'm very curious about what sort of things he felt gave him the strength to get through the trauma that he experienced and that he saw and made him able - to be able to live a life after that.

CONAN: Yes. Alex Kurzem.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yes. Well, I don't know what made me, but I desperately wanted to live. And I had looked that I had no future but I was desperate, I wanted desperately to live. And so I - every day, I took as a bonus. In the evening, when I climbed a tree to sleep in it, I wake up in the morning, I'm going to get some food from the nearby place and I want it done. So my aim was to just carry on day-by-day. But I wanted desperately to live, I don't know why, what pushed me.

ARI: Uh-huh. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It's a very inspiring story.

CONAN: Thank you, Ari.

Let's see if we can go now to - this is Amber(ph). Amber with us from Kalamazoo in Michigan.

AMBER (Caller): Hi. It's a pleasure to speak with you and this issue is just a moving story. My question is for Alex. And I was wondering if he knows why the Nazi officers took him in and if he doesn't, if he has speculation on this or a guess as to why they spared him.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Well, I really have no answer for it. The only thing that I think saved me - I didn't look like a Jewish boy. I looked like more of a Russian or a German - blonde and blue eyes, and I think the soldiers took pity on my but I don't know why. I really have no answer. I've always asked the question myself, why me? Why me? But I've got no answer for it.

CONAN: Amber, thanks very much. Good question.

AMBER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And let's go to Zachary(ph). Zachary with us from Denver in Colorado.

ZACHARY (Caller): Hi. Your story is very inspiring. Thanks for sharing it with us. I was curious now how you feel about the Germans and if you have any relationships with anybody German at this point in your life.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yes. I do quite a bit with - as a matter of fact, my middle son is married into a German family and I have nothing against - as a matter of fact, I have never hated anybody - German, Latvian, Russian. I couldn't. I don't know. I didn't understand hate. So I've never been bitter to anybody.

CONAN: Does that include Sergeant Kulis, the man, obviously, who saved you and protected you and made it possible for you to be alive and to give life to Mark and your other children but, nevertheless, the man who you saw murder Jews?

Mr. A. KURZEM: Yeah. But he was good to me. That's all I counted on. He was good to me. He protected me, dressed me, gave me food. What did I know, what else was going on?

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. I appreciate it.

ZACHARY: Yes. Thank you.

CONAN: And Alex Kurzem, we can't thank you enough for taking the trouble to get up so early in the morning to join the conversation. We appreciate it.

Mr. A. KURZEM: Thank you.

CONAN: Alex Kurzem joined us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company in Melbourne, Australia. And our thanks as well to Mark Kurzem. I appreciate your time today.

Mr. M. KURZEM: Thank you. You're welcome.

CONAN: Mark Kurzem's book is "The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood." He joined us today from the BBC studios at Radio Oxford.

When we come back we're going to be talking with NPR's Joe Palca questions and answers on the scientific breakthrough for stem cells. If you have questions about the medical, ethical or scientific implications, give us a call - 800-989-8255. Or you can zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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