JANE CORN­WELL meets ALEX KURZEM Holo­caust sur­vivor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

IWANTED to put a flower on my mother’s grave, wher­ever that was,’’ Alex Kurzem says softly, fix­ing me with his kindly, blueeyed gaze. ‘‘ I wanted to know my real name.’’ A trim, sil­ver- haired sev­en­tysome­thing — he might have been born in 1935, but isn’t ab­so­lutely sure — Kurzem is in Lon­don to pro­mote The Mas­cot , a book about him writ­ten by his son Mark. ‘‘ I spent 60 years try­ing to for­get my past,’’ Alex says of his up­bring­ing in war- torn Europe. ‘‘ I’ve had to do a lot of re­mem­ber­ing.’’

In a few days Kurzem will be on a plane to Melbourne and his home in sub­ur­ban Al­tona. And to nor­mal­ity: be­tween Euro­pean me­dia in­ter­views and vis­its to Mark, an aca­demic at Ox­ford Univer­sity, along with a stay in Minsk, Be­larus, with new­found half- brother Erick, Kurzem is miss­ing his rou­tine. ‘‘ I had no idea there would be such in­ter­est,’’ he says over orange juice in the cafe of the bou­tique ho­tel where he is stay­ing. ‘‘ No idea at all,’’ he re­peats, shak­ing his head.

Mark Kurzem and his two brothers had grown up en­thralled by their fa­ther’s tale of how, as a five- year- old pigherd, he be­came sep­a­rated from his peas­ant fam­ily and sur­vived for months in the woods be­fore be­ing res­cued by his beloved Lat­vian fos­ter par­ents. ‘‘ I made my­self be­lieve it,’’ Alex says. ‘‘ I had to live a false life. I had to try and switch off from what I had seen, what I had ex­pe­ri­enced. When I came to Aus­tralia, aged 15’’ — on an as­sisted pas­sage aboard the SS Nelly — ‘‘ I found a coun­try with its arms open to im­mi­grants. I met Greeks, Ital­ians, Lithua­ni­ans. Ev­ery­one had their own sto­ries.’’

But none were as ex­tra­or­di­nary, or as shock­ing, as Alex Kurzem’s. The re­al­ity was that aged five, hid­ing in a for­est above the Be­larus­sian vil­lage of Koidanov on Oc­to­ber 21, 1941, he had looked on as Nazi death squads mas­sa­cred his fel­low vil­lagers — his mother, baby brother and sis­ter among them.

Trau­ma­tised, he wan­dered the coun­try­side for nine months, sleep­ing rough, liv­ing on what­ever he could scav­enge: ‘‘ I re­mem­ber ter­ri­ble cold, ter­ri­ble hunger and feel­ing so very alone.’’ He was found by a lo­cal man who was not a Jew and handed over to a Lat­vian po­lice bat­tal­ion, ap­par­ently to be killed.

‘‘ I was lined up with the oth­ers to be shot when I ran for­ward and begged for bread. One sol­dier, a Sergeant Kulis, took pity and saved me, I think be­cause I was blond and didn’t look Jewish. He gave me a bit of bread and an­nounced that I was a Rus­sian or­phan and that he would be tak­ing me with him.’’ Kurzem is silent for a mo­ment. ‘‘ When he dis­cov­ered I was Jewish he told me that I must never tell any­one,’’ he con­tin­ues. ‘‘ I was happy to have a new be­gin­ning. I was very young. All I knew was that I was warm, fed and pro­tected.’’

Bizarrely, this lit­tle fair- haired Jewish boy be­came the sol­diers’ mas­cot. ‘‘ They made a big do of chris­ten­ing me Uldis Kurzem­nieks, a typ­i­cal Lat­vian name’’, which he short­ened to Kurzem af­ter ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia, ‘‘ and gave me a birth date of Au­gust 18, 1935. They dressed me up in minia­ture Ger­man army uni­forms. I went ev­ery­where with them, even when they changed their iden­tity to a Nazi SS unit.’’

