The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood by Mark Kurzem.
I read two books in a row about boys and their relationships with a father who had mysterious past. (See my review of Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Cron) Short version: it’s complicated.
In The Mascot, Mark Kuzem is surprised by a visit from his father to Mark’s apartment at Oxford in England. Alex Kurzem has come all the way from Australia, with no warning, and without telling Mark’s mother the truth about where he’s gone. Mark expects some earth-shattering communication from his father, but the visit continues for days with only surface pleasantries. Finally, just before Alex leaves to go back to Australia, he tells Mark that he remembers two words from his childhood in or near Latvia, before World War II. The words are “Panok” and “Koidanov”. Alex wants Mark to find out what the words mean.
These two words and Alex Kurzem’s recurring and expanding memories of his childhood during World War II begin a journey into the past for Mark Kurzem and his father. Are Alex Kurzem’s memories trustworthy, or has he chosen to remember too late for the memories to be confirmed as truth? Will his story damage the lives and reputations of the people in Latvia and elsewhere who were his rescuers and protectors? And most importantly, what does the story of Alex Kurzem, or Uldis Kurzemnieks, or whatever his real birth name was, mean? Mark wonders and later tries to find out exactly who this man, his father, really is, and what his experiences before, during, and after the war really mean to both his identity and Mark’s identity as the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“I don’t have any choice about what I can remember and when. My memories are here inside me like vipers inside my bones gnawing their way out.”
“To be truthful, I don’t want to remember anything of what happened to me. Who is his right mind would? But the bigger truth is that I am more terrified to forget. I am trapped.”
“I was disturbed, perhaps even slightly annoyed, that my father had kept so many things from me. . . . I was baffled by the fact that my father had remained silent for more than fifty years. What almost superhuman strength had this required? What toll had silence taken on his inner life? My father seemed to inhabit two separate worlds. . . . One world was inexorably unraveling while a new, unpredictable one emerged.”
Some doubts have been raised about the veracity of Mr. Kurzem’s memories. Author Mark Kurzem died in November 2009 of “complications following diabetes.” Alex Kurzem says, “My story is true. I have nothing to hide.”
The Mascot is an exciting, disturbing Holocaust memoir about a boy who was both protected and exploited by his Latvian and German captors. It’s also a story about a delicate, but loving relationship between a father and son and about the fragility and the importance of memories. I recommend the book to anyone interested in Holocaust memoir, not just for the story itself, but also for what it has to say about memoirs and the complications and even perils of unearthing the past.