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In March 1965, the festering corpse of 64-year-old Herberts Cukurs was discovered stuffed into a trunk in a seaside bungalow in Montevideo, Uruguay. During the 1930s, Cukurs’ exploits as a dashing aviator had made him one of the most celebrated men in Latvia. Under the Nazi occupation, he found a new calling as a prominent member of the Arajs Kommando, the SS-affiliated killing unit responsible for the burning of the Riga ghetto and the massacre of around 25,000 Jews in Rumbula forest, among other barbarities.
Cukurs was contentedly operating a pedal-boat business in Brazil when allegations of his crimes became public knowledge and the Latvian Lindbergh mutated into the Latvian Eichmann. In fact, Yaakov Meidad, one of the Mossad agents who had helped kidnap Eichmann in Argentina five years earlier, led the mission to kill Cukurs. He left on the body a folder containing a passage from Sir Hartley Shawcross’s closing prosecution statement at the Nuremberg trials, which imagines that humanity itself “comes to this court and cries: ‘These are our laws – let them prevail!’”
The Cukurs case has a particular hold on Linda Kinstler, an American journalist and academic. While her mother’s family was Jewish, her paternal grandfather, Boris Kinstler, served with Cukurs in the Arajs Kommando and reportedly worked for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, after the war. Victims and perpetrators meet in Kinstler’s bloodline, but family history is only one strand of a remarkable book that braids together her own rigorously reported investigations in 10 countries with the survivors’ eight-decade quest for justice (“a giant cold-case investigation” says one prosecutor) and poetic meditations on such subjects as history, law, Latvian identity, Franz Kafka and the politics of remembrance. This is a tremendous feat of storytelling, propelled by numerous twists and revelations, yet anchored by a deep moral seriousness.
We know so much about Nuremberg and Eichmann because those trials were outliers: swift, definitive, undeniable
In 1965, Cukurs’ assassins sent telegrams alerting the German press to their operation under the name “Those Who Will Never Forget”, which implies an understanding that forgetting was the norm. Outside Latvia, the Riga ghetto is not as well known as its Warsaw counterpart, and the name Rumbula means less than that of Babi Yar, not for want of horror but for the failure of legal processes under a second totalitarian regime. “What does ‘proof’ even mean, in a twice-occupied nation that has had its people and property killed, burned and stolen, displaced and discredited?” Kinstler asks.
We know so much about Nuremberg and Eichmann because those trials were outliers: swift, definitive, undeniable. More often with war criminals, time favours the accused. Survivor testimony becomes rarer and less legally credible; fatigue sets in. As far back as the 1978 trial of the Kommando leader Viktors Arājs, Der Spiegel observed: “The monotony of horror no longer makes headlines.” When Herberts Cukurs became the only alleged Nazi war criminal ever to be executed by Israeli agents, the possibility of a legal verdict was erased and the door left open to conspiracy theories. In the past decade, Latvian nationalist efforts to rehabilitate “the butcher of Riga” have included an art exhibition, a spy novel that imagines Kinstler’s grandfather was a Soviet agent who framed Cukurs, and a stage musical that one critic compared to Springtime for Hitler, from Mel Brooks’s black comedy The Producers. Revisionism is the stepchild of Holocaust denial: of course, atrocities were committed, but was a national hero really complicit? Who can say for sure? Who alive actually saw him pull the trigger? It was all such a very long time ago. This enterprise of obfuscation is what Kinstler means by the book’s subtitle, How the Holocaust Ends – it ends when it passes out of living memory and into the foggy realm of claim and counterclaim, beyond the reach of legal proof.
One detail leaps off the page that would not have done six months ago: Kinstler’s maternal grandparents came from Ukraine and might well have been massacred at Babi Yar if they had not emigrated to Latvia before the war. We have all seen evidence of Russian war crimes in Bucha and heard the standard ritual of denials on one side and promises of justice on the other. This enthralling, sobering story of “justice deferred, delayed, circumvented, undone” suggests that such promises are made much more easily than they are kept.
• Come to This Court and Cry by Linda Kinstler is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To buy a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges apply.