An elderly Australian refuge, whose life story has never been revealed to family or friends, finally comes forth to an adult son. Alex Kurzem describes having, at the age of 5 or 6, escaped from Nazi troops in his European village in 1941, watching from a distance the massacre of his family and many others, and fleeing blindly through the forest for days before being captured by the soldiers. Then, astonishingly, rather than being shot along with everyone else who's been rounded up, he's been adopted by the German led Latvian soldiers and turned into their mascot, their "good luck charm." Decked out in a scaled-down SS uniform they've had tailored for him, he's been taken along as the troops moved across the countryside, fighting partisans and slaughtering townsfull of people.
Kurzem, in the book The Mascot written by his son, Mark, has extraordinary memory of some details, but also some huge blanks. He remembers no other name for himself than the one the soldiers gave him, and no name at all for the village in which he grew up.. He doesn't know what country he's from. Although he had watched the deaths of his family, he can't remember their names or faces.
One memory is particularly clear, however; that of the occasion on which the sergeant who saved him from the firing squad, pulled down his pants and underpants, and, after a quick look, warned him against ever letting anyone else see him naked. Though no more than a child, he figures out that being circumcised ,must mean that he's a Jew. So, a great anomaly: in the midst of a squad of men going around killing Jews, here is this Jewish boy, whom they hail and fuss over as one of their most beloved comrades. He's even used as the centerpiece of a German propaganda film, the theme of which is how happy and contented are the children of the Reich.
Most of the book involves detective work by the two Kurzem men, as they try to fill in the details of a forgotten life, a forgotten person. Adding to the pressure are serious threats from Latvian nationalists concerned that the Kurzems might turn up something that could be embarrassing to someone.
The reviewer for the New York Times wrote of THE MASCOT: "Part mystery, part memory puzzle, it is written in the polished style of a good thriller, and it is spellbinding.” With that I agree but then one has to wonder to what degree a father to son authorship might have involved some adlibbing on the sons part or miscommunication. It is also important to consider the widespread national fear and hatred of the Soviets that led to the complicity of some Latvians with the Nazis. The attempts mentioned in the book to discourage the book are somewhat validated by the following excerpt from a document published in Riga on the historical accuracy of the wartime portrayal of the Latvian/German collaboration.
“To sum up, in evaluating The Mascot as a book, we can note that it is a competently and interestingly written story about an atypical Holocaust survivor, which undoubtedly can arouse considerable interest in Western society. It would seem that this has also been the aim of the book – not only to reveal Uldis Kurzemnieks’ wartime experiences, but to do so if possible dramatically and sensationally. At the same time it must be admitted that the book’s author Mark Kurzem has often enough not at all come close to objectively understanding wartime events in Eastern Europe. Being poorly acquainted with and making little use of original Latvian historical materials, which could have at least partly altered his assumptions about events, the books’ author all too often presents a very subjective and only partially historically realistic view of his father’s wartime experiences. Unfortunately the many errors and factual mistakes not only diminish the quality of the book’s contents, but also without basis cast a shadow over Latvian society. It is paradoxical that, even though the book devotes much space to Latvians and Latvians, it has not appeared in a Latvian translation and its authors have not been motivated involve Latvian historians in the controversial questions the book touches upon.”Manuscript from the Yearbook of the Museum of the Occupation Museum of Latvia 2006.