Berkeley Voices transcript: How the Holocaust ends

Listen to Berkeley Voices episode 112: How the Holocaust ends.

Anne Brice: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice. Today, we’re sharing an interview with Linda Kinstler. She’s a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley and author of the 2022 book, Come To This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends.

She’s a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and The Economist’s 1843 magazine. She’s also the deputy editor of The Dial, a new online magazine of culture, politics and ideas with a focus on locally sourced writing from around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of 10 winners of the Whiting Award, which recognizes excellence and promise in a spectrum of emerging writers.

In this interview, Kinstler talks about how a shocking discovery about her Latvian grandfather, who disappeared after World War II, led her to write a book about what justice looks like, how history can be distorted over time and why we need to think more seriously about what we do with the memory of the Holocaust.

Anne Brice: I always like to start at the beginning and learn a little bit about you. Can you tell me about your childhood and where you grew up and what you were like as a child?

Linda Kinstler: I don't know if I'm going to be a reliable narrator. Certainly not. I guess the important thing to note is that my family immigrated to the United States from what was then Soviet Latvia, from the USSR, in 1988. It was my mom and my dad and my older sister. And they moved when many Soviet Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union on the grounds of religious persecution.

We had a few distant family members in the United States, so they came here, and I was born. I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States. I grew up speaking Russian and Latvian and English and kind of having this mélange of languages all around. We moved a lot in the United States and then, ultimately, I grew up outside of Boston.

Anne Brice: Can you talk more about where your father's side of the family is from and where your mother's side of the family is from and their different backgrounds?

Linda Kinstler: My mother's family comes from Ukraine. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, was from Kharkiv, which is now continuously under attack by Russian forces. And my grandfather's family was from just outside of Kiev in this little town called Bila Tserkva.

During World War II, my grandmother was evacuated to Kazakhstan, as were many civilians from the Soviet Union, mostly women and children. And the men were sent to fight with the Soviet army. They were a Jewish family, both of my grandparents, and so both of them had relatives who were killed when the Nazis occupied Ukraine.

And after the war, they both survived. My grandfather had gone to the front — he had a job laying cables between the command centers in Moscow and the frontlines for the Soviet army. After the war, he was relocated to Riga, [Latvia], because the Soviets had taken over the Baltic states and were looking to populate them with Russian speakers. And so, that's why they ended up in Riga, despite having both grown up in Ukraine for their whole lives.

My mother was born there, into this kind of Russian-speaking Jewish world of emigrés in Latvia. And then, she met my father, who was kind of from this very old Latvian family and whose father, my paternal grandfather, had disappeared right after World War II under very mysterious circumstances. He [my grandfather] never even met my father. My grandmother was pregnant at the time [when he disappeared].

I grew up knowing very, very little about this figure. I knew only that he disappeared. And, you know, that's a very common fate from this part of the world. It didn't strike me as totally unusual. It was only later when I began looking into it more that I realized there was probably more to the story.

And, in fact, we discovered that not only had my grandfather been a member of one of the worst killing units that was operating under German command in the Baltic states — it was called the Arajs Kommando — he was certainly a member of that group, but he also, after the war, registered as a some kind of informant or agent for the KGB, and then he disappeared. So, he kind of left this big question mark.

[Music: “Walking Shoes” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: In 2014, Kinstler was starting out her career as a journalist and was idly looking around for stories. She began to read more about the killing unit that her grandfather, Boris, was a part of.

Linda Kinstler: I discovered that one of the men who had also been in that group — his name was Herberts Cukurs. He was a very famous aviator in interwar Latvia. He was called the “Latvian Lindbergh,” and he was very well known for making these daring cross-continental flights. He built his own planes. He very much had this kind of cult of personality around him.

When World War II came, he joined this unit and survived the war, then fled to South America, as many Nazis did. But unlike many of them, he didn't conceal his identity because he didn't believe he had anything to hide.

He was kind of very flamboyant about his location and claimed to be this great war hero and claimed never to have had anything to do in the killings of Jews, despite many, many eyewitness testimonies suggesting quite the opposite, [testimonies that suggested] that not only had he been present, but he had also contributed to them.

