It’s a Holocaust survival story described by the BBC as “one of the most remarkable stories to emerge from World War II.” A documentary on the subject won a slew of awards after it was released in Australia in 2003. The book, published in 2007, was an international bestseller, described by the New York Times as “spellbinding,” and subsequently translated into 13 languages. And a French production company has reportedly optioned the rights to make a Hollywood blockbuster out of it.
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But now, after three years of research by two American scholars and several official investigations in Europe and America, pressure is mounting on the Australian man at the center of the story to prove it is true.
Uldis (Alex) Kurzem is a 70-something pensioner living in Melbourne who claims in the book and the documentary – both titled “The Mascot” – that he witnessed the massacre of his Jewish mother, sister and brother in their Belorussian village as a five-year-old boy in 1941.
After he avoided execution in Koidanov – where some 1500 Jews were also massacred, along with his family, and dumped in a mass grave – he says he escaped to the forests and was eventually adopted by a Latvian guard who, instead of killing him, took pity on him, gave him a new name (Uldis Kurzemnieks) and made him his battalion’s mascot.
Adorned with blond hair and blue eyes, he was forced to keep his Jewish identity secret even as he witnessed atrocities against his own people. Dressed in SS regalia, he was armed with a gun and feted in a Nazi propaganda film as “the Reich’s youngest Nazi” – an extraordinary life story that Kurzem stood by when questioned by Haaretz this week.
“The Mascot” was co-produced by Kurzem’s now-deceased son Mark after his father broke a 50-year silence in the 1990s and revealed he was born a Jew, prompting Mark to try to piece his father’s life story together.
Despite Alex not knowing his birth name, the few fragments of his memory – the name of his town and that his father was a tanner – led Jewish officials in Minsk to believe he was born Ilya Galperin, the eldest son of Solomon Galperin, who survived Auschwitz but died in the 1970s.
A sense of doubt
In 2007, Penguin published Kurzem’s story. But it was the American ‘60 Minutes’ program, featuring Kurzem’s story in 2009, that prompted Dr. Barry Resnick, an American college professor who lost relatives in the Shoah, to probe deeper into the story.
“After watching the broadcast and reading the book, I had serious doubts – nothing specific, but I just thought the story was far-fetched,” Resnick told Haaretz this week. “When I reached out to the publisher, Penguin USA, for further information on the story it was inferred that it was none of my business.
“One historian told me there is nothing unusual about Kurzem’s story of being a mascot for a military unit,” he added. “However, when he claims to be Jewish and was picked up by the Nazis, it then becomes a blockbuster of a story.”
Resnick was referred to Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist specializing in DNA identification, because of her involvement in uncovering two Holocaust fraud stories – “Surviving with Wolves”by Misha Defonseca and “Angel at the Fence” by Herman Rosenblat.
What has bothered these two Californians is that they claim Kurzem, who immigrated to Australia in 1949, could easily prove he was born Ilya Galperin and witnessed his family’s execution, but has chosen not to.
Fitzpatrick, who is not Jewish, said she has urged Kurzem to take a DNA test to prove he is related to his alleged half-brother, Erik Galperin, in Minsk.
But Kurzem told Haaretz: “They call me a liar, a fake. Would you cooperate with people like that? If she [Fitzpatrick] had asked in a nice way I would’ve done it.”
He was, however, quoted in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper last year saying he would agree to take the test if he was paid $100,000 – which Kurzem explained this week was based on his anger at the veracity of his story being challenged.
In any event, Kurzem said his lawyers have advised him to take the DNA test when he travels to London in a few weeks’ time. “I will do it and shut them up,” he said. “I will prove them wrong.”
Fitzpatrick says it must be done by an independent testing company and it must be compared to Erik Galperin’s DNA to prove they’re half-brothers – otherwise it’s worthless.
Fitzpatrick also wants him to release the video testimonies he gave to the Jewish Holocaust Center in Melbourne since he signed a form – sighted by Haaretz – forbidding anyone from viewing his testimonies without his permission.
And she wants him to make public a copy of the application he submitted to the Claims Conference, which initially rejected his claim for reparations from the German Government but then reversed its decision.
Kurzem, who claims he has been receiving reparations since the late 1990s, said he was initially rejected because his application said he had joined the Nazis.
