Nazi or KGB agent? My search for my grandfather’s hidden past

Ťhe photograph was probably taken not long before my grandfather disappeared. The edge is uneven. Someone, or something, has been clipped from the picture. What remains is an image barely more than an inch wide, just large enough to capture my grandfather’s face in profile. His hair is slicked back, his eyes squint into the sun, his lips are pursed. My father tells me it is one of the few images he has of his father, whose name was Boris. He warns me that, in it, my grandfather looks “Gestapo-like”. Boris wears a long black leather jacket. He is seated on the grass in what looks to be someone’s front yard. He cradles a bouquet of wild flowers.

My grandparents had been high-school sweethearts in 拉脱维亚 during the country’s first period of independence, which lasted from 1920 到 1940. They lost track of each other after school. A few years later, war broke out in Europe. 在 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Latvia. 次年, the country was taken by the Nazis. 在 1944, most of its territory was returned to Soviet rule. Each sequential occupation unleashed waves of devastation. When my grandparents met again on the street in 1947 或者 1948, I imagine that each was glad to see that the other was alive. Boris told my grandmother he was working as an insurance salesman. She did not ask too many questions about what he did during the war. So much was unspeakable.

The war had created a chaotic field of shifting allegiances. The way Latvia was claimed by one power then the other meant that, 到最后, there were people who had fought on both sides. In some Latvian families, older brothers were conscripted into divisions of the Germany army, while younger brothers were drafted by Soviet forces. Other men joined armed partisan units in the forest to fight a guerrilla war. 在 1944, when the Soviets invaded for the second time, the atmosphere in Riga was thick with paranoia. One Latvian-Jewish writer, Frank Gordon, whose family fled Latvia in 1941 and returned in 1945, told me that he had heard of cases in which “young Latvian women invited Soviet officers to their apartments, gave them alcohol to drink and later killed them”. This story may or may not be true, but that it has lived on as a revenge fantasy tells us all we need to know.

My grandmother did know that Boris had been a member of the Arājs Kommando, a Latvian auxiliary police unit formed by the Nazis, which became known as one of the most brutal killing brigades of the second world war. But she never believed that Boris joined of his own accord: she told her son that the men of his university fraternity drew lots to see who would join the murderous unit. She told herself he only went because his fraternity brothers were going.

Boris married my grandmother in March 1949. The following month, when she was already pregnant with my father, he vanished. He told her he was going on a business trip to the Estonian city of Sillamäe. When he left, he took with him nearly every photograph of himself and every document of his life. According to his death notice, which was sent to my grandmother, he killed himself in Sillamäe on 25 四月.

After Boris disappeared, something strange happened: a pension cheque arrived from the Soviet security agency (which would eventually be renamed the KGB). That was how my grandmother found out what her husband had really been doing for work after the war, and perhaps during it, 也. She wondered when his time as a Soviet spy had begun – if he had been a double agent during the war, or if he had merely switched sides in its aftermath, transferring his employment from one occupying power to the other.

在 1 可能 1949, my grandmother went to participate in the International Workers’ Day parade, as was required for all students of her medical school. She was five months pregnant. Out of the procession, two women emerged and walked towards her. They gave her a watch and a letter, artefacts that were supposed to serve as proof of Boris’s death. But my grandmother did not believe the story they told her, and continued to entertain hope that her husband may still be alive somewhere. Sometime after that encounter, she was summoned to KGB headquarters in Riga. The officers confiscated the letter and the watch. They told her not to go looking for the body.

We don’t know what was in the letter. My grandmother died in 2002, before I knew anything of this story, before I knew just how many questions there were to ask about my grandfather. She kept no diaries, no notes. All my father knows is the version of the story his mother told him, a story that is itself full of holes, a string of strange encounters and partial explanations. That story ends like this: one day in 1963, she was summoned back to KGB headquarters in Riga. The officers wanted to know: had she heard anything from Boris?

Maybe it was a simple intimidation technique, a query meant to keep my grandmother guessing, uncertain of the circumstances of her own life. Or maybe they were really still looking for him. She paid attention to the rumours that surfaced about his life and fate, 尽管, quietly archiving them in her memory to one day pass along to her son, who would pick up the search. My father spent decades trying to figure out what happened to Boris, and what he did or did not do during the war. Had he collaborated with the Nazis, or had he been informing on them all along, betraying their secrets to the Soviets? Or was the truth simpler and darker than that? He searched through Soviet and German trial records and CIA files, looking for his father and finding nothing. 然后, one day, he delegated the search to me, inviting me to “tackle the puzzle” of my own inheritance. “You’re a journalist, why don’t you find out?“ 他问.

I told my father I would try, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. My mother’s family is Jewish; some of her relatives were murdered by the Nazis in Kyiv, while others were evacuated from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. The only grandfather I ever thought of was my mother’s father, 米莎, a man who nearly lost his foot fighting for the Soviet army and whose father, Lev, had married into a family from a long rabbinic line. The absence on the other side of the family did not concern me. 确实, it rarely crossed my mind. But all that changed when I found out that other people – lawyers, historians and authors in Riga – had spent quite a bit of time thinking about what happened to Boris Kinstler. I realised there was much I still had to learn.

Every family has its ghosts. Ancestors who disappeared by their own hand, or by the hands of others; relatives who never fully revealed themselves while they lived. In the lands that we call eastern Europe – from Estonia in the north to Ukraine in the south – these ghosts are especially common. These are the “bloodlands” of Europe, 他在男子 10,000 米比赛中获得了第二枚金牌,创造了新的世界最快时间 historian Timothy Snyder calls them – territories that spent the past few centuries passing from one occupying power to another, where cemeteries and mass graves dot the land.

这里, my grandfather’s story of collaboration and disappearance is unusual, but it is not unheard of. Plenty of people’s grandfathers from this region lie anonymously in unmarked graves, dead citizens of the dead Soviet Socialist Republics. The remains of victims, perpetrators and perpetrators-turned-victims fertilise the soil. 在 1940, when the Soviet Union first occupied the Baltic states, they unleashed a period that Latvians refer to as the “baigais gads”, the year of horror. Homes were seized and redistributed, libraries gutted, church attendance discouraged.

The Soviets rounded up and deported well-to-do families, piling them into cattle trucks and sending them to camps in Siberia. Two per cent of Latvia’s population was killed or removed in this manner. Among them were my great aunt Velta, her sister Maija, their mother and their grandmother. Velta’s father was killed before he even got to the train. “They were looking for Father; they shot their rifles into the oak tree and the chestnut tree because they thought he might be hiding in the branches,” she recalled, 多年后.

在七月 1941, the Soviet army was driven out of Latvia by the Nazis, and within days a young policeman named Viktors Arājs had received an order to create his own police unit that would answer to the intelligence arm of the SS. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent unit. The Germans were cautious about arming the peoples they had occupied, not wanting to give them too much power. The Nazi commanders overseeing the eastern operation – including Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Friedrich Jeckeln – imagined that the unit’s remit would be limited to carrying out pogroms. It was supposed to be a quick job, a “Holocaust by bullets” that did not require the infrastructure of trains and camps and gas chambers. This is the unit that my father’s father belonged to. 被誉为“迪克森的英雄”之一 1941, Jeckeln arrived in Riga to direct the Arājs Kommando and other murder squads. Two months earlier, he had overseen the killings at Babyn Yar, in Kyiv, where more than 30,000 Jews, including members of the other side of my family – my mother’s family – were killed over the course of two days.

I started reading about the Arājs Kommando, trying to figure out who had belonged to it and what had become of them. Soon I found myself reading a series of curious old headlines in the Latvian press. 一种 2011 article in one of the newspapers reported that the Latvian prosecutor general’s office was investigating whether a man named Herberts Cukurs had been involved “in the killing of Jews”. Cukurs is remembered, by some, as the “Butcher” or the “Hangman” of Riga. 他, 也, belonged to the Arājs Kommando, though the official role he occupied is disputed.

The circumstances of the case were confounding: when the Latvian prosecutor began the investigation, 在 2005, Cukurs had been dead for 40 年. He bears the ignominious honour of being the only Nazi whom the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, is known for certain to have assassinated. The same Mossad agent who orchestrated the logistics of Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping, 在 1960, reported that he had been sent back to South America five years later with a new mission: court-martial and kill Cukurs, and leave his rotting body for the police to find. (There were likely many other assassinations of this kind, though these remain officially unconfirmed.)

在 2016, 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” Cukurs’s participation in the 大屠杀?

My curiosity about the legal particulars acted as a cover. For I couldn’t help but wonder whether my grandfather’s name might turn up somewhere among the files.

w ^ar rips words away from their accepted meanings. 这 philosopher Zygmunt Bauman warned that the Holocaust was an event that “had been written down in its own code which had to be broken first to make understanding possible”. Reckoning would only come after the euphemisms and obfuscations that accompany atrocities had been done away with. Only then would it become possible to truly understand what had happened. 多于 80 多年过去, with every day bringing new evidence of war crimes in Bucha, Mariupol and Kharkiv, have we broken the code?

