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Come to This Court and Cry
How the Holocaust Ends
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“After this ordeal to which mankind has been submitted, mankind itself . . . comes to this Court and cries: ‘These are our laws—let them prevail!’”
Years later, the Latvian prosecutor general began investigating the possibility of redeeming Cukurs for his past actions. Researching the case, Linda Kinstler discovered that her grandfather, Boris, had served in Cukurs’s killing unit and was rumored to be a double agent for the KGB. The proceedings, which might have resulted in Cukurs’s pardon, threw into question supposed “facts” about the Holocaust at the precise moment its last living survivors—the last legal witnesses—were dying.
Rich with scholarly detective work and personal reflection, Come to This Court and Cry is a fearlessly brave examination of how history can become distorted over time, how easily the innocent are forgotten, and how carelessly the guilty are sometimes reprieved.
This book takes place largely in Latvia, a nation that has known many foreign rulers and foreign tongues. Since the thirteenth century, it has been claimed at different times by the Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians. The modern nation of Latvia came into existence on 18 November 1918, when it declared independence from Russian imperial rule. It enjoyed twenty-two years of tumultuous sovereignty until the summer of 1940, when it was occupied by the Soviet Union and became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. From 1941 to 1944, Latvia was under German control, referred to by its rulers as a province of Ostland. In 1944, Latvia returned to Soviet rule, and remained a Soviet Socialist Republic until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The story in this book emerges from the upheavals wrought by these successive occupations and their aftermaths. It also reflects the rich and varied linguistic culture of the land: I have done my best to preserve spellings as they are presented in the original primary and secondary source texts. As a result, the reader may note discrepancies in the spellings of several names and proper nouns. Many of these discrepancies stem from the grammatical rules of the Latvian language, in which almost all male names end in “s”, while female names usually in “e” or “a”. Herbert, in English, becomes Herberts in Latvian, Viktor becomes Viktors. My surname, in Latvian, is not Kinstler but Kinstlere.
But this is also a global story, one that traces the search for war criminals and Holocaust survivors across several continents. It was a frenzied and plurilingual effort: correspondence issued in German was sometimes answered in Yiddish; witnesses who gave testimony in Russian later had their accounts translated into Latvian, German, English, Hebrew and Portuguese. Wherever possible, I have remained faithful to the spellings I encountered in the archive, in the hope that this will both enrich the prose and serve future researchers who may venture down this path.
It is March 1965. Two men stand facing one another in a Riga cemetery. They are there on official business, their meeting hurried, clandestine. Elsewhere in the city, celebrations marking twenty-five years of Soviet rule are underway.1 The whole year had been dedicated to commemorating the anniversary. Never mind the fact that the anniversary itself was something of a fiction. To count twenty-five years of Soviet rule meant strategically omitting the three years of Nazi occupation that punctuated the period 1941 to 1944. Three years when blood ran down Riga’s streets like summer rain.2
The man who poses the question is identified as ‘Boris Karlovics’. He asks his colleague why it was necessary to kill and butcher the target; the plan had been to bring him back to Riga alive. It was supposed to be a kidnapping, not an assassination. His colleague demurs and hands Boris a package. ‘It just happened,’ the man says. ‘Boris Karlovics, please understand, it wasn’t planned… one member of the group went too far.’
Boris returns to his apartment and reflects on his poor luck. It was his job to ensure that the mission went smoothly, the most important assignment of his decades-long career in the KGB, the crowning achievement of a lifetime of evasion, duplicity and deceit. Now, he cannot see a way out of the ‘whirlpool of revanchism’ in which he is trapped. Inside the package, he finds news clippings announcing a murder in Montevideo. A separate envelope contains photographs of the crime scene: a trunk smeared with blood, a disfigured corpse crumpled inside. ‘Is it possible that this is Herberts Cukurs?’ he thinks. Herberts Cukurs, a man who had once seemed larger than life, a pioneering aviator known as the ‘Latvian Lindbergh’, more famous and more beloved than the last Latvian prime minister. Boris had known Cukurs during the war. They both belonged to the Arājs Kommando, one of the most brutal killing brigades under Nazi command, composed exclusively of local volunteers. Boris had embedded in the unit as a double agent, relaying news of the brigade’s actions back to Moscow. He had won the trust of Cukurs and his colleagues, and then, one by one, he had betrayed them.
