The search for historical truth in a slippery world of revisionism

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HISTORY
Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends
Linda Kinstler
Bloomsbury, $29.99

There has never been a better time to read a book such as this. It doesn’t mention the contemporary phenomenon of truth by assertion. It doesn’t address Putin’s claim that Ukraine was being run by neo-fascists, nor does it get anywhere near Trump’s claim that he was so badly wronged in the last US election that he was free to unleash an unruly mob. It doesn’t need to. The reader will join the dots and soon realise that Linda Kinstler is telling one intricate story with wide ramifications.

The world is vulnerable to DIY historians, those who assemble scattered facts according to a blueprint drawn up in the minds of heaven knows whom. Of course, since the days of Herodotus and Livy, historians have always had an angle, even an axe to grind. But this phenomenon has become so pronounced that a great deal of history, the supposed servant of cultural memory, is currently put to work to ensure we forget certain things just because they happened.

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Kinstler’s context is Latvia before, during and after the Second World War. Specifically, she is concerned about a revisionist history that wants to exonerate criminals that took part in the genocide of Jewish people. She writes with a keen awareness that witnesses of the Shoah are getting older and fewer; the passage of years means that their recollections might be questioned because they confuse details.

Linda Kinstler’s book was written with gritty persistence, a warm sense of the absurd, and shows remarkable courage.

Linda Kinstler’s book was written with gritty persistence, a warm sense of the absurd, and shows remarkable courage.Credit:Pete Kiehart

This is scary. Imagine if, in 70 years, friends of Ivan Milat (if he had any) start claiming that he had been misrepresented and that the backpackers were actually killing each other. How would you argue back? Is there any chance of objectivity in the face of people who are prepared only to know what they want to know?

The cover of this book features the unprepossessing image of a figure in a small motorboat. It looks like a holiday snap where the subject barely managed to get in the frame. The man is Herberts Cukurs, and the picture was taken in Brazil around 1949. Cukurs is the juncture at which the many roads through this book come to meet.

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Before the war, Cukurs had been a pioneer aviator, known as “the Latvian Lindbergh”. He loved the celebrity that came with his exploits. In 1941, when the German army recaptured the city of Riga, he found himself useful to the new regime and that brought opportunity. He became a captain in the brutal Arajs Kommando that was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Jews. He was clearly identified at the Rumbula Massacre. After the war, he fled to Brazil along the notorious ratlines.

In 1965, Cukurs became the only Nazi assassinated by Mossad. His body was put in a trunk in a house in a suburb of Montevideo and left to rot. The extra-judicial killing was organised by the same leaders who were responsible for getting Eichmann out of Argentina and back to Israel in 1960.

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