It is somewhat of a miracle that this book even exists. Written from the more than one hundred year old diaries of her grandfather, Bryna Kranzler has captured an amazing story of survival, certain but somehow avoidable death, dire conditions of climate, hunger on the verge of starvation, all taken with humor and conviction.
Jacob Marateck’s story is of a difficult history. A Jew conscripted into the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, he avoids death three times, nearly freezes, witnesses the most horrible consequences of war imaginable, and somehow survives. All before he reaches the age of 25.
Entering the war, he begins a life of traveling from barge to train, loaded into boxcars like cattle, crowded decks, constant hunger, promised pay and food but receives neither. The ill treatment of the men, the filth and squalor they were forced to live in, they were treated more like prisoners than soldiers [Marateck would probably say they were prisoners].
Traveling in a caravan of 96 train cars, each packed with its cargo of men, with an enemy described as being small, barely human, with hands that resembled “paws for swinging in trees,” they may not have been considered so menacing. But Marateck and his fellow travelers soon discover the Japanese were a treacherous sort—determined and capable of being vicious, willing to fight to the very end without a blemish of hesitancy. They were fierce, relentless killers. Well trained and well equipped, they killed sixty-thousand men in one battle alone. A train full of food—intended for Marateck’s men—was blown up. Marateck and his men knew nothing about the train and its food, but somehow the Japanese knew.
Knowing the determination and will of their enemy, Marateck and his men, on the other hand, were commanded by extraordinary incompetence. In one march, their commander was reduced to asking the inhabitants of an area where they were, showing them their maps, seeking help in finding their location and its proximity to their destination. They had misplaced their battlefield.
When Marateck’s men were engaged in battle, the outcome could be of unspeakable grief and failure. In the book, Marateck describes one scene:
“I prayed for daylight, although that offered no guarantee that the shelling would stop. Suddenly my lieutenant screamed, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ and fell on top of me…. Unable to support his weight, I grew dizzy and, within a moment, found myself lying pinned to the bottom of the trench.”
Marateck, covered in blood, was checked by a comrade. It was all the lieutenant’s blood …
“The wounded man whimpered, ‘Mother, Mother!’ … Crawling on our bellies, we dragged our lieutenant toward the rear.”
After about an hour they find their way to a trench for cover …
“I struck a match to see how the lieutenant was doing. He was without a head, and probably had been for some time. Two of the soldiers began to cry.”
It was this scene in the book where I had to stop. I had to stop and ponder what war is. What it can do. What it can make of the men made to fight it, and how many of us never know what it is, what it can be and will never find out.
The impact of this book is extraordinary. It reads like fiction, but all of it is true. It happened. From the diaries of a man who took the time to write an impossible history, all true, exciting and devastating.
“The Accidental Anarchist,” is the winner of the International Book Award.