Old town hall in Lim­baži, Latvia


Over the long years it took to write my book, this word would often ring in my head. It was not a sim­ple self-recrim­i­na­tion; it came from an unfor­get­table essay by the great writer and Nobel Lau­re­ate Czes­law Milosz, The Les­son of the Baltics,” which begins with the author recall­ing an admo­ni­tion from a friend:

If you keep think­ing about the Baltics and the camps, do you know what will hap­pen to you?” Milosz’s friend asks. You will use up the rest of your time to live and you will present your­self before Zeus; and the god, point­ing his fin­ger (here my friend ges­tured accus­ing­ly), will cry: Idiot! You ruined your life by wor­ry­ing about trifles!’”

Milosz admits that his friend has a point: It is true that I can­not stop think­ing about the Baltics.” But he had good rea­son for being pre­oc­cu­pied with their fate. Ter­ri­ble crimes had been com­mit­ted there, the mur­der­ers were still at large, and the records of their mis­deeds were imper­iled. In The Les­son of the Baltics,” Milosz imag­ines a schol­ar of the future set­ting out to com­pile an archive of the hor­rif­ic events of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, only to find that the records have long ago been redact­ed, hid­den, burned, shred­ded, delet­ed. The schol­ar real­izes that the emper­ors of today have drawn con­clu­sions from this sim­ple truth: what­ev­er does not exist on paper, does not exist at all.”

It is part­ly for this rea­son that, for many years, I worked dili­gent­ly to avoid the cen­tral con­cerns that ani­mate my book, which chron­i­cles the devel­op­ment of a new kind of his­tor­i­cal era­sure and expos­es how law can be wield­ed to legit­imize denial. I wor­ried that too many of the doc­u­ments I would require had been spir­it­ed away. And I feared that the thing moti­vat­ing my research real­ly was a tri­fle, as Milosz’s friend warns. In many ways, it is, com­pared to the stag­ger­ing loss­es of the era from which it emerged. But I could not tear my mind away.

Come to This Court and Cry fol­lows the evo­lu­tion of an almost com­plete­ly unknown crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion unfold­ing in Latvia, a small, almost unknown coun­try at the edge of what we call Europe,” a coun­try that, like its neigh­bors, has spent the last 700 years drift­ing like flot­sam,” as one writer put it, between great pow­ers. The sub­ject of the inves­ti­ga­tion is a man fifty-sev­en years dead, whose demise was far more spec­tac­u­lar than he deserved. His name was Her­berts Cukurs. In 1965, he was assas­si­nat­ed by a team of Israeli Secu­ri­ty Agents — he remains the only Nazi whom Mossad has admit­ted to hav­ing killed. After they kid­napped Adolf Eich­mann, they sent one of the same agents back to South Amer­i­ca to tar­get Cukurs. On top of his body, they left an excerpt from the clos­ing speech of Sir Hart­ley Shaw­cross, the chief British pros­e­cu­tor at Nurem­berg. He urged the judges to imag­ine that all of human­i­ty stood before them in court, cry­ing, These are our laws, let them prevail!”

Call this case a tri­fle, call it a curios­i­ty, call it a trav­es­ty. Per­haps it is all these things, but it is also so much more.

A few days after the assas­si­na­tion, the agents sent a telegram in the form of a ver­dict to Ger­man news wire agen­cies, inform­ing them of the killing. The ver­dict was signed by Those Who Will Nev­er Forget.”

Cukurs was killed in the name of mem­o­ry, expunged from the earth just as the book of Deuteron­o­my com­mands: You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heav­en. Do not for­get!” In this famous verse, the Jew­ish peo­ple are ordered to always remem­ber to blot out” the Amalekites: mem­o­ry is inex­orably entan­gled with era­sure and destruc­tion. The Cukurs case illus­trates the com­plex­i­ty of this rela­tion­ship, for the man­ner of his death is pre­cise­ly what gave him an after­life, paving the way for his res­ur­rec­tion and, in turn, the era­sure of his sins. Exist­ing records and tes­ti­monies of his crimes, many of them col­lect­ed by Sovi­et author­i­ties, have been over­looked and under­mined. The result is that his ghost graces the papers while the last wit­ness­es to his com­plic­i­ty go to their graves.

Call this case a tri­fle, call it a curios­i­ty, call it a trav­es­ty. Per­haps it is all these things, but it is also so much more. In the Baltic, and in oth­er new nations that once belonged to the Sovi­et world, there are many sto­ries like this, though per­haps none quite as extreme. Pros­e­cu­tors in the region rou­tine­ly con­sid­er reha­bil­i­ta­tion cas­es, award­ing dead men clean bills of moral health. Some of these judg­ments do amend the vin­dic­tive­ness of emper­ors past, free­ing indi­vid­u­als from crimes they could not have com­mit­ted — because they nev­er occurred, because there was no cor­pus delic­ti, no body of the crime. But the Cukurs case mobi­lizes this same log­ic in the ser­vice of denial.

It is, for me, a reminder that we nev­er real­ly answered the warn­ing of the great Jew­ish schol­ar Yosef Hay­im Yerushal­mi, who wrote, In the world in which we live it is no longer mere­ly a ques­tion of the decay of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and the declin­ing con­scious­ness of the past, but of the aggres­sive rape of what­ev­er mem­o­ry remains, the delib­er­ate dis­tor­tion of the his­tor­i­cal record, the inven­tion of mytho­log­i­cal pasts in the ser­vice of the pow­ers of dark­ness.” He believed that against the agents of obliv­ion, the shred­ders of doc­u­ments, the assas­sins of mem­o­ry, the revis­ers of ency­clo­pe­dias, the con­spir­a­tors of silence … only the his­to­ri­an, with the aus­tere pas­sion for fact, proof, evi­dence, which are cen­tral to his voca­tion, can effec­tive­ly stand guard.”

Per­haps the prob­lem is that Yerushal­mi did not dare imag­ine the per­il of present cir­cum­stances, in which it is pre­cise­ly the evi­dence-wield­ing his­to­ri­ans who are being sued for their schol­ar­ly find­ings, their work sub­ject­ed to legal inves­ti­ga­tions, always at risk of being found juridi­cal­ly want­i­ng. It’s why I felt oblig­at­ed to fol­low this strange case, to under­stand how it came to be. Idiot or oth­er­wise, I could not look away.

Lin­da Kin­stler is a con­tribut­ing writer for The Economist’s 1843 Mag­a­zine and a PhD can­di­date in the Rhetoric Depart­ment at UC Berke­ley. Her writ­ing appears in the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the AtlanticWired, and else­where. She was pre­vi­ous­ly a Mar­shall Schol­ar in the UK, where she cov­ered British pol­i­tics for the Atlantic and stud­ied with Foren­sic Architecture.