by Mark Kurzum
Published October 2008 by Plume Books
An elderly Australian, who has never given his family, friends, neighbors, et. al. more than minimal information about his life, abruptly decides to recount his past, as well as he can remember it, to his oldest son. And a remarkable story he tells. Alex Kurzem describes having, at the age of 5 or 6, escaped from Nazi troops in his European village in 1941, watching from a distance the massacre of his family and many others, and fleeing blindly through the forest for days before being captured by the soldiers. Then, astonishingly, rather than being shot along with everyone else who's been rounded up, he's been adopted by the soldiers and turned into their mascot, their "good luck charm." Decked out in a scaled-down SS uniform they've had tailored for him, he's been taken along as the troops moved across the countryside, fighting partisans and slaughtering townsful of people.
Kurzem, in the book written by his son, Mark, has extraordinary memory of some details, but also some huge blanks. He remembers no other name for himself than the one the soldiers gave him, and no name at all for the village in which he grew up.. He doesn't know what country he's from. Although he had watched the deaths of his family, he can't remember their names or faces.
One memory is particularly clear, however; that of the occasion on which the sergeant who saved him from the firing squad, pulled down his pants and underpants, and, after a quick look, warned him against ever letting anyone else see him naked. Though no more than a child, he figures out that being circumcised ,must mean that he's a Jew. So, a great anomaly: in the midst of a squad of men going around killing Jews, here is this Jewish boy, whom they hail and fuss over as one of their most beloved comrades. He's even used as the centerpiece of a German propaganda film, the theme of which is how happy and contented are the children of the Reich.
Most of the book involves detective work by the two Kurzem men, as they try to fill in the details of a forgotten life, a forgotten person. Adding to the pressure are serious threats from Latvian nationalists and Israeli Intelligence, concerned that the Kurzems might turn up something that could be embarrassing to someone.
The writing is not extraordinary. It tells the story on a level that anyone would be able to read and enjoy. I did have the feeling that the father remembered things too clearlyand wondered if some of the things may have been added by the writer. That was okay with me, as I enjoyed the story.
The reviewer for the New York Times wrote of THE MASCOT: "Part mystery, part memory puzzle, written in the polished style of a good thriller...spellbinding." Both readers here agree and recommend.
[Since both of my parents had read the book, I asked my mom for her opinion of the book as well. She felt that the book was, for the most part, well written. Kurzum, she said, writes in a way that pulls the reader in without revealing too much too soon. She would have liked more on Kurzum's siblings' reactions to the story about their father.]