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A Jewish Nazi: Contradictions of Identity

Book Essay on: Mark Kurzem, The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of my Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood
( New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 432pages.

by Pat Terry
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com page

About Pat Terry

I am a senior Electrical Engineering major currently finishing my studies at UCSB. Although the emphasis on my studies has been on engineering, I have always held a subtle interest regarding the events of World War II, specifically the events of the Holocaust. I believe it is important for students majoring in an emphasis other than history to study events such as this in order to ensure they are not repeated in the future. I had previously learned about the Holocaust only in a broad sense and was interested in what people encountered on an individual level, and how those associated with the Nazi party classified themselves both during and after the war. I chose Mark Kurzem’s book because it explores ideas of self-identity and gives a unique perspective into one individual’s involuntary participation in the Nazi party.

Abstract (back to top)

This essay explores questions of self-identity. Mark Kurzem’s The Mascot tells the tale of a young Jewish boy that is unknowingly rescued and taken in by a group of Nazi soldiers, after which he is basically incorporated into their unit and transformed into a kind of mascot. Upon the war’s end, Alex departed as a refugee, neither staking claim to being a Nazi or of Jewish descent. If he was simply “pretending” to be a Nazi to survive, why didn’t he immediately reveal what had happened? Similarly, if he had truly been integrated into the Nazi movement, he did not acknowledge this association either. The likely answer is that during this time he underwent a transformation of identity, and once the war was over and everyone starting going back to their normal lives, he no longer knew whom he was, or if he shared any of the Nazi blame concerning what he had done. These questions of identity and the observations of individual Nazi behavior from the viewpoint of an observer with a unique perspective also suggests that this particular group of Nazis were using their “rescue” of Alex as a source for the redemption of their own identity. The term “Jewish Nazi” is a contradiction, yet Alex is seemingly able to exist as a combination of these two incompatible elements.

Essay (back to top)

Mark Kurzem’s The Mascot is a riveting tale of survival in which a family attempts to piece together the origin of their identity through a series of convoluted memories and buried secrets. The story revolves around Mark’s father, Alex, who narrowly escaped death by hiding while soldiers murdered his Jewish family. “They say not a single Jew survived.” (328) These words, told to Mark by a man from Alex’s home village of Koidanov late in the book, indirectly illustrate that although Alex physically survived the encounter, the events that followed transformed his identity in such a way that he ultimately chose to shroud his entire past in secret. This is because in a way the man was not incorrect in saying that no Jewish people survived the encounter even though Alex physically lived. One of the key parts of The Mascot is in Alex’s recollection of fragments of his past to Mark. The second key part revolves around Mark’s attempts through research and travel to help Alex discover the secrets to his past and the identity of his family that have been lost in time. Alex concealed his past due to a conflict of identity: He was of Jewish heritage yet had been a member of an SS unit as a child. This contradiction of being a “Jewish Nazi” showcases the idea that individual identity is both non-constant and a function of not just blood but also individual choice and actions. Several members of the Latvian Nazi unit that held Alex sought to use their “rescue” of him as a means of reshaping their identity. Their own conscience sought a kind of balance from the actions they had committed during the war. This journey of discovery and revelation began with the story of Alex’s survival during the war.

Alex Kurzem’s tale of survival began one day when Mark noticed his father was becoming increasingly troubled about his past. Now residing in Melbourne Australia, during the war Alex had resided in Russia, and Alex’s recollection of the time during the war began with the remembrance of two words: “Koidanov” and “Panok.” During the night in 1941, soldiers invaded Alex’s home, and he witnessed his mother brutally beaten. Alex recalled to Mark that he was roughly around seven years old at the time. That night he escaped into the woods, and the next day witnesses his family being murdered by the soldiers. After surviving alone in the woods for a time, Alex was captured by soldiers of a Latvian police brigade. A soldier named Sgt. Kulis spared Alex’s life and eventually integrated him into their unit as a “mascot,” under the given name of Uldis Kurzemnieks. After touring with the unit for some time around the woods where Alex was found, they entered a town called Alex can only recall as “S,” where Alex met commander Lobe, who immediately took a liking to him and had a miniature soldier uniform made for him. Upon being officially enlisted into the unit as a private, Alex was often used by the soldiers for their own entertainment, and witnessed several disturbing events while on patrol with Sgt. Kultis’s police brigade. One of the most significant evens was the murder of a large group of Jewish people, who were, as Alex recounts, forced into a large barn, which was set afire. Alex recalls that he was on active patrol with the soldiers from May of 1942 until the end of 1943.

