Latvin NAZI Mascot: Alex Kurzem


Figure 1.--This is young Alex Kurzem probably in 1943 in his Latvian police uniform. The BBC describes it as a SS uniform, but I don't see any SS insignia. It looks more like a Latvian uniform of some kind. The Latvian police worked with Einsatzgruppen which were organized by the SS and included some SS men as well as a mixture of police and Waffen-SS men. It is not correct, however, to call Latvian police as part of the SS.

We have only one personal account from Belarus, but it is perhaps the strangest of all the individual accounts we have found. It is about a little Jewish boy--Alex Kurzem. After the murder of his parents, he was adopted by a Latvian soldier and hiding the fact he was Jewish became a kind of NAZI mascot. He managed to survive the Holocaust and emigrated from Latvia to Australia in 1949. Alex's story is so fantastic that it sounds like an imaginative World War II novel. But we know that it is true because when Alex as a young man arrived in Australia with only a small brown briefcase, he had photographs of himself as a boy in his NAZI uniform. And NAZI newreels featuring him playing with German children have sence been discovered. Nationality is complicated here. Alex's village is in what is now Belarus, but efore World War II it was Polish and at the time this was first Soviet and then German-occupied eastern Poland (Reich Commissariat Ostland). And Alex would be taken in by a Latvian police unit working with Germn Einsatzgruppen A in Jewish killing operations.

Belarus

Modern Belarus includes what was before World War II eastern Poland. It had a mixed population of Beylorussians (White Russians), Poles, Balts, Jews, and Ukranians. The Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland a few days after the Germans invaded the west (September 1939). The Galperin family near the town of Koidanov. Here Ilya Galperin was born (about 1935). The town is today known as Dzyarzhynsk. It was apparently a Jewish neighborhood or village on the outskirts of the town. Koidanov was located close to Minsk. This was some distance from Latvia, closer to Lithuania.

Murder of His Family (October 1941)

Alex's comfortable childhood came to a sudden halt. The Germans launched Operation Barbatossa, invading the Soviet Union (June 21, 1941). Within days the Germans reached Minsk and Alex's village of Koidanov (June 28, 1941). The arrival of a German killing squad in his Belarus village is among Alek's earliest childhood memories (October 20, 1941). Imagine that as you earliest memory. The Germans organized Einsatzgruppen were killing squads formed by the SS that followed in the rear of German combat units. (Each of the invading German Armg Groups had an Einstazgruppen assigned to it. Army Group South had two Einstazgruppen because their were more Jews there.) Although the German Army had entered Alex's village very early in Barbsrossa, it took the Einstazgruppen several months to get to the many different villages to kill the Jews there. In this case, the killing was apparently done by the 12th Batallion of the Lithuanian Schutzmannschaft working with the Einsatzgruppen A. Alex assumed they were Germans. He recalls, "I remember the German Army invading the village, lining up all the men in the city square and shooting them." He assumed thst his father was dead. That night two soldiers broke into their home and beat his mother. Once they departed, leaving her bloodied and bruised, she told Alex, her eldest son, "We are all going to die tomorrow." She knew with the men already dead that the massacre of the Jewish women and children would be the next morning. She told Alex him he must be brave and help her with his brother and sister. Imagine a child hearing that. He awoke later that night and thought "I don't want to die." I went to kiss my mother goodbye, and ran up into the hill overlooking the village until the morning came. "People have asked me why I didn't take my brother and sister with me when I fled, but I had no idea where I was going. I was just a child myself. Then, to see them murdered. I did not want to watch but I could not look away. I felt I owed it to my mother. If she could bear to endure it, then surely I should bear to watch and be with her in my heart." Asking a question like this is of course absurd. Only people growing up in safe suburbs who have never faced danger coud ask such a question. Alex fled in his nightclothes, stumbling through pits filled with the bodies of the Jews shot the day before. In the morning he awoke to the sound of screams. From the tree in which he was hidden, he saw women and children, weeping in terror, being lined up in front of newly dug pits. That was the last he saw of his family (his mother, brother, and sister). "I was very traumatised. I remember biting my hand so I couldn't cry out loud, because if I did they would have seen me hiding in the forest. I can't remember exactly what happened. I think I must have passed out a few times." Looking back he thinks, "If only I had not looked," But he did. He saw his mother and siblings among those waiting to be shot. "I could see soldiers forcing people down the hill, using the bayonets. Then I saw my family. I wanted to call out. I wanted to go to her, but I couldn't. The soldiers shot my mother. They put the bayonets into my brother and sister. I had to bite my hands to stop myself screaming." {Note presumably theu did noit want to waste bullets on the little ones.] The Germans killed 1,600 Jews at Koidanov. What Alex did not realize until years after the War is that his father had escaped alive. (He joined Russian partisans, but was eventually caught by the Germans and sebt to Suschwitz.) Alex's account does not precisely match the historical record of what occurred at Koidanov, but he was a small traumitized child and he tells the storyu 60 years later. It would be surprising if there were not descrepancies and for that matter, the existing accounts of the actions at villages like Koidanov may themselves contain historical inaccuracies..

