The story of Alex Kurzem is the stuff of a Hollywood movie.
During the Second World War, the five-year-old Jewish boy escaped his village to avoid certain execution by German Nazis. He claimed to have fled into a Belorussian forest until being found by a Latvian SS battalion. Instead of death, he was passed off as a Russin orphan, quickly becaming a child soldier, given a false name, fake birth date, uniform and even a rifle.
“I became a mascot for the Nazi army” – Alex Kurzem.
By 1949 he was living in Australia with his dark secret behind him.
Indeed the story was once drafted into a Hollywood script, it has been told on 60 Minutes, published in books and shared via newspaper articles.
But is the story actually true or was it a holocaust hoax?
Filmmaker Dan Goldberg, who once covered the story in 2012, forensically digs into a complex genealogy tale in Hitler’s Jewish Soldier? as part of the Australia Uncovered series.
This is a story spanning three continents, family relatives, holocaust experts and DNA detectives.
Kurzem arrived in Melbourne in 1949 when a Latvian family, who had subsequently fostered the boy, emigrated to Australia. There he grew up, once working in a circus and as a television repairman, and raising his own family.
His own sons were not privy to his past until fragments of his story emerged in 1997.
“I still feel like I’m two persons in one body, and they’re not getting along very well” -Kurzem.
After his son wrote a book in 2002, and a documentary was produced, doubts were raised in the media and Jewish community about elements of his story. Reluctance to take DNA tests did not help, some rebuffed with demands for large sums of money.
After so much scrutiny can the new SBS documentary possibly offer resolution?
If you thought Who Do You Think You Are? was full of ancestral twists and turns, then Goldman’s narrative will surely keep you guessing. It is part detective tale, part Mythbusters, and part WWII time capsule.
There are also relatives at odds over the truth, in what feels like a bid to distance their family name from possible shame.
Goldberg has certainly travelled far and wide to meet with experts in pursuit of the truth. Sometimes it moves so fast as to require serious concentration. To dramatise the war chapter there are also re-enactments.
Yet the heart of the story is so incredible that you can’t help but see it through to the end.
If three other documentaries, Last Chance to Save a Life, The Carnival and Psychedelics: Stepping Into the Unknown, are as good as this, then Australia Uncovered will be appointment viewing.
Australia Uncovered: Hitler’s Jewish Soldier? screens 8:30pm Thursday on SBS.