He ap­peared in pro­pa­ganda films and news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, and wit­nessed fur­ther atroc­i­ties as he des­per­ately tried to keep his ori­gins hid­den. ‘‘ All the time I was ter­ri­fied they would dis­cover my real iden­tity and I would also be shot.’’

Be­fore the war ended he was sent to live with a wealthy Lat­vian fam­ily who ran a choco­late fac­tory. He later em­i­grated with them to Aus­tralia and a refugee camp in Al­bury, NSW.

‘‘ I hardly spoke any English. I got a job on the rail­ways near Bro­ken Hill, but I couldn’t bear the heat so I went to Melbourne, where I joined Worth’s Cir­cus as an ele­phant boy and sort of over­seer of the freak sheep.’’ He smiles a crinklyeyed smile. ‘‘ In those days cir­cuses al­ways had sideshows,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ Peo­ple would pay fivepence to look at sheep born with five legs, two heads and the rest.’’

He stud­ied elec­tron­ics, be­came a self­em­ployed TV re­pair­man and met his fu­ture wife, Pa­tri­cia — who died in 2003 — un­der the clock at Flin­ders Street sta­tion. He stuck to his pigherd story and vowed to take his se­cret with him to his death. ‘‘ If I had night­mares,’’ shrugs this grand­fa­ther of five, ‘‘ I didn’t tell any­body.’’

It wasn’t un­til 1997, in the wake of a se­ri­ous health scare, that he be­gan halt­ingly to pour out the true story to his son Mark. It was a story that took more than six years to piece to­gether.

‘‘ I only re­mem­bered a cou­ple of words and a few early images at first. I knew I had a con­nec­tion with Minsk; my mother had taken me to a den­tist there. Mark helped me find pre­war names of vil­lages, so I knew I was on the right track.’’ As­sem­bling what Kurzem calls ‘‘ the jig­saw puzzle’’ of his early life hasn’t been easy.

News about his past met with mixed re­ac­tions from those in the Jewish and Lat­vian com­mu­ni­ties; the Holo­caust Claims Con­fer­ence in New York even re­futed his re­mark­able and hor­rific story, stat­ing that it could find no trace of a mas­sacre in his home vil­lage. It has since re­versed its de­ci­sion. ‘‘ Mark ver­i­fied ev­ery­thing with doc­u­ments and pic­tures,’’ Alex says.

Mark Kurzem’s award- win­ning 2004 ABC doc­u­men­tary, also called The Mas­cot , showed fa­ther and son trav­el­ling to Europe, un­sure of what they would find. ‘‘ It has been a roller­coaster,’’ says Alex, a man long used to keep­ing his emo­tions but­toned up. ‘‘ There were times when I won­dered if we should stop be­cause re­ally, you can’t do any­thing to change the past. You can only ac­com­mo­date it.

‘‘ But we found out that I was born Ilya Galperin,’’ he adds, his blue eyes moist. ‘‘ We found the house where I had lived, and pic­tures of my par­ents in a box un­der the wardrobe. We dis­cov­ered that my fa­ther Solomon Galperin had sur­vived Auschwitz and Dachau to re­marry again and have a son, Erick.’’ They also found the mon­u­ment to the 1600 vil­lagers mas­sa­cred at Koidanov, of whom Alex is the sole sur­vivor.

‘‘ Fi­nally I have been able to lay a rose on the grave of my mother,’’ he says. ‘‘ Though I still don’t un­der­stand who to blame. It’s good to find the truth, but bad to re­mem­ber it.’’ He sighs, then bright­ens a lit­tle. ‘‘ You know, more than any­thing else, I feel Aus­tralian. I love that coun­try. I can’t wait to get home.’’

Pic­ture: Os­car Kornyei

Thank god for blue eyes: Kurzem as a child with Ger­man sol­diers

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