And so, what happened was, in 1965, Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, sent a team of agents to find him in Brazil. They lured him to Montevideo, Uruguay, and they killed him and they left his body in a trunk. And a couple days later, they mailed a verdict announcing the death to news bureaus in Germany.

The lead assassin who led the mission, he wrote a memoir about how he did this, which is a kind of hilarious and fascinating document because, of course, it's not every day that an assassin writes a memoir that is sanctioned by his bosses at the intelligence service about why he did this and why he did it the way he did.

Anne Brice: Oh, my gosh.

Linda Kinstler: Yeah.

He says that on the body, he left a verdict saying, "We tried to court martial him, but he reached for his gun, so we didn't have the chance. So, we killed him for the murders of 30,000 Jews in the Rumbula forest in 1941," which he was indeed present for.

But in fact, what was left on the body was a folder containing the concluding speech of Sir Hartley Shawcross, who was the chief British prosecutor in Nuremberg.

Anne Brice: In 1945, the trial of 22 major Nazi criminals was held before an International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany. Judges from the Allied powers in World War II — Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States — presided over the hearing.

In the speech, Kinstler says, Shawcross speaks movingly of not only what happened, but also what the judges owe to the public who were following the Nuremberg tribunals.

Here’s part of his closing statement:

Day 188 (July 27, 1946) of the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings: “After this ordeal to which mankind has been submitted, mankind itself … struggling now to reestablish in all the countries of the world the common simple things — liberty, love, understanding — comes to this court and cries: ‘These are our laws — let them prevail!’" (Read the transcript.)

Linda Kinstler: That is, of course, where the title Come to This Court and Cry comes from. And I just found that discrepancy, even in the story we tell about the assassination, to be this kind of opening to think about actually, what does that mean? And what actually happened here? And why is this still something that has been revisited endlessly?

All of a sudden, I was caught up in the story and I couldn’t put it down. I needed to understand how, in fact, could a man who had been dead since 1965 be the subject of an active criminal investigation.

[Music: “Shepman” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: Come to This Court and Cry begins by looking at the interwar period in Eastern Europe between, roughly, 1921 and 1939, when a number of countries, including Latvia, a tiny country in the Baltic Sea, experienced their first bouts of independence.

Prior to the 20th century, Latvia was part of the Russian empire. But after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Latvian War of Independence, which culminated in 1921, the Latvian state emerged for the first time. Before that, it had always been a kind of colony of the Russian Empire.

Linda Kinstler: You have this brief, but active, period in which it flourishes as an independent nation and gets to create its own laws and institute Latvian as the national language for the first time.

The term “nationalism,” I discovered in my research, actually originated in Latvia when Johann [Gottfried] Herder, who was a German philosopher, philologist, and a student of Kant, had a residency at the Riga Cathedral School. There's still a bust of him there. He was riding around the Latvian countryside, collecting folk tales and poems, and that's when he realized that a nation is something that has a distinct collection of literature and language. And he says, perhaps this is what makes a nation — this is his concept of romantic nationalism.

Anne Brice: It was during this interwar period when Latvia had its independence that her grandfather, Boris, was in his formative years. He joined a fraternity called the Brotherhood in 1938 and embraced nationalism. But, in the lead up to World War II, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939.

Linda Kinstler: The Soviets immediately round up and deport, and in some instances kill on the spot, bourgeois Latvians and nationalists who were perceived to be kind of either aligned with the Germans or against the Soviet cause, because Russia was still remembered as kind of their colonizer, their great enemy, understandably.

And so, under those conditions, something like 2% of the Latvian population is deported to Siberia and thousands of people die along the way.

And so, when the Germans come in, the Latvian nationalists, in some cases, were happy to see them, which allowed them to recruit locals to join up and form their own units. They were armed and they were given orders from the German command to round up and kill the Jews in Latvia.

And at the time, the whole Baltic was, and Ukraine and Poland, of course, had these huge rich Jewish populations, some of the centers of the Jewish world, to the extent that they hadn't been destroyed by the pogroms.

