Book Review: The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood by Mark Kurzem
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 2/8/08
A Jewish Nazi? Just reading the title with those two incompatible words, and one can see why this book has been published and pushed. If you think you’ve heard all the stories involving World War II, well clearly you haven’t. Of course we will never know all of them, but in this new memoir by Mark Kurzem, he describes his young father’s life during the war and how a Jewish boy went from being, in a sense, target practice for the Nazis to becoming one of them. If it sounds far-fetched, the author actually describes how some of his father’s story was not believed by historians, and therefore was thought to have been fabricated or at least highly exaggerated due to the young age his father would have been when it all happened. But more on that later.
The book opens with a reunion between Mark Kurzem and his father, Alex, and from there we get into how this all began. Alex’s parents were actually shot by the Nazi’s, and Alex—only then to almost suffer the same fate as his parents—begs a soldier for a piece of bread. The Nazi actually takes pity on him, and pulls him aside, giving him the bread. Then, for reasons that are unclear, (after all, one cannot know why Nazis would spare some lives and punish others) the soldier spares his life. The beginning moves rather quickly, for young Alex is then forced to wander the winter woods as he searches for food and steals clothes off dead soldiers. Surviving the Russian winter—Kurzem then later details how several historians did not believe a young boy could survive the brutal treatment of winter: very limited food and clothes coupled with the extreme cold.
Later, the boy is discovered by the Nazi police, and not knowing that the boy is Jewish, they assume he is Russian and grant him the name Uldis Kurzemnieks. Deciding to use him as a “mascot” they dress him in a corporal uniform where he is forced to witness the same atrocities bestowed upon his parents. And because the boy is terrified for his own life, he keeps himself quiet and knows to “keep his pants on” at all times, so no one will discover he is Jewish. Likewise, the boy goes along with the secret so well that he eventually stars in a Nazi propaganda film. Throughout the book there are photos of young Alex in uniform, as well as stills from the Nazi film he was in.
Overall, this book reads more like a historical mystery than an actual memoir about the man in question. And perhaps that is why the reviews have been so favorable. The book would have actually benefited if more was written about Alex living in the time he was in, rather than the author spending so much on his own experiences while unraveling his father’s past. The story does pose interesting questions about one’s identity, and the idea of having to literally be split between two places, two ideals, two extremes. Perhaps there are even more than two—human psychology is complex after all. Yet this opportunity to do so is not explored further.
In later years we learn how Alex kept his Nazi secret to such extremes that even his wife had no idea about it. In fact, it was not until he finally spoke to his son that he came “clean” about his past. Yet these ideas regarding identity are never really explored, and the book merely focuses on the plot aspect of what happened, and also the strange phone calls and encounters the author received during his research. As a reader, I was not interested in the author, but more wanting to be pulled into that time and really be given insight into Alex’s experiences. Unfortunately, the book does not offer many new insights into the Holocaust or World War II. Basically it’s what we already know, that it was a bad time, that it was cruel and that people unjustly died. Merely giving readers what they already know and what they want to hear is not satisfying. Also, the book felt too long, for there were many dialogue exchanges and detail that not only distracted from Alex’s story, but also did not offer anything new or insightful to the narrative.
I would not discourage anyone interested in this tale from pursuing it. In and of itself, it is interesting what happened to this boy but how the story was presented was not; for the mere plot alone was not enough to compel me to want to know more. I kept thinking to myself, ok but so what? What is there to learn from? (And I don’t mean the obvious this was bad, etcetera). But because readers tend to favor more plot-driven material, I can see why many would find this a “page turner”. Yet one who is more driven by ideas and how they are presented and also the memorable ways in which writers describe will probably agree that the narrative is shallow and lacking in real “meat”. Ultimately, plot wears thin in my memory, and what I remember are characters, scenes, settings, ideas, and insight. Just reading the book description, it states the following: “A survival story, a grim fairy-tale, and a psychological drama, this remarkable memoir asks provocative questions about identity, complicity, and forgiveness.” Well, actually no—it doesn’t really digress into any “provocative” anything, it just is. This is what happened, take it or leave it. And aside from the plot line, there isn’t much depth I can take away from this book.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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