SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – The controversial case of a purported Holocaust survivor living in Australia who was adopted by the Nazis and made into their child mascot is being re-examined by the Claims Conference amid fresh allegations of a Holocaust hoax.
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Claims Conference Executive Vice President Greg Schneider confirmed to Haaretz this week that the case of Uldis (Alex) Kurzem had been handed over to its ombudsman, Israel-based Shmuel Hollander, who was appointed last year after multiple scams against the German government totaling $57 million were discovered.
“The Claims Conference is taking this matter with the utmost of seriousness,” Schneider said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem weighed into the controversy last week, alleging that the evidence surrounding Kurzem, who has been receiving reparations from Germany since 1999, “points to a scam.”
In a blistering letter to Claims Conference officials, Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, wrote: “In every respect, Kurzem’s story and behavior arouse suspicion after suspicion.
“Everything in this case appears to point to a scam, but only a comprehensive investigation can finally determine whether Kurzem is indeed a Holocaust survivor, which I very much doubt, or an impostor whose main motivation was to gain fortune and fame by distorting his unusual wartime experiences,” Zuroff wrote.
Kurzem, a Melbourne-based pensioner approaching his 80th birthday, claims he witnessed his mother, brother and sister being massacred in 1941 in the village of Koidanov (now in Belarus) before escaping and being adopted by a Latvian SS guard who took pity on him, gave the Aryan-looking kid a new name (Uldis Kurzemnieks), a Nazi uniform and made him his battalion’s mascot.
Dubbed “the Reich’s youngest Nazi,” Kurzem claimed he managed to hide his Jewish identity from the SS and told his incredible story in “The Mascot” – an award-winning documentary aired in 2004 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – and a bestselling book published by Penguin in 2009. The documentary and the book, written by Kurzem’s now-deceased son Mark, sparked a flurry of international headlines about his astonishing survival.
Kurzem’s application for reparations was initially rejected by the Claims Conference before being approved in 1999. He is believed to have accrued in excess of $50,000 since then, which Zuroff says should be repaid if it is proven that he is a fraud.
Kurzem has vehemently denied fraud allegations since questions about the veracity of his story were first raised by two American investigators after his story was featured on CBS’ prestigious news magazine “60 Minutes” in 2009.
Dr. Barry Resnick and Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, both from California, first approached the Claims Conference that year and have since presented officials with a dossier of evidence they claim suggests irregularities and inconsistencies in Kurzem’s story, as Haaretz reported last September.
Resnick, who lost family during the Holocaust, presented his findings to Zuroff in Jerusalem in December. A harsh critic of the Claims Conference, Resnick welcomed the ombudsman’s intervention.
“After dozens of appeals through e-mails, letters and phone calls over almost four years, Mr. Hollander is the only one from the Claims Conference who has shown an interest in finding the truth,” Resnick said.
Kurzem told Haaretz that the upgraded investigation was “distressing” but maintained his innocence. “One hundred percent, I will prove them wrong,” he said of his naysayers.
“They’ve been investigating for the last five years. They won’t come up with anything. If they stop [the reparations] I can’t do anything, but they have no reason to,” he added.
Resnick and Fitzpatrick do not contest that Kurzem was rescued by a Latvian battalion in 1942 or that he became their mascot. But, they argue, there is no historical documentation to support his claims that he is Jewish or that his family was murdered by the same Latvians who rescued him.
“There is not one thread of evidence that supports the premise of this story, nor is there any proof Mr. Kurzem is Jewish,” Resnick said.
But an affidavit signed in 1998 by Frida Reizman, of the Jewish survivors’ society in Minsk, certifies that Kurzem was born Ilya Solomonovich Galperin, that his mother, brother and sister were massacred in Koidanov, and that his father survived Auschwitz, remarried and had a son, Erik, who lives in Minsk and is Alex’s half-brother.
Resnick and Fitzpatrick believe the English translation of the affidavit may have been forged and they claim there is no record of an Ilya Galperin from Koidanov at Yad Vashem.
Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist specializing in DNA identification, says if Kurzem was indeed born Ilya Galperin he should take a test to prove his DNA matches that of his half-brother.
Although Kurzem has repeatedly pledged to take the test, he has yet to do so and previously told the Herald Sun newspaper he would only do it for $100,000. He later defended his comment, telling Haaretz he was protesting the allegations of a Holocaust hoax by Resnick and Fitzpatrick.
“Everything about his responses to doubts expressed about the veracity of his narrative only increase the suspicions that he has something to hide,” Zuroff wrote in his letter to Claims Conference officials.
Fitzpatrick, who met Kurzem in Melbourne in April last year, said: “I have been part of two other major Holocaust fraud exposures, and I believe the back-story of the creation of ‘The Mascot’ is very much the same as the back-story of the creation of the Misha Defonseca and Herman Rosenblat frauds.”
Defonseca wrote the bestselling book “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” in 2007 but two years later confessed that she is not Jewish and that she spent the war safely in Brussels. Rosenblat’s proposed book, “Angel at the Fence,” was nixed in 2008 after he admitted his recollection of a girl throwing him apples over the fence of a sub-camp of Buchenwald was fabricated.
The two Americans also point to the fact that Kurzem signed an affidavit in 1972 saying he was “grateful” to Nazi SS Colonel Karlis Lobe because his “life was saved” by him. “To provide written support for a brutal killer of Jews and then to turn around and ask the Claims Conference for reparations is despicable,” Resnick said.
But Carol Reginio, a longstanding acquaintance who has been caring for Kurzem since his wife died a decade ago, defended Kurzem.
“He’s sweetest, kindest, gentlest man you could ever meet,” she said. “He’s had a lot of people attack him for what he’s done. He’s not out to make money – that’s something his son eventually did. Alex is still broke, he’s a pensioner.”
She added: “People tend to forget he was a little boy, 5 years old. Everything he’s said is the truth. He’s a very upfront, honest man, he’s not out to deceive anybody.”
But Resnick said it was remarkable that “despite remembering extensive details of what happened when he was 5 years old, Mr. Kurzem somehow could not remember his own name.”
Resnick and Fitzpatrick say if the Claims Conference stops Kurzem’s reparations they plan to launch legal action against the Penguin Group (USA) and Alex Kurzem on behalf of everyone who bought the best-seller believing the story was true. “The Mascot” was translated into more than a dozen languages.
But Kurzem maintains he never knew his real birth name until the Jewish survivors’ society in Minsk connected the dots in the mid-1990s. “As far as I know it’s true unless someone can prove otherwise,” he said. “You can’t condemn a story unless you come up with something different.”