Surviving in the Forrest (October 1941-June 1942)

"It was terrible. When the shooting stopped I had no idea where to go so I went to live in the forests, because I couldn't go back. I was the only one left. I must have been five or six. I went into the forest but no-one wanted me. I knocked on peoples' doors and they gave me bits of bread but they told me to move on. Nobody took me in." Apparently he manahged to survive for about 9 months with food and clothing he found from the bodies of dead soldiers. At that age, just srviving a winter on your own was a small miracle. Alex was in the woods for about 9 months. He survived by eating berries and dragged the great coat off a dead soldier. He does not remember much about this time. It is unclear just how he managed to survive in the rough during an unusually cold winter. He does remeber the "... the terrible cold and the constant hunger. And being so very alone."

Latvian Police (June 1942)

A local person found Alex and handed over to the police, in his case the Latvian police (July 12, 1942). We are not sure that he was actually in Latvia. Northern Belarus borders Latvia. There was considerable Latvian participation in the Holocaust. Latvian police units at the time were assisting the SS Einjsatzgruppen in killing Jews. They were not only used in Latvia, but in other areas including Poland/Belarus. The particular unit Alex was turned over to was eventually incorporated into the Waffen-SS. It was the 18th Kurzeme Battalion also desceibed as the 18th Schuma (Police) Battalion. It was commabnded by Capt. Fredrichs Rubenis who had served in the Latvian Army that fought the Bolsheviks after World War I. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, this police batalion was formed to support Einsatzgruppen A in Jewish 'cleaning' operations. It was active in Vetspils nd Kuldiga. One source reports that the Germans and their local allies, such as Lithuanian and Latvian police units, killed some 250,000 Jes in western Belarus. Only about 10,000 Jews survuved. This ws one of the most complete elimination of the Jewish population anywhere in NAZI-occupied Europe. After the Jewish poplation was largely destroyed, many of the men involved were enrolled into the Waffen-SS. The day Alex was turned in, Jews were were being lined up and shot. Alex as young as he was thought he would suffer the same fate as he had already witnesses the killing operation that murdered his family. Even at this time, however, he was overwealmed by hunger.

Savior

Alex was in the process of being lined up with a group of Jews to be shot. It may have been at a school where children were being rounded up to be shot. "There was a soldier near me and I said, 'Before you kill me, can you give me a bit of bread?'" The man he spoke to was Sergeant Jekabs Kulis. I am not sure what language Alex spoke, presumably Russian. It is possible that the Latvian poiceman he spoke with spoke Russian as well. [Latvia had been part of the Tsarist Empire before World War I and as a result many Latvians spoke Russian.] Polish is another possibility. I don't think it was Latvian or the Latvians would have stected a Jewish accent. At any rate the men about to shoots the Jews were apparently amused. What orobably saved Alex was that he did not look Jewish. He was blond and blue-eyed. Alex explained what happened next, "He looked at me, and took me around the back of the school. He examined me and saw that I was Jewish. "No good, no good," he said. 'Look I don't want to kill, but I can't leave you here because you will perish. I'll take you with me, give you a new name and tell the other soldiers that you are a Russian orphan.'" Alex has no idea why Sergeant Jekabs Kulis decided to save him. One factor must have been that he did not look Jewish. But Alex has no idea what motivated Sergeant Kulis. Many of the Latvian involved with the NAZIs did hate Jews and were enthusiastic about killing them. Many were, however, primarily motivated by a hatred of the Soviets who occupied their country (1940) and committed attroicities there. For some the killing of the Jews was just something they had to do to get NAZI support to drive out the Soviets. Other saw the Jews as cooperating with the Soviets. We will never know precisely what motivated the individuals ivolved. At any rate, Alex managed to select one of the soldiers not that committed to killing Jews.

