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 Atlantic, Wired, and elsewhere. She was previously a Marshall Scholar in the UK, where she covered British politics for the Atlantic and studied with Forensic Architecture.