Kinstler knows little about his grandfather’s past: after the war he was a KGB agent and in 1949 disappeared forever. She is, however, drawn to the dramatic story of a commander in her unit, Herbert Cukurs. It’s his story – and the story of his story – which makes up most of the book. The “Latvian Lindbergh” of the 1930s, Cukurs was a charismatic aviator and family man who fled to Brazil after the war. As he did with Adolf Eichmann, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad set out in 1965 to kidnap Cukurs to punish him for his genocidal war crimes. Unlike Eichmann, Cukurs was executed immediately and on the spot, without a trial. Without a formal conviction, his status has remained ambiguous to conspiracy theorists in his home country. Survivor testimonies describe the barbaric acts of Cukurs in the Riga ghetto and the massacres of Jews in the Rumbula Forest; he is remembered by some as the “butcher of Riga”. But more recently Latvian nationalists have produced films, spy novels and performances defending him as a great and innocent Latvian martyr. A posthumous criminal investigation, opened in Latvia when supporters sought to clear his name – and symbolically, that of the country – was still ongoing when this book went to press.
Cukurs’ life, and its offshoots, form a narrative skeleton around which Kinstler layers a story that includes Latvian Holocaust history, analysis of contemporary Balkan identity, reflections from modern literature, and quotations from the Talmud. . Focusing on the law and its “failures, victories and silences,” Kinstler explores the trials of World War II, from Nuremberg to the Eichmann proceedings, to the lesser-known “little Nuremberg” that took place in Riga. Who were these essays really for? What were they for? How can the international community come together to assess culpability when fundamental principles differ so profoundly? How can criminal activity laws be applied to state-sanctioned mass murder?
In Germany, anyone involved in the Nazi “criminal complex” is considered an accomplice; in Latvia, the prosecutor in the ongoing Cukurs trial wanted to see the corpse – or at least hear from a witness who could confirm that he had seen the trigger. And such witnesses must be acceptable: Throughout the book, Kinstler emphasizes the tenuous status of Holocaust survivor testimony, exposing the delta between law and history. Much of what we know about the Holocaust comes from memoirs, but the courts do not consider testimonies as clear evidence. A judge can discredit testimony depending on how and where it was taken; when it was introduced into the legal proceedings; whether the witness was known to make errors or embellishments; whether the witness was still alive; was not crippled; etc For all the insight it offers, Kinstler’s book should leave readers worried about what happens when testimony can be so easily, and sometimes eagerly, ignored.
Kinstler, however, is no foghorn writer; she is a cross-interrogator jumping from many sides, probing, flipping, cutting, exposing shades of gray. Cukurs the killer also saved a Jewish woman, and Kinstler considers various reasons why he might have done so, from sex to passing kindness to a cynical desire to demonstrate his innocence. Latvia, a country that has gone from occupation to occupation, from Nazi to Soviet, has its own stories of victimization. “The war,” she writes, “has created a chaotic field of shifting allegiances,” and she takes readers through many parts of that field. Difficult questions seep into his stratified investigation: what about the authors who have acted in contradictory ways? What is an adequate, even appropriate, sentence for mass murder? What constitutes evidence – especially for a crime committed 100 years ago? And get tangled up very discreetly in all of this: what to do with her own lineage, especially when, as she puts it, “I have no interest in reclaiming my own inheritance”? She’s clear that the book isn’t trying to achieve redemption or emotional reconciliation, but, throughout, she spices up the family stories and her quest for information about her grandfather. While it might be greedy to ask for more in such a comprehensive book, I wanted a few more details about Kinstler’s life – for example, why did she come back to Riga? — to help contextualize his investigation and his personal issues.
The Holocaust is not a monolithic story but a multitude of narratives, each shaped by politics, social zeitgeist and personal acts: who told what, to whom, when. What we remember from the war and what we forget – and what we choose to forget – reflect shifting ideologies and hidden guilt, not to mention a desire to protect one’s children and even one’s sanity. “Memory,” Kinstler writes, “can be a special kind of prison, a prison from which there can be no easy escape, no path to parole.” “Come to this court and weep” is an in-depth, captivating and important look at how the stories of the Holocaust have been passed down and changed.
Judy Batalion is the author of “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos.”
Come to this yard and weep
Public affairs. 282 pages. $30
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