Anne Brice: What happens in the Baltics, says Kinstler, isn’t well known because, all too often when we think about the Holocaust, we might tend to think primarily of the infrastructure of the concentration camps and the deportation trains. But in fact, what happened in Eastern Europe came before that infrastructure, she says.

Linda Kinstler: And it was what is called “the Holocaust by bullets.” It was face-to-face shooting. You don't have much documentation of it because a lot of it was destroyed. But victims saw the men who were killing them before their deaths. And you have systematic murders of nearly the entire Jewish population of the Baltic states between 1941 and, roughly, 1943.

One of my friends who's an investigative journalist in Riga told me, “You have to understand that for us, it's like World War II happened yesterday.” All of the same dynamics are still, in different ways, of course, at play and the memory is still very much alive.

[Music: “The Summit” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: Kinstler’s book uses the format of the decades-long criminal investigation of Cukurs as a frame through which to look at the latter half of the 20th century and the forms that justice took — not only in Latvia, but in all of Eastern Europe.

Linda Kinstler: A lot of the narrative takes me to Ukraine, where my mother's family was from. And, you know, to think about how the Soviets staged justice after World War II, what their trials looked like and how they were, in some ways, kind of manipulating and also accelerating what we would call “justice” and what we pursued at Nuremberg and elsewhere.

The story of Cukurs, I think, is a necessary and unexamined sequel to the Eichmann trial, which is one of the world historical trials, this much-studied event in the 20th century. It was one of the first times that Holocaust survivors were filmed and televised as they spoke of what happened. It was a very public and dramatic example of vengeance, and justice in the form of vengeance, perhaps.

Anne Brice: Adolf Eichmann was a Nazi German official and among the major organizers of the Holocaust. He was sentenced to death after his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, Israel.

Unlike the trial proceedings in Nuremberg, which used mostly written documents to prosecute major Nazi criminals, the Eichmann trial centered survivors’ testimony.

In looking at the investigation into Cukurs, Kinstler queries in her book the ways in which we’ve been told that justice was conducted, exploring all the kinds of legal maneuvering that needed to take place for trials to happen at all.

Linda Kinstler: It then goes into the present and asks, what position do we find ourselves in now? How is it that we are still litigating the crimes of the Holocaust? And what form of justice does that [the litigations] produce? What are we looking for with these trials that we haven't secured already through witness testimony, through works of history, through public memorials?

What I observed, to my great horror, was that Holocaust revisionism and denialism can be furthered by legal action in the present. We see this happening in Poland and in Latvia and in other nations with similar histories. I was really interested in understanding that.

Anne Brice: Over the years, Latvian nationalists and revisionists have defended Cukurs and tried to clear his — and the country’s — name. They’ve produced films, written spy novels and even performed an operatic stage musical, portraying him as a heroic — and innocent — Latvian martyr.

Linda Kinstler: Did my understanding of justice change while writing this book? Certainly, I think I went into it quite naive, thinking that, of course, you have a trial because that's the way that we achieve justice, that we ensure that the guilty face punishment, that they do not get off easily.

I came away realizing that there is so much that a trial cannot accomplish. There's so much that it necessarily leaves out. There's this famous line that you don't need to prove a thousand murders if you can prove 100. And so, then what happens to that other 900? They get left out of the legal record, but also, in some ways, they get left out of memory.

I think we're at this moment right now that we've been anticipating for a very long time in which the last Holocaust survivors are dying and reaching the ends of their lives. We no longer have living witnesses to speak to, in a museum or in whatever forum, but also legally.

One of the problems that I was interested in exploring in the book is this fact that Holocaust survivors are dying and can no longer be brought to testify is [precisely] what is being exploited by nationalists and Holocaust revisionists. How do you respond to that? One answer is that you get their children to testify on their behalf.

There is this kind of intergenerational story. That also tells us that justice is never accomplished — it's a constant and ongoing thing. I also wanted to ask, OK, maybe the time has come in which law is no longer the avenue that we need to secure it.

Anne Brice: What other avenues do you think should be used to secure it?

