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October 25, 2007 - Image 56

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2007-10-25

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Arts & Entertainment


Introducing Mark Kurzem


lex Kurzem was 5 years
old when his family was
murdered by the Nazis. He
escaped and survived alone in the for-
est, then was found by a Latvian S.S.
unit where he was made the mascot;
Alex also appeared in Nazi propaganda
films. After the war, Alex was adopted
and moved to Australia.
For many years, Alex had nothing
to do with his past. But then he told
his son, Mark, the truth. The Mascot
(Viking; $26.95) is Alex Kurzem's
extraordinary story of his search for
his lost family, his efforts to learn his
own history and his inability to find
support within much of the organized
Jewish community.

Q: Sometimes Holocaust sur-
vivors see photos of them-
selves at the death camps and
say, "Could that really have
been me?" What is it like for
you to see images of your
father from the Nazi propa-
ganda film, or as a child in
the Nazi uniform?

A: The photographs make my father
seem like a stranger to me. I try to
maintain the bonds of our "Australian-
ness," and think of him as the father I
have always had, but at other times I
am struck by the eeriness of the situ-
ation my father, my family and I find
ourselves in. It is hard to bridge the
past and the present.

0: When you were young,
before you knew your father's
true story, did the subject of
the Holocaust ever come up?

A: My father never mentioned the
Holocaust directly at all, but my moth-
er did when she was alive and con-
demned it and spoke of it as a tragic
event. When I was a child, my father
told me stories about his early years
of adventure and survival in Australia,
and I now wonder whether he was also
sometimes speaking metaphorically
about what had actually happened to
him in the war.

Q: How has learning about
your father's Jewish iden-

tity and secret life
changed you?

had the right to
sit in judgment
A: I have still much to
of that.
come to terms with. He
It struck me
that the type of
did not express any aspect
LtettlirotiliK tl.n Myotery to:vgi
of Jewishness to me when
people you are
lyas ito i
My Je‘Aroct%
I was growing up. It is only
in recent years since he
have been affect-
has revealed his story that
ed by how much
he has shown increasing
my father had been denied in
curiosity about what it means to be a
losing his family and Jewish identity at
Jew. He and I have had little discus-
such an early age. Their mercy for him
sion about this matter, though. In
should have been even more profound
many ways, our relationship has been
as these losses had been inflicted on
shaped by our shared Australian-ness,
a young child who was forced to wit-
and I don't want to let go of this.
ness so much tragedy over such a long
Q: Much of the organized
It is totally absurd to state that my
father sympathized with the Nazis. As
Jewish community was
unsupportive of your father;
he himself says, he did what he could
apparently, no one thought
to stay alive. He was only 5. Despite
he suffered enough, that he
the awful events of his childhood,
was Jewish enough (if at all),
my father is a humane and generous
and some even suggested he
person who, in adult life, has always
was sympathetic to the Nazis. shown kindness to people down on
How did you respond to this?
their luck.
A: First, I wanted to know what con-
- Elizabeth Applebaum
stituted "sufficient suffering" and who

Introducing A.J. Jacobs


learly, A.J. Jacobs likes
a challenge. For his first
book, he read the entire
Encyclopedia Britannica, from begin-
ning to end. His next project, chron-
icled in The Year of Living Biblically
(Simon and Schuster; $25), was to
observe every single commandment
in the Torah and to live as closely as
possible to biblical times, which meant
wearing some really interesting (OK,
weird) clothing and shoes, for starters.
Want to give the biblical life a try
yourself? Check out Jacobs' Web site,
www.ajjacobs.com .

Q: Let's get right to the
meatiest subject, so to
speak: What did the crickets
taste like? Were they nice
and crunchy, or more on the
chewy side?

A: Crunchy. I'm not sure how crickets
were prepared in biblical times, but I
ate mine covered in chocolate. I actu-
ally swallowed my cricket whole, but


my friend bit down on his and you
could hear the crunch from across the

Q: Did you find yourself grow-
ing closer to God and religion
the longer you practiced liv-
ing biblically, or come to feel
religion is nothing more than
a bunch of outdated customs?

A: Something in between. I was sur-
prised how deeply this ancient book
affected me, a lifelong agnostic. I
became enamored of prayer and
started loving many of the rituals. But
at the same time, my project made me
realize just how far we've come from
the biblical mindset. Theirs was a soci-
ety in which following astrology could
be punished by death.

0: What was the most dif-
ficult mitzvah you observed?
The most beautiful?

A: The most difficult: Thou shall not
covet. I live in New York, where covet-

teat f Living
I3iblica lly

ing is like breathing.
0: Have you
The most beautiful?
I ioroble
t Pcocz ask —
your biblical
It's hard to choose,
but I'm going to say
A: I've changed in a
the mitzvah to honor
hundred ways, from
the elderly. America
big down to small.
is obsessed with
I am much more
youth and Botox, so
it was good to visit
grateful for life than
I used to be — the
a world where elders
Bible taught me to
were respected above
on the 100
all. Q: You met up
j. cobS
with quite an inter-
good things that go
right in a day instead
esting collection of
of on the three or four that
characters when you
go wrong. I try to observe Shabbat
went in search of oth-
— I love the idea of a "sanctuary in
ers trying to live biblically. Please tell
us about one.
time." And it's even changed the way I
dress. Ecclesiastes says that your gar-
A: One of my favorite spiritual advis-
ments should "be always white." It's
ers was an Orthodox man named Bill
hard to be in a bad mood when you're
Berkowitz. He's got a job I never knew
existed. He inspects people's ward-
walking down the street looking like
you're about to play the semifinals at
robes to make sure their clothing does
not violate the biblical ban on mixing
Wimbledon. So you'll see me wear lot
of white nowadays.
wool and linen fibers.

- Elizabeth Applebaum

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