Article about: (CBS) This is a story of survival - the incredible story of how a six-year-old Jewish boy survived the Nazis' final solution and kept how he survived a secret for more than 50 years. It's th
(CBS) This is a story of survival - the incredible story of how a six-year-old Jewish boy survived the Nazis' final solution and kept how he survived a secret for more than 50 years.
It's the story of Alex Kurzem, who at the age of six watched his family being shot by the Nazis. He escaped and wandered alone for months until he was captured by Nazi soldiers. But instead of killing him, they made him their mascot.
Alex was so young, he quickly forgot his family name, his age, and the name of his village. But he did remember that the Nazis had fenced the Jews into a ghetto, and on his last night there Nazi soldiers burst into his house and began beating his mother.
"I remember, when she shielded me that her blood [was] dripping. I felt my face and [there] was blood on my head. But it was my mother's blood," Kurzem told 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon.
Kurzem told Simon he and his siblings were hiding under skirts. "My little brother and sister and we were, she was shielding us sort of."
She could shield them from the soldiers' blows, but not their bullets. And she told Alex that the next day they would all be shot. "That night my mother took me in her arms. And she said, 'Tomorrow we all have to die.' And I thought, 'I don't want to die. I'll have to try to escape.'"
So that night, crawling through the grass, he snuck past Nazi soldiers and up to the top of a hill, and hid in a forest overlooking the village. "And when the daylight broke I heard a lot of commotion and noise below. When I looked down, I saw soldiers lining up people and shooting them in a big, big pit," Kurzem recalled. "And then I saw my mother with my brother and sister also there."
Kurzem told Simon he saw how his mother and siblings were lined up and shot. "That's very visible in my head all the time."
Village records say the Nazis massacred more than 1,600 people there on October 21, 1941; and Nazi records show that a Nazi battalion took Alex in on July 12, 1942.
The months in between are a mystery. Alex says all he remembers is wandering alone, cold and hungry in the forest. He took a winter coat off a dead soldier to keep from freezing to death. And he slept in empty sheds and in trees by tying himself to branches.
Asked why he decided to sleep in trees, Kurzem told Simon, "I heard wolves in the distance. And I knew that if the wolves find me asleep on the ground they would eat me most likely. So I got scared of that. So the only way to survive, climb a tree."
He begged for food at farm houses, until one day he knocked on the wrong door.
"The man said to me, 'Ah, you're a Jew. You shouldn't be alive. You should be dead with the others. I'll take you to be shot,'" Kurzem remembered. "He took me, dragged me to this school yard where they were lining up people and shooting them яПНAnd the soldier who was nearby me, I said to him, 'Please before you kill me, would you give me a bit of bread?' All I was thinking, 'I'm hungry. Wish I could get a bit of bread before I die.'"
"That soldier who gave you bread, he then took you around into the schoolhouse and he said he wanted to see if you're Jewish. So he made you lower your pants, and he saw you were Jewish," Simon remarked.
"Jew. And he said, 'No good. No good, No good.' That's all he kept saying. 'No good. No good. No good,'" Kurzem remembered.
"I understand he put a pistol to his own head to show what was gonna happen to you," Simon said.
"If they found out you're Jewish," Kurzem explained.
But then, he says, that soldier took pity on the little boy. He not only gave Alex bread, he gave him his life. "He said, 'What I'll do, I'll tell the other soldiers that you're a Russian orphan. The soldiers gave me a new name and a new birthday. And so that's how I became the mascot, a good luck charm, for this particular division."
Once the soldier convinced his unit to make Alex a Nazi, he got his own tailor-made SS uniforms; his own miniature gun; and his own rank: corporal - the youngest corporal in the Nazi army. Then, all decked out, this little Jewish boy marched off with his Nazi division as they went off to kill Jews.
"I sometimes come into a village where we'd been patrolling. And you see people being lined up to be shot in groups. Then you come to another place and you see 20 or 30 people lined up to be hanged," Kurzem remembered.
Asked if watching the shootings brought back memories of his mother, Kurzem told Simon, "Yes. I turned my head away many times because I thought, 'Well you could have been one of them and that's what happened in the place you lived in. All your family.'"