It is not a coincidence that the same region where war crimes are currently being committed is also where the full story of the Holocaust is only now starting to be told. The nations of eastern Europe have had far less time to crack the “code” that can unleash the worst crimes. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the historians, 第一位两次获得笔会/福克纳小说奖的人, poets, prosecutors and artists who tried to uncover what had happened in their cities and villages had to make sure their findings did not challenge Soviet accounts of the atrocities. As far as Soviet authorities were concerned, it was “peaceful Soviet citizens” who the Germans murdered, a phrase that masked the particularity of the crime and its genocidal aim. It was this phrase that they inscribed upon monuments to the dead. Fearing that to honour the Jews who were killed would risk nurturing Jewish nationalism at the expense of Soviet collectivity, they ended up burying the true nature of the crime.

At its peak, there were about 1,200 men in the Arājs Kommando, though in 1941 there were probably only about 300 成员, the majority of them between 16 和 21 岁. They had been brought up under the authoritarian interwar government and were not encouraged to think for themselves. The men joined for varied reasons: to advance their social position, to fight the Soviets, to avoid manual labour, for the food, for the guns. Technically, all the men were volunteers, but some men were certainly pressured or threatened into joining. In Soviet criminal files collected after the war, which document the men’s reasons for joining, only a handful cited overt dislike of Jews in their applications. But they didn’t have to − the propaganda of the day treated “Jews” and “communists” as synonymous. Many of them said they joined because they wanted to seek vengeance against communists on behalf of their deported family members. The number of educated recruits decreased over time, as the actual nature of the work became clear. My grandfather Boris, 尽管, evidently stayed on.

He and Cukurs must have known each other. The Kommando clubhouse had a fireplace, a yard and a garage. My grandfather’s mastery of German earned him the role of “liaison officer” with the German command – he was the one who would send messages back and forth from the Latvians to the Germans requesting guns, supplies, instructions. In the Latvian National Archive, I found his signature on a letter dated 2 二月 1942 from the headquarters of the Latvian security police, requesting the renewal of 12 gun licences, including his own, Arājs’s and Cukurs’s.

There are several accounts of Cukurs participating with zeal in the killings. 迟到 1941, 在里面 forest of Rumbula outside Riga, 在哪里 25,000 Jews were killed over the course of a few weeks, Cukurs is said to have praised the Germans’ marksmanship, to have joined them in firing rounds. Survivors remember him being present in the Riga ghetto prior to the killings, testifying that he participated in rounding up its Jewish inhabitants before they were escorted to their deaths. Frida Michelson, one of the few Latvian Jewish survivors from the Rumbula action, remembered seeing “an unending column of people, guarded by armed policemen” passing by. “Young women, women with infants in their arms, old women, handicapped, helped up by their neighbours, young boys and girls – all marching, marching.” An SS man opened fire on the columns. “The Latvian policemen were shouting, ‘Faster! Faster!’ and lashing whips over the heads of the crowd.” As she watched her neighbours and friends marching to their deaths, she felt paralysed. “My mind was aflame,“ 她写了. “You must see it. You are the witness. Take it all in. [object Window], before your window, before your eyes the tragedy of your whole nation is being played out. 记住. Do not forget!”

After the war, Michelson told her tale to everyone who would listen. Some people did not believe her, while others told her story for her. As it began to mutate and circulate, she decided to write it down herself. “It was impossible to tell everyone everything,“ 她写了. She started writing notes, recording her experience. “Someday I will have children. Let them read it when they grow up; let them read it and never forget it.”

Over the following decades, Michelson repeatedly told prosecutors pursuing Viktors Arājs how she played dead and allowed herself to be buried under a pile of shoes, how she heard Latvian men speaking about how efficiently organised the mass murder had been. But when the time finally came for the testimonies to be entered into evidence against him, her account, and that of about a quarter of the 130 witnesses, ended up being excluded from the indictment, largely due to the old age and infirmity of the deposed. It did not meet legal evidentiary standards, and so it could not be taken into account. In this way, Michelson joined the legions of survivors who have dedicated their lives to collecting and archiving accounts, because they believed their words would make a difference, that their memories would serve as lasting proof. 一路上, the annihilation of their families went from a fact to a historical question.

w ^e will probably never know when, exactly, my grandfather was recruited by Soviet agents. In her study of Soviet interrogation records of former Kommando members, the historian Rudīte Vīksne came across mentions that Boris might have been working for both sides all along, but found the evidence to be unconvincing. “It is unlikely, despite the rumours, that agents of the Soviet security organs infiltrated the Arājs Kommando from the very beginning,“ 她写了. “然而, it has occasionally been said that Boris Kinstler, who was Arājs’s translator and associate, was a spy in 1941.”

