JANE CORNWELL meets ALEX KURZEM Holocaust survivor
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.’’
Thank god for blue eyes: Kurzem as a child with German soldiers