Later in the war, when the Russians counterattacked and the fighting became too intense for him to stay with the soldiers, the Nazis gave Alex a new family, placing him with a prominent Nazi family in Riga, Latvia.
During the summers when he was 7 and 8, Alex and his Latvian foster family spent their weekends at a beach near Riga. One weekend, the Germans made a propaganda film there starring Alex, the youngest corporal in the Nazi army - a role model for the master race. A role model who the Germans didnяПНt realize was Jewish.
"Did you feel funny because here were the Nazis making a film about you and you were Jewish and they didnяПНt know that?" Simon asked.
"Exactly," Kurzem replied. "All the time I felt that, you know, there's something wrong somewhere. How am I when I'mяПНin their hated race."
He lived in fear every day he said that the soldiers, and later his foster family, would discover he was Jewish.
"I had to be aware every moment. Doesn't matter where I was. Beach, bed, bedroom, bathroom. Every moment I had to think that 'IяПНm here under false pretenses. If IяПНm discovered, I'm gone,'" he explained.
He said living under false pretenses was "very, very stressful."
And he said he had no doubt he would've been shot had his secret been revealed.
After the war, he migrated to Australia, married and had his own family. But he still kept his secrets and didn't tell his wife or his children that he'd spent the war with the Nazis or that he was Jewish.
He kept those secrets for more than 50 years before he felt compelled to answer the questions that had haunted him since the war. "I thought before I die, I should know who I am. And also I always wished to go back to the village and put a flower on my mother's grave."
But this wouldn't be easy. Orphaned at age six, he remembered the trauma, but had long forgotten his true identity. He didn't know his name or his birth date; or the name of his village or where it might be. The only clue he had to anything was one word that had stuck in his mind for all those years: Koidanov.
But he had no idea what it meant. "I thought for a while that it could be my surname or something. But that's what I remembered. Koidanov," he said.
His son Mark made a documentary of the quest for his father's history. They searched for months in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases until a historian finally discovered that Koidanov had been the previous name of a town in Belarus, outside Minsk.
With that breakthrough, he then found a half-brother he didn't know existed; and when he returned to Koidanov, he found his old house which was still standing; and an apple tree he used to climb.
Kurzem said he couldn't believe it. And then he found out his real name: Elia Solomonovich Kalperin.
His half brother gave him a picture of their father, who had died 20 years earlier. The similarity to Alex is striking. Alex thought his father had been killed during the war, but he'd really been taken to a concentration camp and survived.
When his father returned to his village he heard that his wife and all his children - including Alex - had been killed. So father and son had each thought the other was dead.
"I would have liked to meet him, you know, after he came back from the concentration camps. And tell him that he had a son who survived the war. But it didnяПНt turn out that way," Kurzem said.
In Koidanov, Alex fulfilled his other life-long wish: he placed flowers at his mother's grave, on a memorial to the 1,600 Jews killed there by the Nazis in 1941.
"It was my family. Everybody. All my relatives. Which are quite a large number, I suppose, you know. Everybody," he said.
Alex took Simon up the hill where he'd hidden behind trees that are gone now. As he'd watched his mother and hundreds of others being killed below, he told us he bit his hand to keep from screaming, and that he passed out several times.
"From the sights and from the screams and from the pain in me," he explained. "The shooting went all day. All day. And I knew that I couldn't do anything about it. But it wasn't very nice to watch, either, you know. So I had to glimpse and then I turned my head and cried."
He used to feel guilty that he survived, but now he feels relieved that he's able to tell his story. The Jewish Claims Conference has verified it and his son wrote a book about it. Still, the past is not a happy place for Alex, but he went there, and came back having found his name, his village and his mother's grave.
But he never found out his real birth date. "I've never found out but every morning I get up I wish myself a happy birthday. And one day I'll strike it lucky."
"I hope you get a gift every day," Simon said.
"Not a gift," Kurzem replied. "A gift that I can see the sun."
Wow...what great story, and very sad too.Thanks for posting. my great grandpa was forced into the Lithuanian SS and later jailed for refusing to kill innocent people. Also I suggest everyone watch the video on youtube.
What a terrible burden for such a young boy to endure, but it shows how strong the will to survive can be, and at last he can put some details into who he was, and to leave a testament to his whole life, very brave little boy and now an interesting man with an incredible story