Between active duty times, Sgt. Kulis handed Alex over to a man named Mr. Dzenis at Riga, who Mark recalls as his “uncle.” Alex recounts that he was often unable to fit in at any school, which made having a normal life with Uncle Dzenis difficult. After remaining in Riga for some time, Commander Lobe presented Alex with a new uniform and promoted him to Corporal, and sent him back on patrol with Sgt. Kulis’s unit. The uniform Alex received was a miniature version of the Nazi SS uniforms. After soldiers forced Alex to shoot a rifle at a Jewish man, which terrified Alex even though he purposely missed every time, he attempted to escape into the Valhov swamps, but was re-captured the next day. After being re-captured by the soldiers and stripped of his corporal rank, Alex returned to Riga with the Dzenis family for the remainder of the war. During this time however he was still used by commander Lobe, one instance being when he was used to pass out chocolates to hundreds Jewish people in order to calm them down while they were forced into a large truck. The last and one of the most significant events that Alex recalls is participating in a Nazi propaganda film as a child, where he posed in his SS uniform carrying a rifle. These events greatly disturbed Alex, and caused him to hide his past from others for most of his life, constantly struggling with his own identity.

Prior to telling Mark about his time with the soldiers during the war, Alex’s past had been a source of mystery for his family. Alex always struggled with the concept of who he really was—was he Jewish, a Nazi, or something else? Unable to answer these questions, he closed off his past from everyone in his life, which is symbolized by the locked case of photographs and documents from his earlier life. On page 117 Alex states, “the case is a curse” to his son, which shows that to him it symbolized the very conflict of his identity by having physical objects from his previous life. At one point in the story Alex mentions to Mark that he had gone to see a Jewish lawyer immediately after the war was over, and described the events in order to see if anything could be done to reconstruct any information regarding his past. The lawyer however told him that his “past was a lost cause”. This statement coming from a Jewish person, who Alex perceived to also be an authority figure, was one of the reasons he chose to keep his memories locked away in conflict. Mark and Alex eventually found a physical location in Russia called Koidanov, and find a man named Erick who was possibly related to Alex. They eventually find Alex’s original home at 12 October Street, and Alex discovers that “Panok” had been the name of one of his best friends as a child. At this point Alex reveals to Mark that he himself actually feels guilty for what had happened in his life. This is one of the core reasons for the concealment of his true past, in that his question for self identity had led to actual guilt that he had “ended up on the wrong side with the people who were doing evil to others” (385) and Alex even once stated to Mark that he sometimes “wished he’d died with his family” (47).

There are several other cases of evidence in The Mascot that support the idea that Alex suppressed his past due to a conflict in identity. During his time hiding in the Valhov swamps Alex witnessed a group of Russians pass through the swamps, but stayed hidden out of fear of being associated with the SS uniform he was wearing. When Mark asked him why he didn’t reveal himself to the Russians Alex stated he had “no clear idea who he was” and there was “no point in protesting against the identity they’d [the soldiers] had given him” (113). Alex was unable to escape his situation because he simply did not know who he was and where he belonged. He felt deeply connected to his old life of Jewish origin, so a part of him was constantly in conflict with the “Nazi” identity that had been created within him. At one point in the story Alex told a local Holocaust group of his tale, and their response for the most part was to question his morals due to his association with Commander Lobe, who they claimed was responsible for the murder of thousands of Jewish people. After this encounter, Alex told Mark, “It’s as if there are two men inside me,” and that “the two are not getting on so well” (189). This statement is more or less a confirmation of the battle for identity Alex had been fighting all his life, and the core reason he kept his past hidden. An example of Alex’s identity partially being associated with a Nazi soldier is seen by the fact that he enjoyed wearing the various uniforms he was given during the war. When he was in Riga living with Dzenis family, he always wore the uniform whenever he went to Uncle Dzenis’s factory, and stated that he “refused to wear civilian clothes” (121), which is a direct example of how he had directly associated himself with that type of identity. Ultimately, due to Alex’s unique experiences and tragic childhood, he was as Mark puts it “an orphan thrust among strangers” (120), and he could only escape the nightmares of his family by repressing his original identity.

