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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Nazi Battalion's Jewish Mascot

APAlex Kurzem showing the suitcase he brought with him to Australia from Europe, in which he hid documents along with other clues to his mysterious past.
DZERZHINSK, Belarus -- Among the splinters of a memory shattered by the Holocaust is Alex Kurzem's image of himself as a jolly little boy who liked to climb an apple tree in the family garden, pretending to be a sailor scanning the horizon from the crow's nest.

Then, at about age 6 or 8, a carefree childhood ends and life becomes a story of horror and deliverance. Germans massacre his family and he flees into the woods where he endures a bitter winter. He is captured by Latvian soldiers sent by the Germans to kill Jews. They dress him in uniform, make him their mascot and protect him for the rest of World War II. Apparently only one of them knows he is Jewish.

After the war he immigrates to Australia. He forgets his mother tongue, hometown and real name and becomes a Melbourne suburbanite. Finally he sets out to rediscover his identity, but finds more pain than answers.

Now gray-haired and in his 70s (he is still unsure of his age), he tells his story in a new book, "The Mascot," written by his son. But still the search is incomplete.

His quest has led him to Dzerzhinsk, a village in Belarus, which he has visited four times and come to believe is his real birthplace. Here lies the mass grave from the 1941 massacre of 1,000 to nearly 2,000 Jews. It has never been exhumed, but he thinks his mother, brother and sister are buried in it.

Kurzem's story, reconstructed with his son's help and supplemented by Associated Press research, shows how the Holocaust story transmits itself through the generations. It also serves as a reminder of the toll it took on children. Only 6 percent to 11 percent of Jewish children caught up in the genocide survived, compared with one-third of the adults, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Kurzem's Holocaust story began when German troops stormed his village and herded the Jews into a ghetto. Some time later, Kurzem's mother told the boy that the family would be killed the next day.

Sergei Grits / AP
Kurzem holding a photograph of Solomon Galperin as he stands with Erik Galperin at the Galperins' pre-war house.
"And I said, 'Mother, but I don't want to die,' but she didn't have an answer for me," Kurzem said in an interview during his visit to Belarus.

That night he woke up, kissed his sleeping mother goodbye and slipped outside to hide behind a knoll on the edge of the village.

The next morning, he said, he was awoken by gunfire and saw hundreds of people, including his mother, siblings and aunt, being shot on a grassy field and dumped in a mass grave. He bit his hands to stifle his cries.

Archival records show that Nazi troops murdered from 1,000 to 1,920 Jews in Dzerzhinsk on Oct. 21, 1941.

Kurzem said he spent the next several months hiding in the woods, begging villagers for food and sleeping in trees to be safe from wolves. He pulled a coat and boots off a dead German soldier to keep warm.

Eventually, he said, he was caught and taken to a schoolyard. He was handed over to the Latvian battalion deployed by the German occupiers of Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union.

The battalion was busy killing Jews.

Kurzem recalls being hungry and running to a soldier to ask for a bit of bread before his turn came to die.

Then, he said, a miracle happened that still baffles him. The soldier, a sergeant named Jekabs Kulis, took pity on him. He said Kulis looked him over and saw that he was circumcised -- at that time and place a certain marker of Jewishness. But the boy was also blond and blue-eyed, which enabled Kulis to present him to his comrades as a gentile, and they came to believe he was an orphaned Russian swineherd.

Kurzem said Kulis warned him never to reveal his Jewishness, and he was then made the battalion's mascot. Latvian military records provided to the AP by the Hoover Institution Archives confirm that the country's 18th Kurzeme Battalion "adopted" a young boy whose parents were unknown on July 12, 1942, and gave him the name Uldis Kurzemnieks, roughly meaning "from Kurzeme," a region in western Latvia. (The name was shortened when Kurzem moved to Australia.)

Six months later, the soldiers gave their ward the honorary rank of private 1st class "for his diligent learning and good behavior," the documents say. Wartime photos show the boy wearing a Nazi uniform, and carrying a gun while posing with Kulis and other Nazi soldiers. According to records seen by the AP, he would have been 9, though Kurzem believes he is two years younger than the records say.

Over the next two years, the battalion took Kurzem to hospitals to visit wounded Nazi soldiers and celebrated their young recruit in propaganda films. The footage shows a uniformed, solemn-looking child with neatly parted hair.

Sergei Grits / AP
Kurzem examining the house where he believes he lived in Dzerzhinsk as the current owner, Sergei Kalechin, looks on.
As Kurzem tells it, inhumanity and kindness went hand in hand. His Nazi elders were kind to him, he said, yet he also remembers how the battalion rounded up dozens of women and children, barricaded them in a synagogue and set it ablaze. Those who escaped were shot by three soldiers, one of whom was Kulis, his protector.

Another time, Kurzem said in the book, he was made to hand out chocolate bars to Jews being loaded into trucks. He said he was told that they were being resettled, but they probably were bound for concentration camps or to forests to be massacred.

