This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
On 23 February 1965, a team of six Israeli agents lured Herberts Cukurs, a Latvian exile living in Brazil, to an empty property in Montevideo, Uruguay. The team leader had spent six months posing as an Austrian businessman in São Paulo, Brazil. In this guise he had befriended Cukurs and persuaded him to make some property investments, including the house in Montevideo.
Cukurs had been a key figure in a group of Latvian nationalists known as the Arajs Kommando, which took part in what has been called the “Holocaust by bullets”. Before the Second World War, there had been 100,000 Jews in Latvia, 40,000 of them in the Riga ghetto. Around 800 survived.
Some 25,000 of these murders occurred in the forest of Rumbula, outside Riga, in the space of a few days towards the end of 1941. The Arajs Kommando were instrumental to it. The killing began inside the Riga ghetto. One witness saw Cukurs shooting stragglers and children who cried out.
The Israelis’ plan seems to have been to stage a brief court martial for Cukurs and then execute him. Realising he had been led into a trap, Cukurs reached for his gun. An agent shot him, twice, in the head. Cukurs’s body was placed in a trunk. With it, the Israelis left a copy of the closing speech made by prosecution counsel Sir Hartley Shawcross at the Nuremberg trials. “After this ordeal to which mankind has been submitted,” the peroration runs, “mankind itself … comes to this Court and cries: ‘These are our laws — let them prevail!’”
This extra-judicial killing and its long aftermath forms the core of Linda Kinstler’s narrative in her remarkable new book, which takes its title from Shawcross’s speech. While the Holocaust is at its heart, it is really about the legacy of that horror, rather than the horror itself. Kinstler’s fundamental concern is the question of justice, both in the specific sense of how there can be any kind of equitable justice for the crimes committed, and more generally in how — if at all — justice can be mediated through the law on one hand, and the work of history on the other.
Should Cukurs have been brought to Israel to face trial, as Adolf Eichmann had been five years earlier? The nature of his death, Kinstler argues, isn’t important in itself, but matters for “the long chain of conspiracy and revisionism it has wrought”. Before the war, Cukurs had been a celebrity aviator, “the Latvian Lindbergh”, acclaimed for flights to Shanghai, Senegal, Gambia and elsewhere. His family have long proclaimed his innocence. In recent decades, post-Soviet Latvian nationalists have joined their cause. An official investigation into Cukurs’s guilt exonerated him in 2019, although the verdict has been appealed.
The very attempt at justice creates the possibility of anti-justice
It isn’t clear that Kinstler thinks a trial on the Eichmann model would have stopped the attempt to clear Cukurs’s name. Her book functions on many levels, but it is in part a narrative of epistemic crisis. Kinstler returns several times to the idea of a closed loop in thinking about justice and the Holocaust.
She is persuaded by the Armenian literary scholar Marc Nichanian, who argues that by prosecuting genocide in the framework of the law, we allow the facts of it to be challenged and therefore, potentially, falsified. The very attempt at justice creates the possibility of a kind of anti-justice, the negation of the event itself.
Kinstler’s interest in the Latvian Holocaust is personal. The book is framed as an exploration of her paternal grandfather, Boris Kinstler’s membership of the Kommando and his participation in the killings. After the war he joined the KGB — he may have been an agent throughout — and, a few years later, disappeared, taking with him most of his personal documents and photographs.
There is a complex and powerful family story here — Kinstler is Jewish on her mother’s side — but it is one that Kinstler, frustratingly, seems to evade as much as address.
It feels at times as if Kinstler’s wrestling with philosophical concepts is a way of avoiding such personally difficult and painful reflections on both the parallels between Cukurs and her grandfather and the different ways the respective families have dealt with their legacies. “It is not for me to try to approximate what life was like in Riga during these postwar decades,” she writes of her family’s past.
It seems a curious position for a writer so deeply concerned with issues of history and memory. Kinstler’s mother tells her “she doesn’t like my ‘academic’ approach to understanding the conditions of her own life”. Her mother has a point.
The book asks large questions about the capacity of historical and legal practice to encompass the moral horror of the Holocaust, and about what justice is, or has ever been, possible. If it is inconclusive — about why Cukurs was executed rather than captured, about the ultimate fate of his exoneration in Latvia, about Kinstler’s grandfather — perhaps inconclusiveness is the point. The way the Holocaust is represented in memory and history is a multi-directional process without any kind of finality or resolution, one in which the act of remembering is both a means to an end and an end in itself.
Kinstler writes movingly about the compulsion of survivors, even in extreme old age, to speak the truth, and gives powerful voice to the sense that the widespread exclusion or downgrading of survivor testimony from legal processes represents a further trauma, a further violation. I’m not sure she quite says so explicitly, but the primacy of testimony, of acts of memory, seems the way out of the closed loop she feels herself trapped in. Remembering is a form of justice, too.
The book closes with Kinstler receiving a photo of her grandfather that she has never seen before. “Maybe I did not ask if it existed because I did not want to know,” she writes. “Or maybe I am only now learning which questions to ask, and to discern what their answers demand.” In this way the book is its own closed loop, returning to its beginning and the question of familial guilt and the responsibility of addressing it.
On one level this feels unsatisfactory — perhaps the book would have benefited from a third act in which these questions, hitherto avoided, are asked and answered. But on another level, the moment painfully articulates the inescapable duty to bear witness passing from generation to generation, and the way in which the children must strive to remember that which the parents were unable to forget.
Kinstler says of Shawcross’s summing up that it can only be read as a kaddish, a prayer for the dead. The same might be said of her own book; come to the truth, at last, and weep.
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