Thursday, December 27, 2012

"The Mascot" - Truth or Fiction?

By Colleen Fitzpatrick

Barry Resnick spoke about this at the Bet Israel Masorti Congregation in Netanya on December 25, 2012. With its relevance to the media, we thought it appropriate to post this article, recommended by Barry, on the PRIMER web site. It originally appeared on JWIRE. 

The Mascot is the international best-selling Holocaust biography of Alex Kurzem written by his late son, Mark. The book centers on the elder Kurzem’s recovery of his identity as Ilya Galperin, his family’s lone survivor of the 1941 Jewish massacre in Koidanov, Belarus, and an eyewitness to the murder of his mother and two siblings...writes Dr Colleen Fitzpatrick.

The story was made into an award-winning documentary financed by the Australian Broadcasting Corp, and has been published by Penguin and its subsidiaries in 13 languages. The French company, Healthcliff Productions purchased the rights to the book and is planning to produce a full length feature motion picture.  After an exhaustive international three-year search for evidence, my colleague Dr. Barry Resnick and I have discovered no proof that Mr. Kurzem’s story is true, nor has it been established that he is Jewish.

Initial suspicions about Mr. Kurzem arose in the late 1990s during his first appearance at the Melbourne Holocaust Centre when he offered to say he was Jewish in return for $17,000 At the time, he was in debt because of a failed business deal.

Mr Phillip Maisel OAM, Testimonies Director at the Centre, nevertheless recorded Kurzem’s story and had the distinct impression that his interviewee was not being entirely truthful. “There was something strange about his story, something didn’t add up,” he told Michelle Coleman of Jwire’s Melbourne Bureau.

During a subsequent visit to the Holocaust Centre, Mr. Kurzem was overheard commenting that “the Holocaust is big business”. He was asked to leave.

We have copies of emails exchanged by Mark Kurzem with a cousin in 1998, commenting that it was “in his [father’s] best interests that as much money [as possible] is derived from his story to solve his problems”, along with attempts to obtain a “substantial cash advance” from this relative for the right to author the book.  In a subsequent email, the cousin commented that, “…it all boils down to money and [Alex’s] debt.   Mark plans to erase that debt any way he can. And I mean any.”

More recently, when Mr. Kurzem was asked to take a DNA test to prove his relationship to his alleged half-brother Erik Galperin, he told us he would do so if we paid him $100,000. At that moment, the DNA kit was in front of him on the table.

The financial motivations of Mr. Kurzem aside, there are doubts that he is Jewish, never mind being a survivor of the Koidanov massacre.  When he gave two video testimonies at the Melbourne Centre, unlike thousands of other survivors, Mr. Kurzem placed an embargo on the testimonies, forbidding their viewing in his lifetime without his permission.  Maisel, who has recorded about 2,000 testimonies including Mr. Kurzem’s, and who himself is a survivor, has stated that he does not believe Alex Kurzem is Jewish.  One reason he cites is that when a male survivor  is asked the critical question about how he hid the fact he was circumcised, the answer is usually complex and emotional.  According to Mr. Maisel, Mr. Kurzem couldn’t remember.

Even accepting that Mr. Kurzem might be Jewish, there are important historical inaccuracies in “The Mascot” that contradict his claim that he is Ilya Galperin, his family’s lone survivor of the Koidanov massacre. These include:

- No such Ilya Galperin is listed in Yad Vashem’s historical records as a victim of the massacre. Numerous Pages of Testimony for Galperin family members were submitted by Ida Krupitsky, the Galperin family genealogist, and Alex’s purported first cousin whose mother Fania died in the massacre;

-  According to The Mascot, as the massacre was underway, the Nazis halted it because of a bad thunderstorm, telling the remaining victims to come back the next day so the executions could resume, thus allowing young Ilya to escape that night. The Koidanov Yizkor book records a more believable scenario, typical of Nazi massacres. The killings were unannounced, efficient, and over in a matter of hours.

Mr. Kurzem has under his control several items that could confirm or disprove his story.  Yet he has not fulfilled his repeated promises to release them.  Besides the video testimonies mentioned above, and the DNA test that he has demanded $100,000 to take, Mr. Kurzem has not provided us with a copy of his application for reparations to the Jewish Claims Conference which could help substantiate his whereabouts during the Holocaust.

The Conference initially rejected Mr. Kurzem’s application, but later reversed its ruling so that he is now receiving reparations.  Mr. Kurzem widely claims that this reversal was based on the endorsement of his story by Minsk GILF Society Director Frida Reizman .  Close examination of the GILF certificate of endorsement indicates that the document might have been altered.  When confronted with this possibility, Mr. Kurzem told us that he has the original Russian version of the certificate and that “mistakes” were made in translating it into English.  We were recently contacted by an attorney for the Claims Conference in Germany who asked us if we had a copy of the Russian version of the certificate.  Evidently, Mr. Kurzem did not submit the original Russian version with his application, but rather his own English translation that he knew was not accurate. Why is that?

Having been instrumental in the exposure of two recent Holocaust literary frauds, Misha Defonseca’s Surviving with Wolves and Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence, I have become knowledgeable about the back story of the creation and marketing of such tales. In each case, the story emerged during a time of financial distress of the author. Over time, the story experienced substantial changes, both to enhance its entertainment value and to apply patches to explain discrepancies.  Each also contained numerous glaring historical errors.  Both stories took place a long time ago, in a place far away, making it difficult to confirm them. Each author concealed information that would have exposed the truth.  The similarities that The Mascot back story shares with these two works of fiction have raised questions about its veracity.

I met with Mr. Kurzem during a recent visit to Melbourne.  Although I was hoping for some evidence of the truth of his story, I was disappointed with his vagueness.  Once again, Mr. Kurzem told me he would send his video testimonies after he copied them, and he said he would think about taking the DNA test, but that first, he wanted to ask his half-brother Erik about it when he sees him in Belarus later in the year.  Although in interviews with the international media, Mr. Kurzem supplies explicit details of the murder of his mother and siblings, when I asked him if he was sure he saw his family killed, he told me that he had witnessed so much violence during the war, he couldn’t separate one memory from another. “A traumatic event like that, you remember in great detail,” says Maisel.

Mr. Kurzem not only has and will continue to experience substantial financial gain and recognition from his books and his movie, he also lectures internationally to school children, thereby feeding the next generation with what may be distortions of the truth. In the interest of preserving an accurate history of the Holocaust, and putting an end to suspicions that he is exploiting it for money and fame, we ask Mr. Kurzem to provide evidence that he is telling the truth, or we ask him to stop.

If Holocaust denial is evil, isn’t distortion of Holocaust history for financial gain, just as bad?

In the two Holocaust frauds cited above, relatives, friends, and acquaintances of the authors who knew them during the war were aware that their stories were fabrications. These individuals wanted to come forward with the truth, but either failed to get to the right people, or feared being attacked for their negative comments.  Once sufficient evidence was discovered contradicting each story, and one or two of these informants went on record, a flood of information came in from others that allowed us to debunk what was being sold as Holocaust truth.

We appeal to anyone who may have known Alex Kurzem during or after the war to provide us with information that either confirms or disproves his story.

J-Wire spoke to a representative of the Claims Conference who confirmed that Mr Kurzem had successfully applied for funds. The representative said that the German Government had been given the files for investigation.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD is the President of Identifinders International.

Michelle Coleman contributed towards this article.

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