Jekabs Kulis (about 1900-71)

We know very little about Sergeant Jekab Kulis. We have no information on his background. As a Latvian born in the 1900s, he probably spoke both Latvian and Russian. We are nor=t sure about other laguages. We do not know why he decided to help the Germans kill Jews. Members of the 18th Kurzeme Battalion / 18th Schuma (Police) Battalion were volunteers. The Balts were not drafted like Germans. We are not sure, however, to what extent they were told that they would be used to kill Jews. This may have not been mentioned until after they had joined the unit. After 1942 there were few Jews left in the Baltics and what is now Belarus. As a result Kulis and apparently most of the rest of the Batalion became part of Waffen-SS units. Kulis saved Alex as he was about to be shot. Alex never understood why Kulis saved him and they never discussed it. Presumably it had something to do wih his appearance and perhaps the way he spoke. We are not sure about language, but pparently he spoke Russian. (Lanuage and accent was nother way of identifying Jews.) Alex spent a great deal of time with Kulis. He never told Alex why they were killing Jews or why he decided to save him. He once even took Alex with him on home leave. Kulis survived the War. He immigrated to the United States in 1951. Like many others he hid His involvement in war crimes. He married and had a son. He died there in 1978.

Regimental Mascot

Alex's account and the photos are not the only evidence of his incredible account. Latvian records show that the 18th Kurzeme Battalion/18th Schuma (Police) Battalion adopted a young boy whose parents were unknown (July 12, 1942). This traditiion was deeply ingrained in the Russian Army and Latvia was only recently separted from Russian rule. Many Russian units had boys called 'sons of the regimet'. They were the sons of enlisted members of the regiment who wee killed. At the time there were no social safety net for the families which with the man gine faced abject poverty. Of course Alex was different as he was unrelated to the regiment and was not even Latvian. The men gave him the name Uldis Kurzemnieks, roughly meaning "from Kurzeme," a region in western Latvia. (Alex later shortened the name when he moved to Australia.) He writes, "Every moment I had to remind myself not to let my guard down, because if ever anyone found out, I was dead. I was scared of the Russians shooting me and the Germans discovering I was Jewish. I had no-one to turn to. They gave me a uniform, a little gun and little pistol. They assigned me little jobs to do - to polish shoes, gather firewood, carry water, or light a fire. But my main job was to entertain the soldiers. To make them feel a bit happier."

Witness

As a Latvian Waffen-SS mascot, Alex witnessed terrible attrociities. Alex saw attrocities in the German occupied areas of the East. He saw SS Einsatzgruppen killing operations. He remembers one terrible action when the battalion rounded up dozens of women and children and barricaded them in a synagogue. They then set it on fire. This was the infamous Slonim massacre . Some 1,600 Jews were burned alive. Alex recounts how, "Soldiers were prodding people into the synagogue, then they hammered wooden planks across the doors and windows. They put bunches of burning sticks and branches against the building and in a flash it caught fire. The flames spread quickly and then terrible wails began. Women and children broke out, running into the road in flames. No one helped them, they burned where they fell." Those who escaped were shot by three soldiers. One of the shooters was was Kulis, the man who was protecting him. Alex tells how he was used by the soldiers. He was told to hand out candy outside transport trains. This helped calm down Jews being transported to the death camps, making them easier to handle.

Celeberity

Alex soon became the Latvian Waffen-SS's most famous mascot. The Germans even notice him. In his uniform he was feted before the Fhrer himself. NAZI newsreels presented him as the "the Reich's youngest Nazi". He was shown wearing his uniform and playing with German children. He apparently worked for a time at an orphanage for German children. He ws filmed keeping charge of German children. ("Me, a Jew. Had they but known.") He looks very Aryan. At the time the SS was kidnapping children in occupied countries that look Aryan fr te Lebensborn prigram. Perhaps the children he is shown with are Lenenborn children. Lebensorn children were very carefully examined. As Alex was more of a soldier's mascot, he was never examined. As he was circumsized, he would have been easily identified as a Jew. "They didn't know that I was a Jewish boy who had escaped a Nazi death squad. They thought I was a Russian orphan." He reports, "I hated the soldiers' brutality, their inhumanity. But I don't deny that, as a little boy, I at times loved being the center of attention. I was doing it to survive. To please them. But all the time I was terrified they would discover my real identity and I would also be shot for my faith."

