The Mas­cot: Unrav­el­ing the Mys­tery of My Jew­ish Father’s Nazi Boyhood

Mark Kurzem
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

This book is so hor­ri­fy­ing that it is dif­fi­cult to read, but so mes­mer­iz­ing that the read­er is riv­et­ed to the page. Over and over, issues of silence, secrets, mem­o­ry, and sur­vival force their way into the unex­pect­ed nar­ra­tive of Mark’s father, Alex Kurzem, and remind the read­er that truth is often stranger than fiction. 

Alex has spent his adult life in Aus­tralia. He is a devot­ed father and hus­band, a sto­ry­teller, a man whose pro­fes­sion is fix­ing” things and one who stores scraps of a life he bare­ly remem­bers in a locked brief­case. The shards of these mem­o­ries cre­ate such inner tur­moil that Alex describes it as two men inside [of him] “ […] one of whom has been asleep for fifty years. Now he’s wak­ing up, and the two are not get­ting along well.” As a result, he relates bit and pieces of his mem­o­ries and leaves it to Mark to fix” it. 

The mem­o­ries are trau­mat­ic, but insis­tent. The more Alex remem­bers, the more they take shape and define his iden­ti­ty. Mark ulti­mate­ly learns that his father is Jew­ish, but that he became a sol­dier” at the age of five; that he sur­vived under the most extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances; that he was cru­el­ly exploit­ed by the Lat­vian Army, yet was embraced and pro­tect­ed by its mem­bers; and that at six­ty years of age, giv­en to explain­ing that he was only a child,” actu­al­ly blames him­self for all he has seen and done. 

The telling of Alex’s sto­ry is not with­out motive. He not only want­ed to tell it for his own ben­e­fit,” but also to serve as a les­son for every­body, Jew­ish or not, about cru­el­ty.” In the end, Mark remarks: 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.”

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

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