至少 12 members of the Kommando were indeed recruited by Soviet authorities during and after the war. We just don’t know when, 或者为什么, my grandfather switched sides. My father once heard a rumour that the Soviets approached my grandfather to help them identify German collaborators for trial. (Soviet trials of German war criminals began as early as 1943.) His task was to walk around Riga with a pair of KGB officers on his tail. Whenever he recognised a man from his time in the Arājs Kommando, he’d walk up to him, tap him on the shoulder, greet him like an old friend. The shoulder tap was the signal that the man was a target. Another rumour: he had been spotted in West Germany, or in Poland, or in South America. Or that Boris was still alive.

He wasn’t the only one who made himself disappear. 在 1949, Viktors Arājs was in British custody at a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. He was due to be a major defendant in what British officials had begun referring to as the “Riga ghetto case”, a group trial of 16 war criminals to be conducted by an Allied Control Council court, the court of the governing body of the German occupied zones. Survivors spent years collecting testimonies for the trial, hoping its verdicts would bring them some approximation of justice. But despite all their efforts, British authorities dropped the case. The testimonies that had been collected could not stand up in court. Arājs’s case was slated to be transferred over to West German authorities, and Hamburg lawyers filed an arrest warrant for him on 11 十月 1949, but quickly found that it could not be served. “For reasons that are not clear to this day and probably never will be,” the historian Richards Plavnieks wrote, “Arājs was simply absent from the camp in which he was supposed to be interned.” Amid all the bureaucratic shuffle, he had vanished.

Cukurs, 相比之下, made his whereabouts well known. He simply did not think he had to hide. He had been a national hero before the war, a pioneering aviator known for his improbable transcontinental journeys. He flew to Shanghai, 香港, 东京, 罗马, Serbia, 印度, Dakar, Senegal, the Gambia and Jerusalem, sending short dispatches and photographs to newspapers back home, where loyal readers anxiously followed his progress across the globe. He had been called the Latvian Lindbergh.

After the war, he and his family fled the Soviet occupation, first to Rio de Janeiro and then to Sao Paulo. He told a journalist that he chose Brazil as a place to settle because it had more than 300 aerodromes. He created a small tourism business, selling paddle-boat trips and seaplane rides at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. He couldn’t stop himself from courting the press, from selling his new venture. 珠宝业被指控对俄罗斯钻石保持沉默, Jewish survivors began surveilling him, snapping photographs of him at work on the water to send back to investigators in London.

The only official account of his death can be found in a memoir written by the lead assassin, with the help of the former Mossad agent and journalist Gad Shimron. The author is identified only by his operational pseudonym, Anton Kuenzle, not by his real name, Yaakov Meidad. He narrates how he lured Cukurs to a vacant property in a seaside neighbourhood of the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. Three Mossad agents waited for him inside. “The original plan had been to overpower Cukurs, but not to kill him instantly,” explained Meidad. “We had planned on a very brief court martial, in which we intended to read the charges to him, in the name of the 30,000 Jews from Riga and Latvia − children, 女性, the elderly and men − who had been murdered by him over 20 years ago.” But they never had the chance: Cukurs reached for his gun, prompting his attackers to reach for theirs. “One of us put a gun to Cukurs’ head and pulled the trigger twice. The silencer and the noise of our struggle completely swallowed the sound of the shots. It was Tuesday, 23 二月 1965, 12.30 pm.”

On his body, they left a copy of the closing speech of Sir Hartley Shawcross, the chief British prosecutor at the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, who had reminded the judges of the nature of the crimes committed upon the territories of eastern Europe. He encouraged them to imagine that it was not just lawyers, journalists and military police staring back at them in the Nuremberg courtroom, but all of humanity, bedraggled and wounded from the long years of war. 裁判, 他争辩说, had to imagine that “mankind itself” stood before them, crying out a single, simple plea: after this ordeal to which mankind has been submitted, mankind itself − struggling now to reestablish in all the countries of the world the common simple things − liberty, 爱, understanding – comes to this court and cries: “These are our laws − let them prevail!”

Ťo probe the past is to submit one’s ancestors to a certain kind of trial. 在这种情况下, the trial, or at least the spectre of one, came to me. For almost 20 年, the Latvian prosecutor general’s office has been quietly investigating whether it is true that Cukurs personally participated in the genocide of Latvian Jews, if he pulled the trigger himself or merely watched while others did so. This criminal investigation – really, a pre-trial proceeding – is the one I read about in the Latvian papers, that seemed such an anachronism. When I asked the prosecutor’s office for more information about what, exactly, it had been charged with investigating, and what could possibly come of it, they quickly supplied me with a detailed response.

