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Jewish boy became a Nazi mascot

His family massacred in 1941, he was adopted by Latvian troops and had to bury his identity. Slowly, he remembers.

December 09, 2007|Maria Danilova, Meraiah Foley, and Randy Herschaft | Associated Press

DZERZHINSK, BELARUS — Among the splinters of a memory shattered by the Holocaust is Alex Kurzem's image of himself as a jolly little boy who liked to climb an apple tree in the family garden, pretending to be a sailor scanning the horizon from the crow's nest.

Then, at about age 6 or 8, a carefree childhood ends, and life becomes a story of horror and deliverance. Germans massacre his family, and he flees into the woods where he endures a bitter winter. He is captured by Latvian soldiers sent by the Germans to kill Jews. They dress him in uniform, make him their mascot and protect him for the rest of World War II. Apparently only one of them knows he's Jewish.

After the war he emigrates to Australia. He forgets his mother tongue, hometown and real name and becomes a Melbourne suburbanite. Finally he sets out to rediscover his identity, but finds more pain than answers. Now gray-haired and in his 70s (he is still unsure of his age), he tells his story in a book, "The Mascot," written by his son and published last month in the United States. But still the search is incomplete.

His quest has led him to Dzerzhinsk, a village in Belarus, which he has visited four times and come to believe is his birthplace. Here lies the mass grave from the 1941 massacre of 1,000 to nearly 2,000 Jews, nearly the entire Jewish population in this small town. It has never been exhumed, but he thinks his mother, brother and sister are buried here.

Kurzem's story, reconstructed with his son's help and supplemented by Associated Press research, shows how the Holocaust story transmits itself through the generations. It is also a reminder of the toll it took on children. Only 6% to 11% of Jewish children caught up in the genocide survived, compared with a third of the adults, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

For some children, survival led to a surprising and triumphant rebirth.

Jean-Marie Lustiger -- born Aron Lustiger -- was hidden with Roman Catholics, converted and grew up to be the archbishop of Paris. Aharon Appelfeld fled a concentration camp at age 8, wandered alone or with other abandoned children through central European forests for years, and later became one of Israel's leading novelists. Thomas Buergenthal survived Auschwitz and a three-day death march at age 10. He is now an American judge on the World Court at The Hague.

Kurzem's Holocaust story began when German troops stormed his village and herded the Jews into a ghetto. Some time later Kurzem's mother told the boy that the family would be killed the next day.

"And I said, 'Mother, but I don't want to die,' but she didn't have an answer for me," Kurzem told the AP during his visit to Belarus.

That night he woke up, kissed his sleeping mother goodbye and slipped outside to hide behind a knoll on the edge of the village.

The next morning, he says, he was awakened by gunfire and saw hundreds of people, including his mother, siblings and aunt, being shot on a grassy field and dumped in a mass grave. He bit his hands to stifle his cries.

Archival records show that Nazi troops murdered 1,000 to 1,920 Jews in Dzerzhinsk on Oct. 21, 1941.

Kurzem says he spent the next several months hiding in the woods, begging villagers for food and sleeping in trees to be safe from wolves. He pulled a coat and boots off a dead German soldier to keep warm.

Eventually, he says, he was caught and taken to a schoolyard. He was handed over to the Latvian battalion deployed by the German occupiers of Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union.

The battalion was busy killing Jews.

Kurzem recalls being hungry and running to a soldier to ask for a bit of bread before his turn came to die.

Then, he says, a miracle happened that still baffles him. The soldier, a sergeant named Jekabs Kulis, took pity on him.

He says Kulis looked him over and saw that he was circumcised -- at that time and place a certain marker of a Jew. But the boy was also blond and blue-eyed, which enabled Kulis to present him to his comrades as a gentile, and they came to believe he was an orphaned Russian swineherd.

Kurzem says Kulis warned him never to reveal that he was Jewish, and he was made the battalion's mascot. Latvian military records provided to the AP by the Hoover Institution Archives confirm that on July 12, 1942, the country's 18th Kurzeme Battalion "adopted" a young boy whose parents were unknown and gave him the name Uldis Kurzemnieks, roughly meaning "from Kurzeme," a region in western Latvia. (The name was shortened when Kurzem moved to Australia.)

Six months later, the soldiers gave their ward the honorary rank of private first class "for his diligent learning and good behavior," the documents say. Wartime photos show the boy wearing a Nazi uniform and carrying a gun while posing with Kulis and other Nazi soldiers. According to records seen by the AP, he would have been 9, though Kurzem believes he is two years younger than the records say.

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