“But I was six years old,” he said. “Then we went back and told them what happened, they sent somebody to Russia to investigate, they apologized and approved me.”
“He’s got the right to withhold all the information he has,” said Fitzpatrick. “But he should want to prove that it happened.”
Asked whether Kurzem is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, Fitzpatrick said: “I agree. I would love someone to come forward and prove it.”
Who is Ilya Galperin?
Fitzpatrick says she has been unable to find any records at Yad Vashem of Ilya Galperin. “When you look at the group of Galperins in that town that was reported on, it’s pretty extensive and he’s not there.”
But Kurzem, who believes he is about 77, said: “They’re wrong, completely wrong. They’re trying to make it up. I don’t know why. It is upsetting. I’m sick of telling them. If they have anything they can prove, I’d be happy to listen.”
Fitzpatrick says she has interviewed people in about a dozen countries and in April was in Australia on a business trip and travelled to Melbourne to meet Kurzem in person.
She said when she again asked him about taking a DNA test, he “put off making his decision until after he discussed it with Erik Galperin later this year in Minsk.”
“They tried to do me harm,” said Kurzem. “They’re trying to stop my pension. Is it right to condemn me before they find me guilty?”
“I’m a neutral researcher and I’d like to get to the truth,” Fitzpatrick responded. “There are several items that could go a long way to disproving this story – but Alex has all of them.”
Following an article last year in Melbourne’sHerald Sunnewspaper, Resnick claims several official investigations were undertaken.
Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, has confirmed that Kurzem’s file is under investigation but he is still receiving payments.
“No proof of fraud has been found and as such we have not withheld any payments,” Schneider wrote in an email that was then forwarded to Haaretz. “The information has also been handed over to the German government, as it is their money that he is receiving.”
The German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, has also been contacted about the case, according to Resnick.
In addition, the pair says they have provided their research on Kurzem to the FBI, which has been investigating an alleged scam to defraud Germany of nearly $60 million intended for Holocaust survivors.
Questions first arose about Kurzem in the late 1990s when, at the Jewish Holocaust Center in Melbourne, he offered to say he was Jewish in return for $17,000, according to Phillip Maisel, the center’s head of testimonies.
While Kurzem did not deny this, he told Haaretz this week his property payments were in arrears by $17,000 to a local Latvian loan society who did not know he was Jewish.
“If I told the Latvians I’m Jewish they wouldn’t have liked that they financed a Jew who was pretending to be Latvian to get finance,” he said. “I said if you can give me $17,000 I can clear my debt and tell them I’m Jewish – I can admit publicly I’m Jewish.”
Maisel, a Holocaust survivor who has recorded some 2000 testimonies, says healso felt something was amiss when he interviewed Kurzem in 1996.
“The fact Latvians made a Jew a mascot is very unlikely because a Jew was considered something very dirty, something below a human being,” he said.
Maisel also disputed that the massacre of Koidanov took two days, as Kurzem has claimed. “It wasdone in one afternoon and this is confirmed in a Yizkor book of Koidanov containing letters to relatives from the few who survived,” he said.
“It is important to establish the truth. Nobody has the right to distort it for personal reasons.”
Fitzpatrick agrees. “We want to put pressure on Mr Kurzem to release the items he has that could prove or disprove his story [and put] an end to suspicions that he is exploiting it for money and fame,” she said, urging anyone with information about him to come forward.
“They’re accusing me and sentencing me,” Kurzem fired back. “I’m a million percent sure I am Jewish. I wish I wasn’t when I was a little boy. It was a curse. Now it’s big evidence,” he said.
But that is only part of the critical question. “Even if Mr Kurzem is Jewish,” said Resnick, “did he witness the massacre of his family? Is he Ilya Galperin?”
Kurzem said it’s “just impossible” to make up his story. “I saw it froma distance when I hid on a hill overlooking the village – I saw all the people being shot and then I also saw my family there. That's in my memory. I’ve lived with it all my life.”
As to whether he is Ilya Galperin, Kurzem said he never knew who he was. He only remembered the name of his village and that his father was a tanner.
“I never said I was Ilya Galperin from the beginning. The Jewish center in Minsk connected me. They sent me a telegram [in 1997]; it was the first time I was told,” he said. “It tells me my father was Solomon Galperin and my half brother is Erik.
“I can prove it and I will do it soon.”