The second question the book poses about identity is the fact that several of the Latvian Nazis that had integrated Alex into their unit were using him in an attempt to “remake” their identity in such a way that they did not view themselves as murders. Ultimately their horrible actions during the way would take hold of their identity, however they sought a sort of redemption by saving the young boy Alex and keeping them as their own. Upon hearing Alex’s tale, Mark tracked down the location where Commander Lobe was currently residing, and asked him about what had transpired during the war regarding his father. Lobe told Mark “If we were villains, then why did we worry about a little boy in the forest?” (157), which is a direct example of how they were trying to use Alex to re-imagine themselves into a different identity, to get away from the fact that they were doing horrible things. This concept is also seen by the fact that Sgt. Kulis spared Alex’s life, even after discovering that he had been circumcised and was Jewish. He directly warned Alex to never let anyone see that he was circumcised and thus Jewish in order to protect him, so there was an actual sense of caring by Kulis driven by his need to do something “good” to attempt to counterbalance the evil that had corrupted his identity from what he had to do as a soldier. Another example is how Lobe constantly made sure that Alex was able to recite the story he created of how he was discovered by the soldiers, in an attempt to divert attention from the fact that Sgt. Kulis had found him under somewhat questionable conditions. Although Lobe and Kulis were the only two soldiers who directly knew Alex was of Jewish origins, other Nazis seemed to also use Alex as a source of an “identity deterrent” from their own nature, by parading him around as their “mascot,” attempting to use the image of an innocent child to help “reshape” their own identity in their own eyes, in order to satisfy their conscience from the things they had done.

Although It is my belief that these common questions of identity are both what kept Alex from keeping his nature a secret and what motivated the soldiers to keep Alex alive, and in the case of Kulis save his life even though he was an enemy, there are other possible explanations. Lobe certainly used Alex in many ways through the book, so it is possible that he was simply using Alex as a means to an end, to help his own image. Commander Lobe changed the details of how Alex was “rescued” by the soldiers such that it was Alex who directly asked the soldiers for help and they agreed to not only save him from starvation but take him into their own. Mark suggests to Alex on page 125 this could have been an attempt to simply make the soldiers look heroic to others, rather than actually caring what happened to Alex. Additionally, later in the story Uncle Dzenis essentially forces Alex to sign an affidavit on Commander Lobe’s behalf saying positive things about his character, under the reasoning that Alex “owes Mr. Lobe his life” (224). These characteristics suggest that perhaps the Nazis were really not interested in changing their actual identity, but simply using Alex for their own gain. In the case of Alex’s contradiction of identity, it is possible that he was simply doing what he needed to survive the entire time. At one point Alex commented to Mark that as a child he had thought the SS insignia on his uniform was “pretty,” and had been proud of his uniform altogether. However Alex also stated that he “simply thought it was a soldier’s uniform” and “didn’t understand what it meant” (365). This suggests that he possibly never really assimilated another identity at all, and he was simply too young to really have any understanding of the implications of his situations with the soldiers.