There is a knock on the apartment door. A KGB general is outside − Boris’s boss, holding a bottle of vodka. Together, the two men go over the crime scene photos, they discuss why the operation went wrong. His boss had asked Boris to see the mission through, to supply whatever was necessary to incriminate Cukurs and bring him back to Riga. Boris had falsified testimonies, embellishing the accounts of Jewish survivors. He had doctored interrogation records of Arājs Kommando members to underscore Cukurs’s cruelty, depicting him as someone who took ruthless pleasure in destroying human lives. He had sent Soviet agents to South America to keep watch over his target. And still he had failed.
Boris leaves the general alone for a moment to go to the toilet. He cannot shake the suspicion that the body in the photographs does not actually belong to Cukurs. Something about the mission went awry. But it is too late. At the table, the general has drawn his gun. When Boris emerges, it will all be over.
If this sounds like the plot of a cheap spy novel, that is because it is. The spy novel is a seductive genre, one that offers an alluring release from mystery, ambiguity and unknowns. ‘To the spy, no choice is accidental; everything is deliberate,’ the literary scholar Nicholas Dames writes. Spy novels speak to a base desire for clarity and conservation, an assurance that a small army of agents is somewhere out there, that they not only possess the truth but also nobly shield the rest of us from it. They offer an escape from the cascading uncertainties of past, present and future. They assure us that the mistakes and close calls of history were committed in the service of the status quo. Dames argues that the genre of the spy novel stands for a ‘pessimistic, fatal nationalism’, the kind of nationalism that operates in the service of vanished ideals: ‘Spies are devoted to the old world − whatever old world one believes in − once it becomes clear the old world is setting.’3 The most important function of the spy novel is, perhaps, to provide us with a discernible, comforting plot. Immersed in its pages, readers may momentarily indulge in the belief that, no matter how many twists and turns the narrative may take, or how many deaths and disappearances there may be, all will be explained in the end.
I encountered this particular spy novel for the first time while browsing through a bookshop in the old city of Riga in 2016. The novel was propped up on the ‘new releases’ display. It was called Jūs Nekad Viņu Nenogalināsiet, or, in English, You Will Never Kill Him.4
I asked the shopkeeper if it was a popular title, and she said yes, of course. Why else would it be up there on the wall? I cracked the spine open, and there on the first page of the first chapter found my dead, disappeared grandfather’s name and patronymic: Boris Karlovics.
It is hard to describe the sense of disorientation brought about by this encounter. One can reasonably expect to find dead relatives and familiar surnames in photo albums, cemeteries, letters, mementos, deeds, maybe even historical texts. But novels are another story. It was not quite vertigo that overcame me, seeing his name, but a certain unsteadiness, a feeling of being in two places at once. It felt like encountering an anachronism in the flesh − like an ambush. The writer Maria Tumarkin describes the past as ‘vortex-like’, something that cannot be confined to ‘little zoo enclosures’, that ‘cannot be visited like an aging aunt’. Once it grabs hold of you it does not let go. ‘At least in certain places,’ Tumarkin writes, ‘it is like a criminal’s mark burned into your family’s skin.’5
Growing up, I had been told that my paternal grandfather had disappeared after the Second World War, and until very recently that had seemed like explanation enough. Millions vanished over the course of that terrible decade, and I had always thought of him as just another one among them, a man buried anonymously in an unmarked grave, a dead citizen of a dead country, like so many others. He did not come up in family conversations, and there were no photographs of him on display. It was only later that I learned there was good reason for the silence: Boris had indeed been a member of the same killing brigade that Cukurs had belonged to, the Arājs Kommando. He had become a KGB agent after the war, and then he had vanished. My father had dedicated much of his life to finding out what really happened to his own father, to no avail. One day, he had called me in distress. He wasn’t making any progress, the archives were turning up no answers. He delegated the search to me: ‘You’re a journalist,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you find out?’
