As a parent of a one-year old baby girl, one of the most difficult things for me to read about and yet find so intriguing is the subject of children in times of war. Perhaps it is the stark contrast between childhood innocence (and helplessness) and the animal-like cruelty that Man is capable of inflicting to himself.

Children and war. It is a pain that strikes me in deep the heart, the same way I feel when I read about babies abandoned at birth or children neglected and abused. War is that great thief who robs children of their basic birthrights to unconditional love, to not hunger and want for food, to be protected, to grow, to learn what is right and what is wrong; to know joy and understand the revelations that come with curiosity.

So while it is true that in war, old men argue and young men die – it holds even more truth that children suffer the most. They must live through the fear and trauma without the ability to comprehend the events that consume their innocence. Sad stories abound of children in such times of cruelty and The Mascot is one such true story set during the Holocaust.

This is the third book after The Book Thief and the Hitler Book that I’ve read this year dealing with the subjects of Nazism and genocide during WWII. But this book is more explicit and very very much more personal. The Mascot is told by Mark Kurzem, who relates the journey of self-discovery by his aging father, Alex Kurzem who reveals to him the dark secret he has kept his whole life, from the time he was a boy in Belarus up until his eventual migration to Australia after the war. In short, 60 years of silence.

At the age of only 5, Alex Kurzem is told by his mother one rainy night that come morning, they would all be killed. He sneaks out early the next morning, leaving his mother and siblings and heads for the woods. In the dark, he falls into a pit and in it he finds people, dead and dying. He falls asleep in the arms of a woman who is half buried and before the sun rises, he wakes and continues on. A while later, from the hills, he witnesses his whole village – including his mother, brother and sister, being shot and bayoneted before being tossed into the same pit he had fallen in a short while before.

He runs away farther into the woods and there he wanders for the next few months. Alone, eating berries and sleeping up in trees, he survives the elements and is found by a Latvian SS unit. He is marched to a clearing where another group of people are huddled together. There, the soldiers push him towards the group. An old man holds him and tells him not to be afraid. He soon realises that this group of people were being lined up for extermination. Desperate to live, the small boy asks for bread and starts to do acts to amuse his captors. The senior officer of the unit steps out – Seargeant Kulis. Kulis pulls the boy out of the firing line, and with that spares his life. Given a set of uniform made to his size, the  young Alex Kurzem becomes a mascot for the SS unit and travels with them as they go on patrol, hunting for partizani (partisans) and exterminating Jews.

The Mascot is about the search by Alex Kurzem of his true identity, erased by his supposed captor-saviours starting with vague memories of his childhood (seeing his father saying goodbye to him and his family, playing with his best friend, picking apples from a tree in his backyard for his mother) to horrific scenes of massacres that he is forced to watch as a Corporal in the SS unit (the head of the unit, a Commander Karlis Lobe accepts Kulis’ request to keep the boy with the soldiers and after making him a Private, promotes him to a Corporal).

Unable to distinguish between what his real memories are, or what are images planted in his mind as a child by his captors, Alex endures the torment with the help of his son. They seek help from the Holocaust Center, and persist despite anonymous threats and intimidation by both elements within the Latvian community (who feel that the Kurzems’ actions will expose their complicity in genocide during the war) and that of the Jewish community (with visits by Israeli agents looking for more leads in their hunt for Nazi war criminals).

Through the help of an elderly lady working in the Holocaust Center – Alice Prosser, the Kurzems are able to network with historians in Latvia and from there, they travel to Belarus to find more information about two words that Alex Kurzem could remember from his childhood – “Koidanov” and “Panok”.

As if Fate had shown compassion and foresight in the midst of all the killing, these two words imprinted somehow in the mind of the young boy would somehow be the key to his journey home to where it all began.

I must admit that some parts of the book are just too amazing to be true – how can a boy of 5 have such a clear recollection of events around him? How could he have remembered things his father said to him, or the dialogue of adults surrounding him? But I put aside my disbelief and read on and what an amazing journey it turns out to be.

Father and son slowly confront the past, both sitting at the kitchen table every night in the wee hours – Alex recollecting, and Mark recording. Their travel to Minsk, Belarus and then to Dzerzhinsk (which is later revealed to be the name the Soviets used to replace the original name – Koidanov) reveal a clearer picture of who Alex Kurzem was before his capture. We learn of the Koidanov massacre that saw the extermination of his family, the meaning of Panok, and the discovery of a half-brother (Erick Galperin) from his father’s second marriage.

In Koidanov, he meets an old couple who remember him as Ilya Galperin, the eldest son of Solomon Galperin who survived Auswitch and came home looking for his family, only to discover them all dead (and never knowing until his death in 1975 that his eldest son had in fact escaped the massacre).

Through the arduous process, the pieces are put together and missing links discovered. But not everything is solved, and some questions remain. There is no finality to Alex Kurzem’s search for himself (as the reader soon finds out). The author himself admits to this much. We find out how Alex Kurzem survived the war, and how he eventually ended up in Australia. We also see the pain through the eyes of a 5 year old child, forced to see things no child should ever see, or even try to understand, and through that, we see also how it came to be that so much of his past became suppressed within himself for such a long time.

“Would it have been better if you’d never spoken of the past?’ Mark Kurzem asks of his father.

‘I honestly don’t know, son,’ Alex Kurzem answers. ‘Even after sixty years, it unsettled me in a way that I could never have imagined. I thought I was in charge of my life but it wasn’t so. How I survived even now dictates my life and all I can do is follow at a safe distance, chained to it. It’s as if there are two persons in my body. There is the Alex everybody knows and there’s another Alex who was a secret. They’ll have to learn to accommodate each other again.’

In closing, Mark Kurzem wrote – ‘I had my answers to the questions I had harboured since that day at the Cafe Daquise in London when my father had suddenly become a stranger to me. I believed that now I was closer to an understanding. There was no resolution, no absolution, no closure, no moving on, no getting over it, no pop psychology solution. Only an accommodation of the past. My father had somehow known this all along.’

Alex Kurzem today

Alex Kurzem today

This book is unforgettable and I doubt I will ever come across another book as special as this one. I find it hard to look at the black and white photographs without feeling sadness for the little boy in them. No child should ever go through this experience. Over and over again, it fills me with amazement that that child survived and grew into adulthood.

I am glad Alex Kurzem found the strength to break his silence and eventually brought to light the truth that so many had tried to hide for so many decades. Just as Alex came to realise, the reader will also come to the conclusion that behind the supposed kindness of his captors, there was something evil there as well. These men, Mr Dzenis, Commander Lobe, Sergeant Kulis – all had their selfish reasons for taking in the boy, and they made it very clear in the end when Alex Kurzem started to dig up the past.

I strongly recommend this book, not for any lessons that it may hold, but more for the amazing story of an old man’s search for the truth, and that common desire we as humans all share .. that simple need to belong to someone, to belong to somewhere.

To have a start, and a finish.