Ultimately, the main result of the events that transpired during Alex’s childhood was the concealment of his past from his family and friends. The most likely culprit is due to a fragmented identity, which consists of the impossible combination of a Jewish survivor and a young Nazi soldier. The soldiers who found him in the forest, specifically Sgt. Kulis and later Commander Lobe, showed unusual compassion in sparing his life and taking him into their own. Their motivation for doing this was in essence an attempt to reshape their own identity, or perhaps just to change the external appearance, in order to divert both their and others’ attention away from the horrible things they did as Nazis during the war. Alex asked his son “Am I guilty? Am I responsible, like the soldiers, for what went on?” (135), and The Mascot is ultimately a story outlining a man’s search for the solution to an equation of impossibly conflicting identities.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Christopher Martin, Review of Mark Kurzem, The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood Michigan War Studies, 2009.

    This review points out how this book is intended both for general audiences and also audiences with a specific interest in WWII or Holocaust History. Although the book presents photographs as evidence to the author’s claim, the review also points out how the book has a lack of confirmable evidence to support Alex’s claims. This theme of other’s having skepticism was presented in the book itself, when Mark spoke with a History professor regarding his father’s claims, so this article shows how many people have doubts regarding the actual evens surrounded Alex’s time with the Nazis.

  • Dinita Smith, How the Little Nazi Turned Out to Be a Jew New York Times, Nov. 30, 2007

    This review talks about how The Mascot was written well and polished such that it not only provokes interesting questions surrounding self-identity and moral responsibility, but also reads as a good thriller. Smith believes this book presents “powerful moral concepts”, and merges interesting information into a kind of puzzle that unravels as the novel is read.

  • Jessica Schneider, Book Review: The Mascot, Unraveling the Mystery of my Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood Helium Online Book Reviews, 2007

    Similar to Martin Christopher’s review, Schneider also discusses the reasons behind historians not initially believing Alex’s recollection of his tale. The review also acknowledges the idea of a person’s identity being “split” is presented by Kurzem, but is perhaps not explored to a sufficient amount, and that overall the book reads like a “historical mystery.”

Books and Articles

  • Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997

    This book tells a similar story about a young Jewish boy out of a Russian orphanage who was captured by German soldiers. Similar to Kurzem, he ended up joining the unit and was constantly afraid of being discovered. The original book was in French, and was not only translated to English but also made into a film of the same name.

  • Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1995

    This book is about a Jewish child who survives a Nazi death camp. Similar to Kurzem, he experiences many disturbing things during his time in the presence of the Nazis as he is passed through several different concentration camps. Although this book is a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, three years after its publication questions were raised as to if the story presented was actually authentic.

  • Ursula Mahlendorf , The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009

    This book recounts the tale of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany as the daughter of a man who was a member of the SS. She was a leader in the Hitler Youth Group, and seemed to completely absorb the identity of a Nazi participant. This book is different from The Mascot in that in some sense she was a willing participant, but she likely underwent some of the same experiences as Alex did being a part of the Nazi movement.

Relevant Websites

  • Bob Simon, The Youngest Corporal In The Nazi Army CBS 60 minutes, Feb. 22, 2009

    This page overviews the episode of “60 Minutes” that covered the story of The Mascot, which aired on Feb. 22, 2009. The page has both a text review of the episode, and an actual video clip of what aired on the show. The show actually had Alex himself being interviewed and recounting what had happened to him during his time with the Nazis, which is also showed on the video clip.

  • Wikipedia, Alex Kurzem Last edited: Nov. 28, 2009

    This page presents some background information on Alex Kurzem. The article also talks about some of the events that happened after Alex revealed his past to Mark, including both the documentary Mark made before the novel, which had some details that actually conflict with the book. This page also contains several links to other articles and reviews.

  • Nick Bryant, The Secret History of the Nazi mascot BBC News, August 21, 2007

    This article gives an overview of The Mascot, and talks about some of the main themes it covers including complicated memories and false identities. The page contains many direct quotes from the book segmented into different sections pertaining to what the quotes are about.

  • Penguin Reading Guide, The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood Penguin Group, Last edited: 2010

    This page is from the publishers of the book, and provides a quick introduction to the book’s main plot as well as providing a place to purchase the book from the publisher. The page also gives a brief biography on Mark Kurzem, as well as several discussion questions that can be referenced when reading the book.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Pat Terry on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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