Kinstler knows little about her grandfather’s past: After the war he was a KGB agent and, in 1949, disappeared forever. She becomes drawn, however, to the dramatic tale of a commander from his unit, Herbert Cukurs. It is his story — and the story of his story — that makes up most of the book. The “Latvian Lindbergh” of the 1930s, Cukurs was a charismatic aviator and paterfamilias who fled to Brazil after the war. As it 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, sans trial. Without a formal sentencing, his status remained ambiguous for conspiracy theorists in his home country. Survivor testimonies describe Cukurs’s barbaric acts in the Riga ghetto and at the mass killings of Jews in the Rumbula Forest; he is recalled by some as the “Butcher of Riga.” But more recently, Latvian nationalists have produced films, spy novels and performance pieces defending him as a great, and innocent, Latvian martyr. A posthumous criminal investigation, established in Latvia when supporters sought to clear his name — and symbolically, the country’s — was still ongoing when this book went to press.
Cukurs’s life, and the ramifications thereof, form a narrative skeleton around which Kinstler layers a story that includes the history of the Latvian Holocaust, analysis of contemporary Baltic identity, reflections from modern literature and quotes from the Talmud. Focusing on the law and its “failures, victories and silences,” Kinstler probes World War II trials from Nuremberg to the Eichmann proceedings to the lesser-known “little Nuremberg” that took place in Riga. Who were these trials really for? What purposes did they serve? How can the international community come together to assess culpability when core principles differ so deeply? How can laws about criminal activity be applied to a state-sanctioned mass butchering?
In Germany, anyone involved in the Nazi “crime complex” is considered complicit; in Latvia, the prosecutor in Cukurs’s ongoing trial wanted to see the dead body — or at least to hear from a witness who could confirm they saw the pulling of the trigger. And such witnesses have to be acceptable: Throughout the book Kinstler highlights the tenuous status of Holocaust survivor testimony, exposing the delta between law and history. Much of what we know about the Holocaust comes from memoir, but the courts do not treat testimony as obvious proof. A judge can discredit a witness account depending on how and where it was collected; when it was introduced in the legal proceeding; whether the witness had been known to make mistakes or embellishments; whether the witness was still alive; was not infirm; and so on. For all the perspectives it offers, Kinstler’s book should leave readers anxious about what happens when testimony can be so easily, and sometimes eagerly, disregarded.
Kinstler, however, is not a foghorn writer; she is a cross-examiner leaping in from multiple sides, probing, flipping, slicing, exposing shades of gray. Cukurs the killer also saved a Jewish woman, and Kinstler considers different reasons he might have done so, from sex, to passing kindness, to a cynical desire to demonstrate his innocence. Latvia, a country that went from one occupation to the next, Nazi to Soviet, has its own tales of victimhood. “The war,” she writes, “created a chaotic field of shifting allegiances,” and she takes readers through many parts of this field. Seeping through her stratified investigation are hard questions: What to make of perpetrators who acted in contradictory ways? What is adequate, or even appropriate, punishment for mass murder? What constitutes proof — especially for a crime committed decades ago? And tangled very quietly in all of that: what to make of her own lineage, especially when, as she states, “I have no interest in recuperating my own inheritance”? She’s clear that the book attempts to achieve neither redemption nor emotional reconciliation, but, throughout, she peppers in family stories and her quest for information about her grandfather. Though it may be greedy to ask for more in a book that is so full, I did wish for a few additional details of Kinstler’s life — for instance, why did she move back to Riga? — to help contextualize her investigation and its personal stakes.
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 of the war and what we forget — and what we choose to forget — reflect shifting ideologies and concealed culpability, not to mention the desire to protect one’s children and even one’s sanity. “Memory,” Kinstler writes, “can be a special kind of prison, one from which there can be no easy escape, no path to parole.” “Come to This Court and Cry” is a deeply researched, engrossing and important look at how Holocaust stories have been passed down and altered.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Latvia as a Balkan country. It is a Baltic nation. The article has been corrected.
Judy Batalion is the author of “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos.”
Come to This Court and Cry
How the Holocaust Ends
By Linda Kinstler
PublicAffairs. 282 pp. $30
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