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Alex Kurzem - making peace with Ilya Galperin Print

Alex Kurzem is perhaps still just at the beginning of his journey of self-discovery. He is a man with two identities and a past so remarkable that it has been the subject of a book, documentaries and a feature on news shows. His remarkable journey has even inspired a full-length Hollywood feature film that is courting the talents of huge Hollywood names including Anthony Hopkins and Steven Spielberg.

Alex Kurzem walks with the ghost of Ilya Galperin just paces behind. So, who is Ilya Galperin? And why is it that Alex Kurzem insists, “Frankly we are not getting along so well?” The truth of the matter is Alex Kurzem is Ilya Galperin.

The secret of his true identity was one he was forced to bury so deeply inside himself in order to survive the Holocaust that it was almost lost forever.

Alex Kurzem

In 1997, Alex Kurzem revealed to his son Mark, and now author of the book The Mascot-Unraveling the Mystery of My Father’s Nazi Boyhood, that he believed that he was Jewish. He for the first time verbalised the fragments of memories he had hidden away in order to survive. He remembered being told by his mother that they were going to be killed the next day and the feeling of knowing that he wanted to live.

He then witnessed the massacre of his young siblings, his mother and the other Jews in his village as he watched from above on a hill. He told his son that he ran into the woods and survived alone until his capture and that he was saved from certain death by a Latvian officer, Sergeant Jekabs Kulis. He explained that he was then made into the mascot of the Latvian Nazi elite.

Mark Kurzem embarked on an almost unbelievable journey with his father to fill in the missing pieces of the past. As an intellectual, he also recognised the real need to verify these facts. The search for the truth began with the only two words Alex Kurzem could remember, “Koidanov” and “Panok”. The journey took father and son through archives and then into Minsk, Belarus and Dzerzhinsk (formerly known as Koidanov).

In the film and book, Mark comments that he wanted to give his father a great gift in returning his lost identity to him but instead feared he had given him a curse, the knowledge of the incredible horrors he witnessed and what he had lost.

But Alex is not one that lives with regrets. He tells Jewish Times Asia that he found exactly what he set out to fi nd. He knows his forgotten name, Ilya Galperin, and the names of his parents. This, he explains, is what he set out to discover and why he began this journey.

He knows that he was once a Jewish boy living in the town of Koidanov in Belarus. He also discovered that his father survived the Holocaust and returned to his town. He remarried another survivor who too lost her children and spouse. With this union followed the birth of Erick Galperin, Alex Kurzem’s half-brother.

When asked in 2003, when the documentary was screened in conjunction with the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, whether he would further explore his Jewish roots, he replied that he was too old to begin to learn and it was something he felt rather disconnected from and an identity that didn’t fit.

This past year, while again in Hong Kong, he became a bar mitzvah. Alex Kurzem told Jewish Times Asia that he merely was attending Friday night dinner at Chabad when Rabbi Avtzon suggested he have a bar mitzvah. But it is more than that. Something compelled him to agree to this.

Alex Kurzem admits that perhaps he is just beginning to fully understand all that was taken from him. “Living with the soldiers and hiding my identity, this is just one of the many things I missed out on,” he says. This is one of the few things he is able to take back.

It is clear that there has been a change in Alex Kurzem over the last few years. He also later added that he is beginning to learn more about Judaism and has found acceptance in the community of world Jewry. He seemed eager to share his new-found knowledge of Judaism and explained that a bit of his Yiddish is creeping back.

Other changes are also detectable. He hinted in 2003 that his relationship with his halfbrother Erick Galperin was difficult given the distance and language barriers. He now, in 2008, speaks of Erick with a real sense of warmth and expresses a true brotherly bond. “Things change,” he says.

The apple tree in the documentary, the very one that he remembered pinching apples off as a child, is now gone, he reveals. It has rotted away since his fi rst visit back he explains. The house too has changed since the documentary was made. “There are other people living there now,” he explains.

When asked if he questions, “Why me?” He explains that he does but never gets an answer. He rationalises that, “perhaps I didn’t look Jewish. I looked more Aryan so I was saved.”

When further probed, as to why Latvian Sergaent Kulis would want to save any Jewish boy and again why him. He hesitates and responds that he tries not to get into this type of inner debate but thinks somewhere deep down Kulis needed him to save just one last bit of his own humanity. He was his link with what was still capable of feeling.

Asked to comment on the bigger picture, he responds with an understanding that rings throughout other survivor testimonies. He explains that he can only guess that if there is meaning in this, perhaps it is that he survived to tell his story. And yet even the telling of the story has been a journey.

First was the natural disbelief of the Claims Council and its rejection of his claim for compensation on the basis that, at the age of six, he had involuntarily enlisted in the Nazi effort. This was coupled with an interviewer who insisted that he is not a Jew in his heart because a Jew would rather die than side with the enemy.

The Claims Council, following an in depth investigation, reversed their initial decision. As for accusations that he in some way bears some culpability, Alex says he has no regrets. “I did what I had to do in order to survive. If given the opportunity to make the same decisions again, I would gladly choose the same from the options I had. I survived.”

He also faced rejection and criticism from the Latvian family that adopted him during the war, a family that prospered and despite the absolute destruction around them. By telling his story, he was exposing them and their Nazi connections. He also adds, “Things could have been much worse for me. Other children had it much worse. Others were not so lucky as to live.”

For Alex, this journey was inevitable. He needed to know who he was and says that he does not for a second regret what he stirred up in the process. He again insists that despite the knowledge he has gained, “I am just the same old Alex.” But is he really?

The more Alex Kurzem digs into his past, the more he finds. Both questions and answers rise to the surface, but Alex Kurzem is prepared to go as far as need be to understand more of what was stolen from him, from Ilya Galperin. Alex Kurzem is a true survivor.

(Issue Dec 08/Jan 09)