Sheila's Reviews > 1: Survivor From an Unknown War

1 by Stephen Lee Crane
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's review
Sep 18, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, first-reads, non-fiction, history

I received this book as a part of a Goodreads Giveaway, and I appreciate the fact that the author took the time to autograph it. I read it upon receiving it, but due to an unforeseen workload as a small business owner I was unable to write a review until now.

This is a historical biography of an individual named Isakjan Narzikul who was born in 1923 in Jizzakh, an area historically known as Turkistan. This was in the center of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The author gives a brief preface on the history of this area, as well as a “Cast of People” and a brief Prologue prior to the start of the story.

(Spolier Alert) Isakjan Narzikul (“Isakjan”) grew up under a Soviet dominated government, viewing Russian tourists as curiosities but believing all of the propaganda that all citizens were equal. His was a farming family although anything of value had been confiscated by the State. The area was entirely agrarian and he distinguished himself by working as a clerk until he was admitted to the Tashkent Teacher’s School. After studying there and not wanting to return home, he applied to the Tashkent Military School with an altered school transcript. After persuading the military interviewer that he was a very hard worker, and even though he did not speak Russian very well, he was admitted to this school. He was to learn that not all Soviet citizens were created equal, as this school admitted mainly the sons of the affluent from places like Moscow and the Ukraine and he was a “fish out of water.” However, because of his ability to work very hard combined with an unassuming personality, he still did very well.

It was during his time at the Military School that Isakjan started to discover racism from Russians and Uzbeks political life. This part of the book was a little difficult to read as there were so many characters and facts to assimilate that I hadn’t been exposed to before. At the same time, it was very interesting to read what the political views of these people really were. This book definitely presents a perspective different from most books and television shows about World War II.

The story continues with Isakjan’s graduation from the Military school in 1941 and immediate commissioning into the Soviet Army with service to be in the Baltic Region: Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. This part of book bogged down a little, but picked up again with a terrible battle and with Isakjan being captured by the Germans. I would note that some of the battle descriptions were a little too wordy and read as if they had been edited by a different person than the one who had edited the beginning of the book. I only mention this as there were some changes in narrative voice throughout the book but not enough to keep me from being interested in what happened to Isakjan.

After being captured by the Germans, Isakjan survived by being useful to the guards in working extra, learning German, and by being personable. He also discovered that the Germans were murdering Soviet Muslims because they thought they were Jews. During this time, Isakjan (who had been raised essentially without knowledge of being a Muslim although his family had been Muslim) as well as other Muslims helped Jewish POWs escape being murdered by teaching them Muslim prayers and by convincing German guards that they were indeed NOT Jews. Isakjan’s risking his life for his comrades was to pay off as one of the lives he saved was of an undercover KGB officer (or for the forerunner service prior to the KGB). At this time, the book continues to follow the fortunes of the Turkistani government in exile and its political figures to explain the political climate and how Isakjan becomes a part of the Wehrmacht. The German Army decided as a political move, to recruit and train former Soviet officers from Turkistan to fight the Soviet Army. These Turkistanis were re-educated by the Nazis as against their former government and told that they were freedom fighters for their people. The Turkistanis believed the Nazis were liberators; we see later in the story that others preferred the Nazis to the Soviets as well. In December 1941, Isakjan became a Master Sergeant in the Turkistani Battalion of the Wehrmacht.

This part of the book had my attention. Never in all of the information that I have absorbed about World War II was there a mention of a Turkistani Battalion, nor of the pure brain-washing that these men went through at the hands of the Nazis after being brain-washed by the Soviets. I kept wondering about Isakjan; was he doing this purely to survive, or did a little part of him actually believe this? I marveled at his willingness to believe people throughout the book mostly to his detriment. But in spite of all of this, he seemed unsinkable.

The book continues to follow Isakjan’s service throughout the War, including the unbelievable change of the Turkistani Battalion form Wehrmacht to SS. He was promoted to Captain and was one of the highest ranking Turkistanis in the SS. Why have I never heard of him before? His service ends with being caught up in an end-of-the-war plot by other Turkistanis to return to the Soviet Union. Instead (and luckily), he winds up in the hands of Partisans. This is just another twist in his life; and by now, I have to believe he is doing whatever he can to survive, but with an aspect of honor.

Isakjan then acts as a Partisan; he meets an ethnically German well-to-do family living in Czechoslovakia, marries one of the daughters, and becomes a citizen. He is pursued by Soviet Intelligence. He does very well until he is jailed for interrogation by Soviet Intelligence and is forced to escape and flee to West Germany. Once again down on his luck, he survives by getting a German driver’s license and by working for a U.S. Army Captain. By claiming he was part Gypsy, he is allowed to emigrate to the U.S.

The book follows his life in the U.S. when he starts as a sweeper in a union factory, and works his way up the ranks once again. He also does a little bit of work for the CIA, but is disgusted by the lies told by a colleague from Turkistan. He then opens his own business and is successful. He also seems to finally be successful in his family life. I found the personal part of the end of his story to be both satisfying and sad. I found his devotion to hard work and not giving up to be inspirational, but his overly trusting personality to be unfathomable.

As I have stated before in this review, this book presented me with entirely new information about World War II and that is why I liked it. The drawbacks to this book included different narrative voices or editing styles throughout the book and wordiness in the descriptions of the battles. The shifting of descriptions of “Uzbek” and “Turkistani” were a little confusing but perhaps that is due to my lack of knowledge about this part of the world. However, I would still recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn about this very little known aspect of World War II and especially the beliefs of the people involved. I found it shocking that anyone would view the Nazis as liberators; but them I come from an entirely different time and place.


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Reading Progress

September 18, 2011 – Shelved
September 19, 2011 – Started Reading
September 19, 2011 – Shelved as: biography
September 19, 2011 – Shelved as: first-reads
September 19, 2011 – Shelved as: non-fiction
September 19, 2011 – Shelved as: history
September 22, 2011 –
page 104
September 24, 2011 –
page 161
September 28, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Shelley Ashfield Sheila, this story gets weirder and weirder...Isakjan is both still alive at the age of 91 in a PA suburb,and dead at the age of 65 (March 13, 1989 to be exact) without ever having married...but somehow, his heirs (bearing the same name) are now on the front page of the Delco Times this morning (Dec 24, 2014)

Sheila What was the news story about? And yes, that is weird.

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