I told him I would try, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. My parents and older sister had emigrated from Soviet Latvia in 1988, and my parents divorced a few years after arriving in the United States. I grew up among my mother’s circle of Soviet Jews and spent years in Jewish day school, where every day began with the recitation of the American national anthem, followed by the Israeli one. The only grandfather I ever thought of was my mother’s father, Misha, a man who nearly lost his foot fighting for the Soviet army and danced through his old age. The absence on the other side of the family did not concern me − indeed, it rarely crossed my mind.
All that changed in 2016, when, as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, I came across a series of curious old headlines in the Latvian newspapers. I had taken an interest in familiarising myself with the contours of my family’s abandoned life. I said it was scholarly research: I made their Soviet past into an object of academic intrigue. That was how I came to read a 2011 article in one of the major Latvian news outlets, Delfi, reporting that the Latvian Prosecutor General’s office was investigating whether a dead man named Herberts Cukurs had been involved ‘in the killing of Jews’.6 Cukurs is remembered, by some, as the ‘Butcher’ or the ‘Hangman’ of Riga, though neither of these monikers is quite right. He bears the ignominious honour of being the only Nazi whom the Israeli Intelligence Agency, Mossad, is known to have assassinated. The same agent that orchestrated the logistics of Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping, in 1960, flew back to South America five years later with a new mission: court-martial and kill Cukurs and leave his rotting body behind for the police.
That spring, I wrote to the Latvian Prosecutor General’s office asking for more information about the case. I read the newspaper reports and tried to piece together the story: how could a dead man be the subject of a criminal investigation? Why had the press secretary, in one article, said that it was impossible to ‘confirm or deny’ his participation in the Holocaust?7 On what legal basis was the investigation proceeding, and where could it possibly lead? My curiosity about the legal particulars acted as a kind of cover: I also couldn’t help but wonder if my grandfather’s name might turn up somewhere among the files.
I received a detailed response from the prosecutor in charge: the case remained open, no decision had been issued. In a long, dense paragraph, the prosecutor enumerated the potential legal outcomes of the case. It was a thicket of conditional clauses, an avalanche of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’. His office had been searching the world for evidence, they had petitioned all the relevant nations − Russia, Israel, Brazil, Uruguay, Germany, the United Kingdom − for supporting documents. There would be a decision, and theoretically, the letter explained, a trial. A trial over the misdeeds and memory of a dead man. A ghost in the dock.
The prosecutor’s explanation was accompanied by a postscript written in italics: ‘The surname “Kinstler” which belongs to the person requesting this information is more or less significant in the Herberts Cukurs case. This is due to the fact that one of the flamboyant members in [the] so called “Arājs team” where Herberts Cukurs was a member − Boris Kinstler had the same surname (who also had other alias[es] and was closely related to Arājs himself in this team). Maybe it is not only a case of similar surnames?’8
If only he knew. I wrote back, confirming his suspicion about my relation, and asked that his office keep me apprised of any developments. The press secretary responded, relaying a question and a recommendation from the prosecutor. The question was: did I have any family documents that might pertain to the case? Any official papers from Boris’s wartime service? I told them the truth: we had nothing. The recommendation was more intriguing: a novel called You Will Never Kill Him had recently come out in Riga. The book ‘was presented as a literary not documentary work’, the prosecutor explained, but it nevertheless contained a wealth of information about both my grandfather and Cukurs, and the connection between their two stories. He suggested that I read the novel and reach out to the author to learn more.
Soon enough, I began my own investigation. I bought the books, I read the conspiracy theories. Every lie contains a sliver of truth, I reminded myself. Every lie is an index of desire. I started to become familiar with the major protagonists in my grandfather’s life. What began as a family story quickly became an investigative journey through the archives of ten nations, across three continents.
