[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 August 2007, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
The secret history of the Nazi mascot
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Melbourne

Alex Kurzem came to Australia in 1949 carrying just a small brown briefcase, but weighed down by some harrowing psychological and emotional baggage.

Tucked away in his briefcase were the secrets of his past - fragments of his life that he kept hidden for decades.

Black and white image of young Alex Kurzem in uniform, sitting on a soldier's knee
Alex was forced to keep his Jewish identity hidden

In 1997, after raising a family in Melbourne with his Australian bride, he finally revealed himself. He told how, at the age of five, he had been adopted by the SS and became a Nazi mascot.

His personal history, one of the most remarkable stories to emerge from World War II, was published recently in a book entitled The Mascot.

"They gave me a uniform, a little gun and little pistol," Alex told the BBC.

"They gave me little jobs to do - to polish shoes, carry water or light a fire. But my main job was to entertain the soldiers. To make them feel a bit happier."

Painful memories

In newsreels, he was paraded as 'the Reich's youngest Nazi' and he witnessed some unspeakable atrocities.

But his SS masters never discovered the most essential detail about his life: their little Nazi mascot was Jewish.

"They didn't know that I was a Jewish boy who had escaped a Nazi death squad. They thought I was a Russian orphan."

His story starts where his childhood memories begin - in a village in Belarus on 20 October 1941, the day it was invaded by the German army.

Black and white image of young Alex Kurzem in uniform
When the shooting stopped I had no idea where to go so I went to live in the forests, because I couldn't go back. I was the only one left

"I remember the German army invading the village, lining up all the men in the city square and shooting them. My mother told me that my father had been killed, and that we would all be killed."

"I didn't want to die, so in the middle of the night I tried to escape. I went to kiss my mother goodbye, and ran up into the hill overlooking the village until the morning came."

That was the day his family was massacred - his mother, his brother, his sister.

"I was very traumatised. I remember biting my hand so I couldn't cry out loud, because if I did they would have seen me hiding in the forest. I can't remember exactly what happened. I think I must have passed out a few times. It was terrible."

False identity

"When the shooting stopped I had no idea where to go so I went to live in the forests, because I couldn't go back. I was the only one left. I must have been five or six."

"I went into the forest but no-one wanted me. I knocked on peoples' doors and they gave me bits of bread but they told me to move on. Nobody took me in."

He survived by scavenging clothes from the bodies of dead soldiers.

After about nine months in the forest, a local man handed him over to the Latvian police brigade, which later became incorporated in the Nazi SS.

That very day, people were being lined up for execution, and Alex thought he, too, was about to die.

"There was a soldier near me and I said, 'Before you kill me, can you give me a bit of bread?' He looked at me, and took me around the back of the school. He examined me and saw that I was Jewish. "No good, no good," he said. 'Look I don't want to kill, but I can't leave you here because you will perish.

"'I'll take you with me, give you a new name and tell the other soldiers that you are a Russian orphan.'"

Joining the circus

To this day, Alex Kurzem has no idea why Sergeant Jekabs Kulis took pity on him. Whatever his motives, it certainly helped that Alex had Aryan looks. And together, they kept the secret.

"Every moment I had to remind myself not to let my guard down, because if ever anyone found out, I was dead. I was scared of the Russians shooting me and the Germans discovering I was Jewish. I had no-one to turn to."

Alex Kurzem (l) and his wife
Alex Kurzem kept the secret from his wife and family for decades

Young Alex saw action on the Russian front, and was even used by the SS to lure Jewish people to their deaths.

Outside the cattle trains which carried victims to the concentration camps, he handed out chocolate bars to tempt them in.

Then, in 1944, with the Nazis facing almost certain defeat, the commander of the SS unit sent him to live with a Latvian family.

Five years later, he managed to reach Australia. For a time, he worked in a circus and eventually became a television repair man in Melbourne.

All the time, he kept his past life to himself, not even telling his Australian wife, Patricia.

"When I left Europe I said 'forget about your past. You are going to a new country and a new life. Switch off and don't even think about it.'

"I managed to do it. I told people I lost my parents in the war, but I didn't go into detail. I kept the secret and never told anyone."

It was not until 1997 that he finally told his family, and along with his son, Mark, set about discovering more about his past life.

After visiting the village where he was born, they found out his real name was Ilya Galperin, and even uncovered a film in a Latvian archive of Alex in full SS regalia.

Alex Kurzem relives his experiences


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific