Come to This Court and Cry, by Linda Kinstler

It’s been 77 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. We know a lot about what happened but, as Linda Kinstler finds as she tries to track down any information about a grandfather who disappeared, there are things that we will never know. Documents were destroyed. Mass graves were obliterated. We have survivor testimonies but not everyone was willing or able to talk about what happened to them. Now, after so many decades, many of the last survivors and perpetrators have passed on. In Come to This Court and Cry, Kinstler investigates two mysteries. First, there is what might have happened to Boris Kinstler. The second—and the one that ends up being more successful—is Kinstler’s exploration of what Herberts Cukurs did during the war and why Mossad agents assassinated him in 1965. What connects the two men? They both served in the notorious Arajs Kommando, under the command of the SS in Latvia.

Kinstler begins her book in what might strike some as an odd place for a work that spends so much time discussing legal culpability and rules of evidence. She begins in a book store, with a copy of a novel about the assassination of Herberts Cukurs based on actual events. Within a few paragraphs, however, it makes sense to begin this book with a novel. Kinstler repeatedly talks about how we use law, history, and story to organize the bits and pieces of what we know into a coherent whole. For example, there are multiple testimonies from survivors that place Cukurs at the scenes of massacres during the war. Some survivors claim they say Cukurs shoot people. Another survivor, however, explains how Cukurs saved her from the Riga ghetto and helped her escape to Uruguay. There aren’t any documents that definitively prove that Cukurs killed anyone; they only confirm that he was in the Arajs Kommando (which definitely carried out massacres of Jewish people). To make these fragments into a whole that tells us whether or not Cukurs was a perpetrator or a fellow traveler, we have to use what we know about the place, the time, the Holocaust, and so on. Kinstler presents everything she knows, then leaves us to decide on Cukurs’s guilt and if he deserved to be gunned down by Mossad.

The memorial and ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue of Riga, destroyed by the Arajs Kommando and others in 1941 (Image via Wikicommons)

In the same way that Kinstler meditates on the roles of literature, law, and history in determining the truth, she also returns to the questions of culpability and guilt. She references the Nuremberg Tribunal and other trials that sought to assign blame for the Holocaust and punish the perpetrators. So few people were tried. Of those who were tried, some served gallingly short sentences. But what about the people who followed orders? Who turned in their neighbors? Who voted the Nazis into power in the first place? Once you think about it, the ripples of guilt spread out to thousands. And to what end? It wasn’t possible to arrest most of continental Europe after the war. And arresting everyone wouldn’t bring back everyone and everything that was lost.

And what about Kinstler’s grandfather, Boris? Well, there even the best storytelling can’t bring him out of the shadows. It’s so sad that Kinstler ends up knowing a lot more about a probable war criminal than she can know about her own grandfather. She’ll never know if he was a perpetrator or an agent of the KGB or both. She’s like a lot of other descendants in that she will never know what happened to her forebears in the Holocaust. All that’s left are bits of documentation, stories, rumors, and a sense of denied justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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