Alex Kurzem had kept his silence for more than 50 years, leaking out to his family only sparse and misleading details about his boyhood in Russia during World War II. Then, in 1997, when he was around 62 years old (he never knew his birth date), he revealed to his son, Mark, this book's author, that he had witnessed the mass slaughter of his mother, brother, sister and hundreds of other townspeople by local fascist forces. From this, he concluded that he was probably born a Jew. But he was so young when it happened, he cannot recall his original name. The Mascot continues in two stages: Kurzem's dredging up of additional excruciatingly painful memories until he has pieced together a coherent narrative, and his son's ultimately successful attempt to document those elusive memories. The ironic twist in this tale is that after the young boy escaped into the woods around the town where the massacre took place, he was rescued by Latvian SS troops who adopted him as their mascot, even dressing him in miniature SS uniforms. He would play that role until the war was over, alternating between being horrified at the brutality of the soldiers who protected him and reveling in the special treatment he received. In 1949, Kurzem immigrated to Australia, where he eventually married and raised a family. Most of the present-day action shifts between Melbourne and Oxford, England, where the author was a graduate student. Poignantly, the elder Kurzem had kept the visible scraps of his memory pictures and official papers in a locked box that he guarded zealously. His ever-so-gradual revelation of the mementos to his son in late-night sessions around the kitchen table makes for a suspenseful unraveling.
Even with the proof of his ordeal and survival it is difficult to believe some parts of Kurzem's story. By the best estimate, he would have been only five or six years old when he fled into the woods. Yet he says he survived there for weeks, foraging on plants, tying himself into trees to avoid attacks by wolves, eluding soldiers, suffering bone-chilling cold. Still, his other recollections pan out so reliably that perhaps his survival really is the miracle it seems to be.