Hiding the Truth

A reader writes, "I think something very unique occurred with Alex Kurzem and the adults he was with. A bit hard to believe but it really happened all the same. I find it hard to believe he was able to hide his Jewishness. How on earth do you hide being circumcised? This would have been noticed. Had he made a thing about toilets, bath time then suspicion would have been aroused. Not practicing ones religious is easier to conceal. However Alex was a very small boy when he became displaced so his religious education would not have been significantly advanced for him to feel uncomfortable with not expressing it. The boy had a disposition that made adults like him. The soldiers he is filmed with appear to like him and the same must have been for the Confectionary family who adopted him. Two photographs show him just wearing shorts and there were other boys his age too for they are in the photograph. I do not think there was privacy at bath times or when changing into night time clothes. The Nazis had made such a fuss of Alex and everyone would have been arrested for making them look foolish. I believe for self preservation the charade was allowed to continue." It does seem hard to believe that he could hide his Jewishness, but I think it is suerly conceivable. What Sgt. Kulis told him must have made an impression. And it is clear that Alex was a very bright boy. Another factor here is that Europeans until after World War II did not bsthe daily as is common today. A bath once a week was more common. And I don't think it hard to believe thst a bright boy coukd have pulled it off. I worked at summer camps during college and I could not tell you if the boys I looked after were circumsized or not. I sent my campers off to the shower in the morning, but did not go along with them. I am also familiar with boarding schools. Here the matrons are the only ones who for the most part who would know such things. And in a military situation there were no matrons. The same issue is addressed at some length in 'Europa, Europs', but it became an issue only when the boy was enrolled in a NAZI bprding school and a medical examonation was required. I have more of a question about after Alex was turned over to the Dzenis family. Once under the care of the mother, you would think his secret woud come out.

Subsequent Events in Latvia (1944-49)

The NAZIs were stopped before Moscow (December 1941). The Soviet Winter Offensive severely dajaged the Wehrmacht, essentially ending the possiubility of a German victory. The Germans manahed to hold on to large sreas of the wetern Soviet Union. And the Baltics and Beylorusia becameca quiet part of the Eastern Front. Hirler no longer had the forces to launch an offensive along the entire Eastern Front in 1942. Hitlker chise the south, leving the north a relaiuvely quiet front. Again they were stopped, this time at Stalingrad (November 1942). It was not until 1944 that the Soviets coukd launch a major offensive in the north imed at dricing the Germans out of the Baltics and what is now Belarus. The Soviets launched a series of major offensives, Operation Bagration being by far the largest. The commander of the Waffen SS unit that had adopted Alex sent him to live with a Latvian family for his safety. Jekabs Dzenis, a Latvian chocolate maker in Riga took him. We assume this meant candy maker as chocolate was virtually impossible to obtain in Germany and German occupied areas and we assume the Soviet Union during the War. It was with the Dzenis family that he survived the War. There are some family portraits of Alex with the Dzenis family. He is noo longer wearing his uniforms. We are not sure when ir if they discovered Alex was Jewish. It was with them he survived the War. Latvia was reincorporated into the Soviet Union after the War. The Dzenis family lost their chocolate business.

Life in the West (1949- )

The Dzenis family managed to emigrate tio Australia, taking Alex with them (1949). We are not sure why the oviets oermitted them to emigrate. Alex worked for a while in a circus, but eventually became a television repair man. He kept his past to himself, even after he married. He told himself, "When I left Europe I said 'forget about your past. You are going to a new country and a new life. Switch off and don't even think about it. I managed to do it. I told people I lost my parents in the war, but I didn't go into detail. I kept the secret and never told anyone." It was not until 1997 that he told his story to his wife Patricia and their children. His son Mark incouraged to go public. The Dzenis family was not happy to have Alex come forward. The family had prospered in post-War Soviet Latvia. His story exposed their Nazi connections. He returned to Belarus and visited the village where he was born. Local officials found out his real name was Ilya Galperin and discovered a film in a Latvian archive showing Alex in his uniform. NAZI newreels and other photographs were kater discovered. He found his father who has since remsrried and fdiscivered he had a new half-brother--Erick Galperin.

