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The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood tells an incredible story of survival and identity. Mark Kurzem was happily ensconced in his academic life at Oxford when his father, Alex, appeared on his doorstep with a terrible secret. After escaping a Nazi death squad that murdered his family, he was adopted by a group of Latvian SS soldiers. Alex was able to hide his Jewish identity and make himself useful to the soldiers, becoming their mascot and a “corporal” in the SS. He eventually escaped and moved to Australia, where he hid this horrific part of his past from his closest friends and family. The Mascot tells the story of how Alex enlists the help of his son to uncover his astonishing past.
With Mark’s help, Alex begins to recall how he evaded the German-led execution squad that decimated his village one horrible winter night. After witnessing the murder of his Jewish mother and siblings, Alex escapes into the woods where he scavenges for food, stealing clothing from the bodies of dead soldier to survive. He’s eventually discovered by a group of Latvian soldiers who adopt him as their mascot. Alex accompanies the unit everywhere as it changes its identity and duties to those of an SS unit on the rampage. He even appears in propaganda films and newspaper articles, riding into Riga in a military parade.
At the age of five, was Alex Kurzem a Nazi collaborator or just a lost little boy?
What begins as a personal narrative of survival from World War II grows into a larger portrait of faith, memory, identity, and a bond between father and son. In order to reclaim the identity that the Nazis stole from him, Alex must untangle the mythology he created in order to survive. Their journey to uncover his past—speaking to historians, bureaucrats, and members of Alex’s biological, Ukrainian Jewish family—reveals a terrifying look inside the belly of the Nazi beast through the eyes of a Jewish child. It is a survival story, a grim fairy-tale, a memory puzzle, and a compelling psychological drama of the Holocaust.
Mark Kurzem grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He studied anthropology at the University of Oxford, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar, and also studied at Melbourne, Jochi, and Tokyo universities, where he was a Monbusho Research Scholar; his academic research focused on Japanese society. He has worked in the fields of political research, international relations, teaching, and filmmaking in Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom. He was also an international relations adviser to the mayor of Osaka. In 2002, he coproduced and wrote a documentary about his father’s life, also titled The Mascot, which was the subject of international attention. He lives in Oxford.
- Hannah Arendt, in her famous book on Adolf Eichmann, wrote about the “banality of evil,” the idea that the great evils in history are committed not by sociopaths or fanatics but rather by ordinary people who choose not to believe that what they are doing is wrong. How does this apply to Alex’s situation? Was Lobe an evil man? Was Kulis?
- What reason do you think that Sergeant Kulis and the other Latvian soldiers had for taking Alex in and allowing him to stay with them? Compassion? Amusement? Guilt?
- Why does Kulis continue to protect him even after he discovers that Alex is a Jew?
- Why do you think Alex kept the circumstances of his childhood a secret from his family? Was he justified in keeping such a big secret? What caused him to change his mind? What are the consequences to his family?
- How is Mark’s view of his own identity changed by the revelation of the secrets of his father’s childhood? Do you think he judges his father?
- Toward the end of the book, Alex reveals to Mark the enormous feelings of guilt he has been carrying over being used as a tool of Nazi propaganda. Do you think Alex will ever be able to stop feeling guilty? Why?
- By doubting Alex’s story, both the Melbourne Holocaust Center and the Claims Conference in New York have in effect denied Alex his lost identity as a Jew. How does this mirror the lie that Alex has told himself and his family for so many years? Is Alex entitled to reclaim his identity as a Jew? Did the Holocaust organizations have an obligation toward Alex as a survivor and as a Jew?
- When Alice Prosser hears Alex unconsciously use a Yiddish word, she realizes that he is telling the truth about his childhood and becomes the first person to believe Alex’s story. How does Alice’s belief in Alex validate him? If he had never met Alice, would he have continued his search for the truth of his childhood? Would he have told his family who he really was?
- It’s understandable that most readers will absolve Alex of any responsibility for acting as a tool of Nazi propaganda; as a child he was essentially powerless. But why does he later agree to defend Commander Lobe, even though now—as an adult—he understands the atrocities Lobe had committed as an SS soldier?
Discuss the symbolism behind Alex suddenly clearing his home of all his stashes of chocolate.
- While Alex is patrolling with the soldiers in the swamp, he has a chance to break away from them and escape. Yet when he runs into a small group of refugee Russian Jews in the swamp—one of whom he believes he recognizes from his village—he hides from them, deciding eventually to return to the soldiers. Why does he do this? How might his life have been different had he not returned to the soldiers?