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.

Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena

38190974Mother’s milk has such a powerful reputation for nutrition and nurturing that it’s sometimes used as a byword for something that feeds our souls. But in Nora Ikstena’s troubling short novel, Soviet Milk (translated by Margita Gailitis), the withholding of one mother’s milk from her child becomes an unsolvable puzzle for that child as well as a metaphor for the stifling false nurturing of the Soviet Union.

Soviet Milk is narrated by two voices. We only know which first-person narrator is who because of their relationships to each other. One of these voices is a daughter, born in Riga in 1969. The other is her mother, born in 1944 in a small village in the Latvian countryside. There were times when I was confused about who was talking, until something happened that I could assign to one character or the other. I’m not sure if the two women are supposed to sound so similar or if that’s because of the translation. Aside from my occasional confusion, I liked Gailitis’ translation. She left some passages of untranslated Latvian and Russian poetry and songs, which I think added to the sense of place. (Personally, I like to try and work out what words mean even in languages I know nothing about.)

As the two talk about their lives in the last decades of the Soviet Union, we also get hints about the mother’s background. We learn about the mother’s lost father and her own mother’s remarriage. We also see the mother attack the abusive husband of one of her patients, which leads to her exile to a rural Latvian town. As for the daughter, we watch her work up through the ranks in school, but also care for her severely depressed mother. There are times when the daughter acts more like a traditional mother than her actual mother.

While most questions about the two women are addressed in the book, the central question remains unanswered, at least definitively. We don’t know enough about her childhood to psychoanalyze her. We can’t test her brain chemistry. The closest we get to an answer are the references to imprisonment and freedom. Latvians are imprisoned by the Soviets. The mother is exiled from her Rigan family by a Soviet doctor. A pet is incarcerated in a cage. Most of the characters are able to carry on, even though they know they are prisoners. The mother just can’t, no matter how much her family and friends try to talk her out of her depression. She can see the bars and can never forget that she’s not free to go where she wishes.

The less I tried to analyze the mother, the more I could see the characters as responses to repression. On the daughter’s side is a striving to live, to buckle down and make the best of things. On the mother’s is an ineffable longing for a different life, in a different place or time, where she could travel and think and speak as she wanted. While the daughter has a happier ending, I hesitate to say that she’s the one we’re supposed to admire in Soviet Milk. After all, the kinds of freedoms the mother wants are the kinds I was raised to enjoy and fight any encroachments toward. (America.) There aren’t any characters who fall between the two who get as much attention as the mother and daughter. Consequently, we readers are left to wonder what that would look like. We have to, because both of these women’s lives lack important nourishment; they are both stunted by their various hungers.