To probe the past is to submit the memory of one’s ancestors to a certain kind of trial. In this case, the trial came to me, or at least the spectre of one. I found myself retracing the prosecutor’s steps, following the origins and evolution of this unexpected case. I learned all I could about Cukurs, the man at the centre of the criminal investigation. He died a spectacular death, the target of an assassination aimed at expanding the limits of law, his body left to rot in a place called Shangrilá.
This book is not a spy novel. Though spies, security agents and their circles do play their role, this book does not explain away the gaps of history. Instead, it leans into the great unknown. I have tried to gaze down into the abyss of the past and pull out what I can, to understand how the stories we tell about ourselves, our families, and our nations are passed down, preserved and altered along the way.
The subtitle – How the Holocaust Ends – is neither prediction nor, God forbid, prescription. It is a warning. The stories that make up the heart of this work are the testimonies of Jewish survivors and their descendants, people who are repeatedly asked to reiterate what they have seen and experienced, whose remembrances and inheritances are challenged at every turn. Following the prosecutor’s investigation meant that I was forced to confront the fragility of survivor testimony in the twenty-first century, to observe the ease with which it can be − and is being − dismissed and undermined. The literary scholar Marc Nichanian documented this phenomenon long ago, in his work on the Armenian genocide. ‘Genocide is not a fact because it is the very destruction of the fact, of the notion of fact, of the factuality of fact,’ he wrote in 2006.9 Genocide is not just the murder of a people or nation. The genocidal will destroys the evidence of its crimes as it is committing them. It ‘seizes testimony at the very moment it is uttered,’ Nichanian writes.10 It refutes testimony, silences witnesses. He warned of this impossible problem years ago, but perhaps, just as we ceased to hear the voices of the survivors, no one was listening closely enough.
What follows is an exploration into how the memory of the Holocaust extends into the present and acts upon it, and what it means to guard and honour that memory in this new and uncertain century. It is a story about how every nation has its own tale of complicity and victimhood, occupation and terror. It is at once a legal genealogy and a familial one, an effort to trace the roots of law’s extending claim upon the writing of history. I chart the failures, victories and silences of law alongside those of my relatives and their neighbours and friends, dead and alive.
If memory is a milieu de rencontre, a meeting place, as the French scholar Marie-Claire Lavabre argues, then so is the bookshop, and so is the courtroom.11 In memory, literature, and law, we encounter multitudes of stories, unfamiliar and often contested accounts of the past. These stories – these inheritances, really – come with demands. To receive them is also to inherit a set of obligations and dilemmas: how much to preserve? How much to expose? How much to omit, hide away? How much to reclaim? I started out by studying all of these questions, only to find out that I was already living them. Along the way, remembering went from being an injunction to a knotted, nearly impossible question.
The verb zakhar − remember, in Hebrew − appears in the Bible at least one hundred and sixty-nine times. ‘The verb is complemented by its obverse − forgetting,’ the Jewish scholar Yosef Yerushalmi wrote. ‘As Israel is enjoined to remember, so it is adjured not to forget.’ In his canonical study of the entanglement of Jewish history and scripture, Yerushalmi traces the operation of memory across centuries of religious tradition. But when the time came, in 1987, to write the postscript to the volume, he wondered if he had approached the question of memory all wrong. Not long before he started writing, a friend had sent him a news clipping from Le Monde that polled French readers about whether Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyons, should be put on trial. ‘Of the two following words, forgetting or justice, which is the one that best characterises your attitude toward the events of this period of the war and the Occupation?’ the paper asked. Yerushalmi was caught off guard by Le Monde’s formulation of the question. ‘Can it be that the journalists have stumbled across something more important than they perhaps realized?’ he wondered. ‘Is it possible that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering,” but justice?’12
This book is an investigation into that possibility. In it, I follow an improbable and occasionally fantastical series of events in an effort to explore what ‘justice’ means. Doing so requires considering something that Yerushalmi leaves unsaid − that the Hebrew word zakhar shares the same root as the word zecher − to pierce, to puncture. To kill.13
For since we are the outcomes of earlier generations, we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions and errors, and indeed of their crimes. It is not possible wholly to free oneself from this chain. If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them.
Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’1
For quite a while it was the height of style to die in that manner, freed from any concern for providing clothing or a coffin for yourself.
Aleksandrs Pelēcis, ‘The Siberia Book’2
The Police Academy, December 2019
The hum of a small motorcade of cadets announced our arrival at the lush campus of the Uruguayan Police Academy. It was early December, the height of summer, and a trio of police dogs lazed about the entrance. I watched as young men dismounted from their scooters and filed towards a set of buildings whose facades bore the motto of the national police: Saber, Honor, Deber. Knowledge, Honour, Duty. A van pulled up behind them, and out stepped a woman in a blue worker’s jumpsuit, her dark hair pulled up in a bun. This was Beatriz Almeida, director of the state police archive. She waved in the direction of my small group and announced that she would get changed before showing us around.
Marcelo Silva, a federal judge and my companion for the day, suggested that we walk the grounds in the meantime. His father had been a policeman, Silva told me, and he used to accompany him to the academy for shooting practice. Silva was a tall, sturdy man with a thick shock of dark hair. He dressed elegantly, in dark jeans and a blue Oxford shirt, a golden crucifix hanging around his neck. Outside the courtroom, Silva dabbled in painting. When I first reached out to let him know I would be visiting Montevideo, he wrote back with one request: could I bring some North American oil paints along with me? The pigment was richer and better for mixing than the ones he could find in South America, he explained. He had an eye for detail and a passion for art that, I quickly learned, extended to his legal work and writing. Over the course of our conversations, he slid easily between references to literature, physics and the criminal code. ‘Confiá en el tiempo, que suele dar dulces salidas a muchas amargas dificultades,’ he told me over lunch, quoting Cervantes. ‘Trust in time; it usually gives sweet endings to many bitter challenges.’ He was full of legal aphorisms. ‘It is very important to inhabit the mind of the murderer, before, during, and after the “fact”’ of a crime, he told me. As we strolled, we circled around the subject that had brought us together, biding our time until Almeida re-emerged. ‘I have a defect,’ Silva told me. ‘I cannot let go of a case.’
I found him through his writing. With the Uruguayan journalist Linng Cardozo, Silva had written one of the most objective accounts of the case that I had flown twelve hours to Montevideo to investigate. This was the case that Silva could not let go of. The book, called El Baúl de Yahvé (‘The Trunk of God’), is effectively a crime scene investigation. It is subtitled El Mossad y La Ejecución de Herberts Cukurs en Uruguay (‘Mossad and the Execution of Herberts Cukurs in Uruguay’). A quartet of nouns which would not seem to belong in the same sentence, each of which requires explanation. As an epigraph, Silva had chosen a short passage from the Book of Exodus, in which God orders Moses to assemble the elders of Israel, to tell them that the God of their fathers had appeared before him, that he had anointed Moses as his messenger.1
Silva had discovered the case in 2007, in the pages of a historical atlas that he had received for his birthday. The execution of Herberts Cukurs was listed among other curiosities and events visited upon Uruguay in 1965. The atlas noted that the exact circumstances of the murder had never been clarified. Silva’s interest was piqued, and he began to investigate further. At the time, he was working as a criminal prosecutor, spending his workdays dealing with the ugliest crimes. He had the skills and the government connections to probe into the recent past. He started making enquiries, and soon the circumstances of this anomalous execution began to unfurl before him, though he quickly found that the narrative remained riddled with question marks and ambiguities. Silva recalled an old police maxim: a homicide that is not cleared up in the first few days will never be solved. Four decades had already elapsed since the event. He got to work.