Questions Asked

since we first read Alex's account, several individuals hve called it into question. There is no dount that he was a Latvian police mascot. There is both wrirren documentation of that as well as NAZI World War II newsreels where he was pictured. What is being questioned is the Jewish part of the story. There is no real proof that Alex is Ilya Galperin. And Alex Kurzem has not cooperated in steps that could prove his Jewish identity such as a DNA test or a medical examination. We do not point this out to deny Kurzem's account, only to include the act that serious quesions have been raised. We note several problems with Alex's account. 1) He tells a dramatic story of the Lithuanian killing action at Koidanov. The part that seems unrealistic is that he climed a tree and witnessed the killing of his family. Now if he was close enough to see this. He wa cloes enough or the Lithunins to see him, espdcially bcause by this ome if years the keaves have fallen off the trees. 2) Several individuals have questiined the ability of a small boy to survive alone n the forst during an dsopecially brutal winter. The Hollocaust is a massive historical event. Stranger hings have been recorded, but gthis also seems unlikely. 3) Language is another issue which suggested to us that there were problems with Alex's story. The Jewish residents of Koidanov spoke Yiddish, not Russian or Latvian. A reader tells us, "This is another dead giveaway why Kurzem is not telling the truth. And you are correct - those who may have known Russian would have spoken with an easily identifiable accent." 5) A reference to roses is also suspicious. Our reader writes, "In interviews, Kurzem states he wanted to put a rose on his mother's grave. Jews do not put roses on graves -- they put markers like small stones. Kurzem is as Jewish as the man on the moon." [Schoen 6) What initially suggested to us that Alkex's story was true was how would he know about the Galperins. A researcher working on this subjects tells us, "As far as Kurzem finding the Galperins, I have spoken to Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick who has done extensive research on this case and has even met with Kurzem. Dr. Fitzpatrick is an expert on Holocaust fraud. She told me (and references are made in the book) that Kurzem was connected with the Galperin family by Alicia Plesser, a felon who was deported from Australia on identity theft charges. It is believed that there is a nefarious connection between Plesser and some individuals in Belarus which include Erik Galperin, Kurzem's alleged half-brother. I know this sounds crazy, but after reading the book, I believe it to be very possible. Considering Kurzem's refusal to take a DNA test unless he is paid makes this fact more believable. I also communicated by e-mail with the individual in Australia who took Kurzem's testimonies on his Holocaust experiences. He is convinced Kurzem is not even Jewish." Our reader summarizes, "There is no doubt that Kurzem was picked up by the Latvian police unit. Many displaced children were cared for in a similar manner when they became separated from their parents during the War. However, our research proves Kurzem is not Jewish. Articles about Kurzem's life appeared in a series of newspaper articles in 1958. T- there was never a mention of his being Jewish or that his family was massacred by the Nazis. In the late 1990s he was in serious debt and with his son, created this story by adding the Jewish aspect and claiming Erik Galperin was his half-brother. Galperin had ties to Frida Reizman who provided a certificate that was used to gain reparations from the Jewish Claims Conference for Kurzem. Kurzem's reparations enabled the story to gain traction. Google "Alex Kurzem" - there are several articles that express doubt about his story. It was announced that over $50 million in fraudulent claims were approved by the Jewish Claims Conference. (November 2010)." [Schoen]

Sources

Bryant, Nick. "The secret history of the Nazi mascot," BBC News (August 21, 2007).

Kurzem, Mark. The Mascott--Unraveling the Mystery of My Father (2007). This is a harrowing account of a child's World War II experiences. It is based on the grown up boy's reminisences of his childhood experienes. A child's view of the War is a valuable contribution to the massive record of both the Holocaust and the war. But because neither Alex or his son Mark are trained historians and did not research the events and wider historical record in detail, there are mistakes in the book. This should not detract from the value of the book, but reders should bear this in mind. There re, however, some distyurbing setails in the book that cause one to question the early phase of the book, meaning the Jewih connection. nd Alex Kurzem's refusal to submit to a medical examination or a DNA test raises serious questions about his honesty.

Schoen, Jay. E-mail message, July 25, 2012.






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Created: 1:44 AM 8/22/2007
Last updated: 2:37 AM 7/26/2012