Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holo­caust Ends

  • Review
By – September 1, 2022

Lin­da Kin­stler has sev­er­al sto­ries to tell in this provoca­tive book. Her first and main focus: the case of Her­berts Cukurs, a pre­war Lat­vian hero known as the Lind­bergh of Latvia for his aero­nau­ti­cal exploits. Cukurs became a mem­ber — per­haps sec­ond-in-com­mand — of a major Lat­vian death squad under the Ger­man occu­pa­tion. He escaped to Brazil fol­low­ing the war but was assas­si­nat­ed in Uruguay by Mossad in 1965. Kin­stler then out­lines the attempt by Lat­vian nation­al­ists in the post – Sovi­et era to reha­bil­i­tate Cukurs’s rep­u­ta­tion, to claim that the evi­dence accu­mu­lat­ed over the years about his role in the the noto­ri­ous Ara­js Kom­man­do unit — which per­pe­trat­ed the slaugh­ter of most of Latvia’s Jews with­in weeks of the Ger­man occu­pa­tion — is at best ambigu­ous or unre­li­able. Kin­stler con­cludes by writ­ing about her pater­nal grand­fa­ther, Boris, who was also a mem­ber of the Ara­js Kom­man­do, and about the long process of bring­ing war crim­i­nals to account in the post­war era.

The major ele­ments of the Cukurs case have been told before — in the mem­oirs of the Mossad agent respon­si­ble for assas­si­nat­ing Cukurs, in a pro-Cukurs exhi­bi­tion and nov­el, and even in a musi­cal set in Latvia. Most recent­ly, jour­nal­ist Stephen Tal­ty, in his 2020 book The Good Assas­sin: Mossad’s Hunt for the Butch­er of Latvia, has assem­bled the facts of Cukurs’s wartime actions and the Mossad oper­a­tion into a read­able, thriller-like account. Kin­stler cov­ers much the same ground as Tal­ty, but her aim is more ana­lyt­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal. For her, the impor­tant aspect of the Cukurs case is the con­text of the post­war attempts to bring war crim­i­nals to jus­tice, from the Nurem­berg tri­als of major Nazi lead­ers to the Eich­mann tri­al in Jerusalem. She pro­vides cogent com­men­tary on the strengths and weak­ness­es of such efforts and rais­es seri­ous ques­tions about the moral ambi­gu­i­ties of the process of try­ing war crim­i­nals, espe­cial­ly long after the war. Here she con­fronts the vexed ques­tions of how his­tor­i­cal truth and legal proof often diverge.

In the Cukurs case, the Lat­vian prosecutor’s office con­duct­ing an inves­ti­ga­tion some forty years after Cukurs’s death dis­missed the numer­ous accounts of sur­vivors who impli­cat­ed Cukurs direct­ly in the mur­der of Jews, deem­ing them not legal­ly valid. Mean­while, Cukurs’s claim (pro­vid­ed posthu­mous­ly in doc­u­ments sup­plied by his fam­i­ly) that he hadn’t mur­dered any Jews and in fact had res­cued many was deemed cred­i­ble. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Latvia was out­raged by this dou­ble-stan­dard and mount­ed a suc­cess­ful effort to reopen the case. The mat­ter was still pend­ing as Kinstler’s book went to press.

Like­wise open is the case of Kinstler’s grand­fa­ther — a Lat­vian who may have been an agent work­ing for the Sovi­ets while he served in the Ara­js Kom­man­do. Lit­tle is known about him or his moti­va­tions for join­ing Ara­js or what he actu­al­ly did. Kin­stler is unsuc­cess­ful in uncov­er­ing any new infor­ma­tion about his life and his even­tu­al dis­ap­pear­ance in the late 1940s; it was claimed he died by sui­cide, but there’s no direct evi­dence. Kinstler’s father was the posthu­mous child of the shad­owy Boris and even­tu­al­ly mar­ried the daugh­ter of a Jew­ish refugee fam­i­ly — hence Kinstler’s mixed inher­i­tance. (One of the book’s regret­table short­com­ings is its lack of detail about Kinstler’s fam­i­ly history.)

Despite its unre­solved end­ing, Kinstler’s book is an urgent inquiry into the com­plex­i­ties of mem­o­ry, his­to­ry, legal­i­ty, and respon­si­bil­i­ty for one of the great­est tragedies: the Holo­caust. As the last remain­ing sur­vivors die, the truth of their expe­ri­ence is in dan­ger of fad­ing as well — and the strug­gle to keep it alive becomes more press­ing in the face of efforts to deny it.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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