In all, some 250,000 were murdered in western Belarus -- virtually the entire Jewish population of the region, according to Martin Dean, a scholar at the Washington Holocaust museum.

"I didn't understand about the war and what they did; I couldn't help it. But at least they looked after me," Kurzem said. "I was all alone. ... If the devil had come along, I would have gone with him."

One gap that puzzles historians is the nine months between the massacre and Kurzem's "adoption" by the Latvians. Alexei Litvin, a scholar at the Belarussian National Academy of Sciences' History Institute, said "it is beyond belief" that the boy could have survived the unusually harsh winter of 1941-42 alone and unsheltered.

Kurzem acknowledges that the gap "has been bothering me a lot," and he cannot explain it. "All I know is, I was begging for food, I was cold, I was hungry. But to survive that winter ... I just can't imagine it."

Kurzem spent many hours with Kulis, his Latvian protector, who at least once even took the boy with him on home leave. But he has no clear answer why he saved him. Kulis immigrated to the United States in 1951 and died in 1978. Attempts by the AP to contact Kulis' son in New York were unsuccessful.

Litvin said there were military units during World War II that adopted orphaned children as so-called "sons of the regiment." He suggested that the battalion, which was charged with wiping out anti-Nazi partisans in the region, could have used the Russian-speaking boy to gather intelligence. Kurzem said he was never made to spy and was only asked to perform basic tasks such as boiling water and gathering firewood. He also remembers being used as bait to lure young women into the clutches of men in the battalion who would rape them. In his book he said that although he was an innocent pawn, "I feel responsible for what had happened to them, even now."

Sergei Grits / AP
Kurzem looking at a field where Nazi troops killed more than 1,000 Jews on Oct. 21, 1941, from the hilltop where he hid.
Experts also question how a circumcised boy managed to conceal his Jewishness from some 400 men of his battalion for several years. But they acknowledge that there were other, similar cases during the war. Kurzem said it was a matter of survival. When the battalion would go for a wash, "I made sure that I was not visible to anybody."

In 1944, with the Nazis nearing defeat, the commander of Kurzem's unit sent him to live with Jekabs Dzenis, a Latvian chocolate maker in the capital, Riga. Five years later, the Dzenis family moved to Australia and took him with them. Kurzem worked with a traveling circus before starting his television repair business. He married and had three sons, but told no one of his past.

"I managed all the years to switch myself off," he said. "But it was always in the back of my head. I always wanted to go back to the village and put a flower on my mother's grave."

The experience of battling cancer spurred Kurzem in 1997 to finally reveal his past to his eldest son, Mark. The pair began piecing things together. But he could remember only that his father may have been a tanner, and only knew a few words from his childhood. One of them was "Koidanovo," which was Dzerzhinsk's name before World War II.

With the help of a Belarussian Jewish organization, Kurzem learned of Erik Galperin, a publisher from Dzerzhinsk now living in Minsk whose Jewish father, Solomon, was a tanner.

Solomon Galperin survived the massacre in Dzerzhinsk, but was later sent to Auschwitz and Dachau and returned home to discover that his wife and three children were gone. He remarried, started a new family and died in 1975.

After striking up a correspondence, Erik Galperin sent Kurzem a photograph of his father. Both were struck by a resemblance between Solomon and the elderly Kurzem.

Solomon Galperin's nephew, Emmanuel Krupitsky, who had known Galperin after the war and who met with Kurzem, confirmed that the two men looked very much alike. "Alex is the spitting image of Solomon," Krupitsky, 86, who now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, said in a telephone interview.

In the late 1990s, Kurzem traveled to Dzerzhinsk, outside Minsk, to meet Erik Galperin and see if he remembered anything about the village. "I had this feeling of the impossible," Galperin said, recalling his first encounter with Kurzem. "I felt like something -- like I saw my father alive."

The Galperins and others in the village, as well as Kurzem himself, are convinced that he is really Ilya Galperin, Solomon Galperin's eldest son from his first marriage. However, no DNA tests have been carried out to show they are related.

Kurzem's latest trip to Dzerzhinsk appeared to further persuade him that he is Ilya, son of Galperin and half-brother of Erik. But many questions went unanswered.

He searched for the apple tree, but it had been chopped down. He visited a dilapidated wooden house on Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa, which might have been where he grew up, but he couldn't be sure.

"Why did you chop down the apple tree?" he asked Sergei Kalechin, a 57-year-old electrician who bought the house on Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa some years back. Then he cried out "Yabloko," the Russian word for apple. As he talked to Erik Galperin, more Russian words tumbled out: "it is cold," "work," a popular Russian wartime song.

He visited the knoll where he hid from the massacre and remembered sledding there in winter.

As he laid two pink roses on the mass grave, Kurzem let out a deep sigh and struggled to hold back tears.

What does he think possessed a Latvian who was killing Jews to save his life? He said he remains baffled.

"I often ask myself, 'Why me, why me?"' Kurzem said. "I never, never, never had the answer for it."