Linda Kinstler: I think there are so many ways of looking at this moment. I think there has been a lot of really important work done with public memorialization, public memory, having conversations with people who might not have been exposed to this history in different parts of the world.

In the United States, we're so used to the idea of Holocaust memory in some ways, because it has been such a big part of education for so long, although now that seems imperiled. You do encounter people who have only the faintest idea of what occurred.

One of the great heartbreaks for me of what's going on in Ukraine is that the last time I had been there, before this invasion was unleashed, was in September 2021. It was at this time when they were about to unveil a grand memorial at Babyn Yar, which is a really contested site. And there had been a controversial effort to have a real memorial and museum there, and it [construction] was underway. It was going to happen. Some people didn't like it. Some people did. But there was going to be a museum there.

Not only was that site bombed in the first week of the war, and many of the buildings, including what was going to be a building that was going to be a museum to the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, were destroyed. The metaphor is just awful. We'll never know when we're going to have that museum. I think we will. I think it will be a different museum after this war.

I'm working with a group called The Reckoning Project that is run by Janine de Giovanni and Peter Pomerantsev, who are both incredible journalists, and Nataliya Gumenyuk, who's a Ukrainian investigative journalist.

They came up with this project to collect testimonies from Ukrainians in a way that would be legally admissible. But also, in some cases, in which they're not anonymized, available for public distribution. They have made a concerted effort to collect and protect and anonymize testimonies so that when the trials do start, they cannot say, “We don't have enough evidence.”

Speaking of memorialization, one of our projects is to think about what a public, [online] memorial to some of the massacres in Ukraine might look like.

[Music: “Step In Step Out” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: Although, in her research, Kinstler discovered some details about her paternal grandfather, Boris — that he was part of the Arajs Kommando with Herberts Cukurs and that he went on to join the KGB — she never figured out the circumstances of his disappearance.

Linda Kinstler: The official story that the KGB gave was that he killed himself, which may or may not be true. But what's really interesting is that after the book came out, there were a few excerpts that were published online, and one of the excerpts was in The Guardian Long Read and there were photos of him.

And after that went up, I got a message from this man in Latvia who said, “My grandfather served in the same Estonian town where your grandfather disappeared.” And he remembered one day coming across a man who had killed himself on the beach. And they found his gun and they found a note in his pocket saying, “I'm sorry, commander, I couldn't fulfill your mission.”

I have no way of knowing if [the man in that story] is my grandfather. I have no way of knowing if it is a true story. I'm so used to these kinds of stories coming through that it's just another possibility that I have to contend with.

Anne Brice: The title of your book, Come To This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends, I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the second part, how the Holocaust ends, and what the meaning of that is in this context.

Linda Kinstler: I thought a lot about the subtitle and I think what I meant by it, and I write this in the prologue, was that it's not a prescription, but rather a warning: an effort to call attention to the fact that we are at this moment, as I said, of endings, where survivors are increasingly no longer with us. Undeniably, we are entering a new period of memory.

And I wanted to warn that one of the things that's going on right now is that this memory is being erased. There's something really interesting going on, which is that at precisely this moment, when firsthand knowledge is slipping away for various reasons, there's also this increasing desire to have a kind of forensic understanding, for absolute certainty, of what happened and who did it and when and who pulled the trigger. And I think that those two things are really deeply related.

I found this witness letter, a letter from a Holocaust survivor who had gone to interrogate a Nazi who was in West German detention, and he says [something like], “This Nazi started confessing because I promised that if he confessed everything, I would help him get out of prison.” And in his letter, he says, “I realized even if he confessed from A to Z, I would never know when it is Z. I would never know when he was done confessing or when he had totally documented all of his crimes.”

That’s what I meant when I was thinking about an ending. You never know. For a lot of readers, this history never ends — the Holocaust never ends — but we need to think more seriously about what we do with this memory.

[Music: “Feathersoft” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: Linda Kinstler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Her first book, Come To This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends, was published in 2022.

I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. You can follow us wherever you get your podcasts. We also have another show, Berkeley Talks, which features lectures and conversations at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at