The crime scene was discovered in the first week of March 1965, after the Montevideo police received a call from a journalist with a wire service in Germany. The journalist asked if the police had dispatched anyone to investigate a murder in Shangrilá, a small neighbourhood of bungalows on the outskirts of the city, right on the shore. A few days earlier, German bureaus of AP and Reuters had received identical telegrams from a single anonymous source, which were written in the form of a legal ruling:
- “In her completely absorbing and profound debut, Kinstler sets out to solve a mystery—journeying from a murder scene in Uruguay to the former killing fields of Europe to unravel a family secret about her late grandfather—and in the process unearths vexing questions about the past and how we understand it. Part detective story, part family history, part probing inquiry into how best to reckon with the horrors of a previous century, Come to This Court and Cry is bracingly original, beautifully written, and haunting. An astonishing book.”—Patrick Radden Keefe
- “Obviously a masterpiece. A book that makes the Holocaust fresh, slipping seamlessly between story, thinking, politics, poetry, and the personal.”—Peter Pomerantsev
- “Linda Kinstler has achieved something truly unusual: A book that captures the paradoxes and nuances of memory politics in contemporary Eastern Europe, while at the same time invoking the trauma that past tragedies leave on individuals and families. Using rigorous, evocative prose, she reminds us of the dangerous instability of truth and testimony, and the urgent need, in the twenty-first century, to keep telling the history of the twentieth.”—Anne Applebaum
- “In this searching and powerful book, Kinstler sets out to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s role in the genocide of Latvia’s Jews during World War II. But the questions she ends up confronting—about national pride, the need for heroes, and the elusiveness of the past—couldn’t be more relevant in the twenty-first century. Come to This Court and Cry is an exemplary work of investigative journalism and historical research, showing why writers like Kinstler are needed now more than ever.”—Adam Kirsch
- “First, I was moved, then I was gripped, and now I am haunted by Kinstler’s astonishing new book. Its story is a universal one and its contribution to Jewish thinking about the Holocaust is considerable.”—Ben Judah
- “Before reading (devouring) Come to This Court and Cry, I wouldn’t have thought a book like this was even possible. A moving family portrait on top of a sensational whodunit murder on top of a brilliant mediation on memory, the law, and identity? And yet here it is. Kinstler has threaded the needle. This book is many things, and yet it fits together perfectly—personal without being sentimental, creative without being precious, and has such astute legal and historical analyses without being ponderous; it’s a marvel.”—Menachem Kaiser
- “[A] gripping debut… a deeply researched, engrossing and important look at how Holocaust stories have been passed down and altered.”—Washington Post
- “Journalist Kinstler debuts with a captivating investigation…The result is a fascinating and often troubling account of how the past haunts the present.”—Publishers Weekly
- “A masterful synthesis of family history and Holocaust investigation that blurs lines among perpetrators, justice, and national identity… A vital addition to the finite canon of Holocaust studies rooted in personal connection.”—Kirkus, starred review
- “A tremendous feat of storytelling, propelled by numerous twists and revelations, yet anchored by a deep moral seriousness.”—The Guardian
- “Come to This Court and Cry combines meticulous historical research with philosophical inquiries into nationalism, holocaust denial, guilt and the burden of proof. This is an invaluable and highly readable account.”—New Internationalist’s Alternative Book Review
- “This important book is part mystery, part history, and part parable for our time. And the title is, as Kinstler later explains, less a cry for justice than a mourning for what cannot be fixed.”—Pema Levy, Mother Jones
- “[An] intelligent and thoughtful study.”—The Times’ Literary Supplement
- “[A]n exquisite exploration.”—Wall Street Journal
- “She traces its twists and turns with patience, care, and a burning sense of integrity, bringing the reader into an answerless place between conflicting witness testimonies, between history and literary narratives, and between what is recorded as evidence and what is otherwise passed down or felt.”—Jewish Currents
- “[A] remarkable book.”—Jewish Chronicle
- “Kinstler enthralls audiences.”—Library Journal
- “Avoiding any simplistic or definitive conclusions, Kinstler provides a model of deep historical research and fluid, engaging narrative.”—New York Journal of Books
- “There has never been a better time to read a book such as this…As a historian, she is engaged in neither flight nor fight. She skillfully invites readers into the complexity of her craft.”—Sydney Morning Herald
- “Powerful… compelling.”—Forward
- On Sale
- Aug 23, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages