Over 50-years after the Second World War came to an end, Alex Kurzem of Australia revealed to his family that he was a Jew who survived the war by being adopted by the SS at the age of five and becoming a Nazi mascot.
Kurzem, 70, revealed his story to his wife and two children in 1997, and now, 10 years later, a book entitled The Mascot and written by Kurzem's son Mark, has been published in London.
"Who would have believed such a story?" Kurzem told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper over the phone Thursday night.
"Only after my son decided to dedicate himself to research did we realize that I was documented in Nazi propaganda ads and Nazi press and Nazi newsreels where the photographs appearing in the book were taken from. In newsreels I was nicknamed 'The Reich's youngest Nazi'."
Dressed in a little SS uniform and armed with toy gun, Kurzem looked like a real Nazi.
The Mascot book cover
"Only one Nazi knew I was Jewish, and he made me swear not to tell," Kurzem said, "This was a daily struggle, because I was troubled by it every day. Luckily, I did not look Jewish, but more German than the Germans, and so, despite my fears, no one ever doubted my identity."
Kurzem's story begins in 1941, when his Belarusian village was invaded by Germany. The then five-year-old boy managed to escape the massacre, but witnessed the death of his mother and two siblings, along with the rest of the villagers.
The young boy wandered through the woods for nine months, surviving on wild berries and handouts, until he was handed over to the Latvian police brigades, which later became incorporated into the Nazi SS.
The Latvians were convinced Kurzem was a Russian orphan of German descent. "They were sure I was a German orphan, and that's why I deserved to become their mascot," he said.
Kurzem says he does not remember Hitler, but was documented in a Nazi newsreel as being paraded before Adolf Hitler, who hailed him as an upstanding example to German youth.
"I was too young to know who was who," said Kurzem, "I don't even know my exact age. I believe I'm about 70-years-old. I didn’t have any documents and I never found my birth certificate, but I have discovered that my real family name is Galperin and that I was born near Minsk."
Young Alex was given little jobs to do like polishing shoes and lighting fires. With the Russian army approaching Latvia, the Nazis sent Kurzem to live with a Latvian family in Riga.
"The family's father was a chocolatier," Kurzem said, "When the Russians approached we fled to Germany and ended up in Dresden just as the horrible bomb set the city ablaze. From there I was transferred to a refugee camp in Hamburg, and in 1949 I was asked by representatives of the allied countries who were aiding refugees if I was interested in going to Australia where refugees were being taken in, and I've been here ever since.
"Why did they take me in and keep me as a mascot? Maybe they wanted to feel more humane in the midst of the atrocities that they caused," said Kurzem.
Kurzem said that he has never visited Israel as he could never afford to do so, but told Yedioth Ahronoth that he thinks he has cousins living there from his father's side.
"If the people of Yad Vashem invite me for a visit, I would love to come to Israel," he said.