Life & Culture

Come to this Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends Book review: On the trail of the mysterious Boris

In this gripping book, author Kinstler asks: was my grandfather a war criminal?


Come to this Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends
by Linda Kinstler
Bloomsbury £20
Review by Daniel Snowman

Linda Kinstler’s remarkable book is about a man widely believed to have been a “desk murderer” who worked with the Nazis in deporting large numbers of Jews in occupied Eastern Europe to their deaths.

After the war he managed to escape to Latin America and was later to die at the hands of the Israeli authorities. Sound familiar? No, it’s not Adolf Eichmann but someone about whom you will probably know far less: the Latvian erstwhile aviator Herberts Cukurs.

Kinstler, a young American academic and journalist, didn’t know much about Cukurs either until, in Riga in 2016, she came across a spy novel that focused on one Boris Karlovics.

Boris was her paternal grandfather, someone who, she had been told from time to time, had “disappeared” soon after the war. Linda’s parents had emigrated from Soviet Latvia in 1988 and, going on to live in the USA, the couple had divorced and Linda grew up under the wing of her Jewish mother, at first giving little thought to her father or his family.

But, stimulated by that novel and other references she had begun to encounter, she discovered that Boris had known Cukurs during the war, and that they had both belonged to the Arajs Kommando, the Riga-based unit that worked closely with the Nazis during their occupation of Latvia from summer 1941 until the country’s reconquest by the USSR in 1944.

Was grandfather Boris a genuine colleague of Cukurs — or perhaps a secret Soviet agent whose job was to identify Latvians who were collaborating with the Germans? In which case, was Boris possibly assassinated after the war by representatives of one side or the other? Or maybe he committed suicide?

The more Kinstler tried to find out about Boris the more she found herself investigating Cukurs. DidCukurs and the Arajs group pursue a heartless policy involving the transport of Latvia’s Jews from the Riga ghetto to the Rumbula forest where they were systematically murdered?

If so, maybe this was in part because Jews were widely regarded as surreptitious communists and Cukurs, like many of his compatriots, welcomed Latvia’s “liberation” from Stalin in 1941 by the Germans and was therefore determined to help eliminate anyone supposedly pro-Soviet.

Much of the book reads like a personal memoir as Kinstler chronicles her tireless investigations into anything she can glean about the life (and death) of grandfather Boris. At times, it acquires the qualities of an Agatha Christie spy novel. But she also raises fundamental philosophical issues. How, for example, can the supposed guilt of Cukurs be proved?

Whose evidence — what “evidence” — would be persuasive, long after the alleged events? Towards the end we read of the detailed enquiry by the Latvian Prosecutor General’s office into whether Cukurs had been personally responsible for killing Latvian Jews. No question, according to historians who had scrupulously studied the sources.

But the judicial conclusion was that crimes supposedly committed over 70 years earlier in which perpetrator, victims or witnesses were no longer able to give evidence had to be dismissed as unprovable.

This gripping volume ends with more questions than answers. What, Kinstler asks, do we mean when we say “Never Forget”? Should a “statute of limitations” necessarily apply to all potential criminal cases?

And was grandfather Boris a war criminal? She sends her manuscript to her father to check whether he has any corrections to suggest. He doesn’t — but he sends her a photo of his father, Boris, fully bedecked in Nazi uniform, his hair slicked as he poses alongside an equally smartly dressed gentleman at some kind of official meeting.

A terrifying image, Linda exclaims, a photo she had never seen before. Maybe her father had not wanted her to see it. Or perhaps she had never asked about such photos because she just didn’t want to know. Until now, that is. Maybe this is “How the Holocaust Ends.”

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