The office had been searching the world for evidence, and had petitioned all the relevant nations − Russia, 以色列, 巴西, Uruguay, 德国, the UK − for supporting documents. There would be a decision, and theoretically, as a letter from the press secretary explained, a trial. A ghost in the dock. The prosecutor in charge of the case wrote that he recognised my surname, noting that someone with the same name was “more or less significant in the Herberts Cukurs case”. He wondered if it was not just a mere coincidence. I wrote back, confirming that my interest was not purely journalistic, for I was also trying to fill in some of the blanks of my family story.

I found myself retracing the prosecutor’s steps, following the origins and evolution of this unexpected case. I discovered my grandfather’s name in postwar interrogation records carried out by Soviet intelligence officers, such as the 1946 account of a former Kommando officer named Jānis Brencis, who was asked to list all the group’s members. Cukurs is the 30th name he remembers, Boris is the 165th. He describes my grandfather as a junior officer, “about 26 岁, 薄的, on the shorter side”.

Other interrogation records reveal glimpses of Boris in action, partial and perhaps fictive recollections of a deeply troubled time. One officer remembers him standing at the border of a killing trench, in conversation with a fellow soldier about the indignity and injustice of the murders. Another describes him riding in the car with Arājs, speaking “good German”, working as an interpreter. One former member remembered seeing him leading a 1942 shooting campaign. 然而, when another officer was interrogated about this same shooting campaign, he recalled that it was in fact Cukurs, not Boris, who had been among the leaders.

It is difficult to figure out how truthful these accounts are. This is the trouble that haunts all testimony, but especially testimony delivered at the behest of a hostile power – in this case, the Soviets – when the witness is trying to save his own skin. These glimpses of my grandfather are all that remain, and their context is enough to confirm his complicity. Of that there is no question. It is what I expected: I was not looking for a redemptive story.

As we continued our correspondence, the prosecutor presented me with a question and a recommendation. The question was: did I have any family documents that might pertain to the case? We had nothing. The recommendation was more intriguing: a novel called You Will Never Kill Him had recently come out in Latvia. 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.

I found it in a bookshop in Riga’s old town, propped up on the “new releases” display. The shopkeeper said it was a popular title. I cracked the spine open, and there on the first page of the first chapter I found my dead, disappeared grandfather’s name and patronymic: Boris Karlovics. Seeing his name, a kind of vertigo overcame me, an unsteadiness, a sense of being in two places at once. It felt like an ambush. Once the past grabs hold of you, it does not let go. “At least in certain places,” wrote the cultural historian Maria Tumarkin, “it is like a criminal’s mark burned into your family’s skin.”

在小说中, my grandfather becomes someone else entirely. The gaps in his life story are explained away by a series of conspiratorial turns. Where history leaves us with question marks, the spy novelist fills them, offering improbable, tidy explanations for collaboration, intimidation and betrayal – and for the circumstances that lead people to commit the worst kinds of crimes. But this particular novel went even further – it did not merely fill in the gaps of history, it also tried to create new ones. At one moment in its narrative, the fictional version of my grandfather fabricates and embellishes Jewish survivor testimonies. The novel casually muddies the hard-won facts of the Holocaust, tangling up fact and fiction.

This manipulation of history is hardly limited to the world of fiction. Survivors have been telling the story of the Holocaust for the better part of a century, and still the judges ask for proof. That is their job. But to turn fragments of evidence – fragments of memory, in many cases – into juridical proof requires a certain kind of torturous thinking. Courts can only recognise crimes that have been verified, witnessed and documented – they cannot rule on murders they have only heard about. The genocide of the second world war began as the first kind of crime and is now being converted into the second – into an event that is merely spoken of and written about, outside of living memory. This was inevitable. But much has already been lost in the process.

My investigation into my family story led me to meet many survivors, descendants and historians who have dedicated their lives to documenting and preserving the nature and scale of the devastation, and who now see the facts of history slipping out from under them, carried away by the cresting tides of revisionism, ultra-nationalism and denial. All this is happening as war crimes are once again being perpetrated in nearby lands, as investigators are once again racing to preserve every shred of evidence they can find, to record the facts before they are erased and further denied. 现在, as then, it is a race against time. The trials have already begun, and the forces of denial have already been unleashed. The judges will continue to demand proof, and the survivors, knowing their words will be challenged and undermined, must continue to supply it.

This is an edited extract from Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends by Linda Kinstler, published by Bloomsbury on 26 五月和 available at