Linda Kinstler has several stories to tell in this provocative book. Her first and main focus: the case of Herberts Cukurs, a prewar Latvian hero known as the Lindbergh of Latvia for his aeronautical exploits. Cukurs became a member — perhaps second-in-command — of a major Latvian death squad under the German occupation. He escaped to Brazil following the war but was assassinated in Uruguay by Mossad in 1965. Kinstler then outlines the attempt by Latvian nationalists in the post – Soviet era to rehabilitate Cukurs’s reputation, to claim that the evidence accumulated over the years about his role in the the notorious Arajs Kommando unit — which perpetrated the slaughter of most of Latvia’s Jews within weeks of the German occupation — is at best ambiguous or unreliable. Kinstler concludes by writing about her paternal grandfather, Boris, who was also a member of the Arajs Kommando, and about the long process of bringing war criminals to account in the postwar era.
The major elements of the Cukurs case have been told before — in the memoirs of the Mossad agent responsible for assassinating Cukurs, in a pro-Cukurs exhibition and novel, and even in a musical set in Latvia. Most recently, journalist Stephen Talty, in his 2020 book The Good Assassin: Mossad’s Hunt for the Butcher of Latvia, has assembled the facts of Cukurs’s wartime actions and the Mossad operation into a readable, thriller-like account. Kinstler covers much the same ground as Talty, but her aim is more analytical and philosophical. For her, the important aspect of the Cukurs case is the context of the postwar attempts to bring war criminals to justice, from the Nuremberg trials of major Nazi leaders to the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. She provides cogent commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of such efforts and raises serious questions about the moral ambiguities of the process of trying war criminals, especially long after the war. Here she confronts the vexed questions of how historical truth and legal proof often diverge.
In the Cukurs case, the Latvian prosecutor’s office conducting an investigation some forty years after Cukurs’s death dismissed the numerous accounts of survivors who implicated Cukurs directly in the murder of Jews, deeming them not legally valid. Meanwhile, Cukurs’s claim (provided posthumously in documents supplied by his family) that he hadn’t murdered any Jews and in fact had rescued many was deemed credible. The Jewish community in Latvia was outraged by this double-standard and mounted a successful effort to reopen the case. The matter was still pending as Kinstler’s book went to press.
Likewise open is the case of Kinstler’s grandfather — a Latvian who may have been an agent working for the Soviets while he served in the Arajs Kommando. Little is known about him or his motivations for joining Arajs or what he actually did. Kinstler is unsuccessful in uncovering any new information about his life and his eventual disappearance in the late 1940s; it was claimed he died by suicide, but there’s no direct evidence. Kinstler’s father was the posthumous child of the shadowy Boris and eventually married the daughter of a Jewish refugee family — hence Kinstler’s mixed inheritance. (One of the book’s regrettable shortcomings is its lack of detail about Kinstler’s family history.)
Despite its unresolved ending, Kinstler’s book is an urgent inquiry into the complexities of memory, history, legality, and responsibility for one of the greatest tragedies: the Holocaust. As the last remaining survivors die, the truth of their experience is in danger of fading as well — and the struggle to keep it alive becomes more pressing in the face of efforts to deny it.