Survivor from an Unknown War

Survivor from an Unknown War

by Stephen L. Crane


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In 1954, a janitor for a Pennsylvania manufacturing company needed to see a doctor for a severe cold. The man had recently immigrated and spoke broken English. After finishing dinner he walked three blocks from his home outside of Philadelphia to the office of Dr. Crane. The physician routinely examined the patient and prescribed medication.

The man's humble manner drew no special attention, but as he began to speak, an irrepressible determination and intelligence caught the medical practitioner by surprise. The doctor invited the janitor to return the next evening after office hours for tea. A snack and ensuing conversation initiated a continuing friendship between the physician and the sweeper, Isakjan Narzikul.

As the two men came to meet the families and learn about the backgrounds of one another, it became obvious that Narzikul had lived through events not dreamed of by most people of the world and knew secrets suppressed by entire nations. One nephew who became especially interested in those secrets was Stephen L. Crane. Stephen Crane asked Isakjan Narzikul whether he was ready to tell the full details of his life. Narzikul was ready.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781414507415
Publisher: Pavilion Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Pages: 333
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Jurabay struggled to raise his fallen body from the dust in the road. His solitary figure, old and bent, reeled drunkenly as he crossed the little canal bridge. As the only path serving the ancient Central Asian neighborhood, the dirt cartway needed no name, and delivered its largely pedestrian traffic with quiet anonymity. He trembled from the alcohol, the years in Siberia, and the ostracism of officialdom after they proclaimed him an enemy of the people. Despite his confession and rehabilitation, the one-time rising star of the Communist Party merited no more than a position as assistant sweeper for the miller and, on weekends, town drunk.

This conclusion to life deprived his once brilliant mind of respect and faith. Perhaps he had invited the debasement when he crawled back to beg forgiveness, exposing those who sided against the regime and foolishly believing he could expose friends in exchange for exoneration. His deeds of infamy were no different from those of others, and yet some had avoided the traps set for them and escaped. Did they suffer also, wherever they sought refuge, or did a convolution of history single out only his life, tormenting him alone? What of his friend Isakjan (ee.Sak.'jon) Narzikul, who had disappeared so long ago? Jurabay arrived at the door of the Narzikul house, his mouth thick with the odor of alcohol and his thoughts confused from long years in Siberia. He no longer stood as a man did, but as a former personality stripped by the abyss of terror and humiliation. He pounded his fists on the door, crying, "Where is Isakjan? Where is Isakjan?"

No one answered. Inside, Isakjan's mother sat motionless on one of the mats inside the sun-dried mud walls of the house. A dark solid door and windowless facade designed by a mind bent towards privacy faced the ancient dirt street, empty except for a boy and his donkey. Hidden behind the wall and house, hens scratched for scraps beside the family cow in a small enclosed yard. She had last seen her son as a teenager, early in 1941, when peace reigned and he prepared for a career. A savage war had come with no forewarning and suddenly he was gone. She never even received a letter. She stared at a fading picture of him.

"Presumed dead," the authorities had said.

She didn't accept that conclusion so readily. What mother can ever presume a son dead? Over the decades, hope fueled by rumors yielded to the hollow realities of absence. And yet, the insistent inquiry of Jurabay stirred cobwebs that shrouded the past. She remained silent, also wondering, "Where is Isakjan?"

The other citizens of Jizzakh 2 knew better than to ask such forbidden questions. The little city scratched out a place on the edges of the desert in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, one of five socialist republics and one autonomous republic in Soviet Central Asia, historically known as Turkistan. The people of Jizzakh followed the lead of the Uzbek government and put the question aside.

Others, in powerful positions, still wished to find out, and a few did know about Isakjan Narzikul, from the beginning. The beginning was long before, in Uzbekistan during the 1930's, when the Bolshevik Revolution and the boy shared a youth dominated by the all-consuming drive of hunger. The boy's hunger came from an empty plate; the revolution's, from an insatiable appetite for power.

Isakjan, son of Makhmud Narzikul, was named after the prophet Isa (Isaac) and looked to his father for guidance in the art of survival, only vaguely comprehending that a tremendous revolution had upset the balance of life in the dusty city. Makhmud Narzikul remained aloof and distant from the boy, exceeding even the restrained familial relationship common in the strict society. He had reason to fear companionship, even with his seven-year-old son, because a casual word from the lips of the boy to the wrong person could place the father in great difficulty.

A mere lad could not be expected to understand why his father, a simple uneducated son of a policeman, insisted on continuing his trade of tanning hides long after his little business was nationalized, nor why he silently prayed to Allah in spite of official prohibitions. But nevertheless the boy did understand, at least partially, as he watched his father surreptitiously collect hides from some of the townspeople, and pile them on his donkey for a trip to hidden alcoves in the country where he dipped them into acidic fluids. His hands accumulated scars and yellow streaks, eventually looking like leather boots and emitting the noxious fumes which, together with the handling of dead animal skins, marked him and his trade with a low social status.

After nationalizing his trifling business, the government had assigned Narzikul a position as stable hand at the local collective farm, or kolkhoz (kol.Khoz'). With this new position came a lower salary and less food on the family table, so Narzikul continued his old tanning business in secret competition with the government during his evenings and weekends.

Every time Makhmud Narzikul extended his hands for a "salaam" (saa.Lom' a.lay.Kum' is the traditional greeting) or turned in his credit slips at the kolkhoz store, the undeniable polish and acrid odor reserved for those who work with the chemicals of leather emanated from his still yellow hands and tainted finger-nails. Kolkhoz authorities noticed those cured hands.

Narzikul's attempts to hide his illegal handiwork were too simple, too straightforward, like the man himself.

After the revolution, the status of the tanner had changed more unremittingly than just a loss of income and profession. Unsuited to conducting his life partly in shadows, he became a man afraid, and the fear reduced his Moslem religion to incomprehensible mumbles at the dinner table, and his fatherly guidance to pointers on the merits of melon skins in the diet of the family cow. Only in the ear of his donkey did Narzikul feel comfortable in pouring out his soul. When the aged beast lay down in the street to die, the man wept and hugged the animal's neck, nuzzling its mane with his bearded face and crying out to his "old friend," begging him not to leave in such terrible times. The religious and trade secrets the elder Narzikul imparted to his donkey were withheld from his son for fear of retribution from authorities. The donkey could not stay to comfort his friend, however, and passed away. Thereafter the men in the neighborhood referred to Narzikul as the "sentimental one." FROM CHAPTER 12 WHAT HAPPENED IN WARSAW The Polish civilians of Warsaw suffered some of the most horrible atrocities in the war during the uprising and the previous Jewish ghetto rebellion. In the city uprising, the Polish underground, with both Jews and gentiles, attempted to free Warsaw from the Nazi occupation. Freelance Nazi brigades not under the control of the Wehrmacht murdered, raped, looted and destroyed the population. The Red Army stood quietly by on the outskirts, refusing aid and relishing the liquidation of the country they planned to dominate after the war. As the Polish partisans faced incessant hammering from the various German forces, the Soviets denied American and British airplanes the use of their bases, which were essential for airlifting aid to the partisans from Western sources. Some reports claim that the Red Army fired upon the partisans. The city itself lay in ruins. 3 In that situation, the partisans had to capitulate. Hayit reported that a surrender would take place along a main street, and they drove to a line of waiting trucks and guards to witness defeated Warsaw dwellers and Polish resistance fighters march out in surrender to the waiting German soldiers. They carried flags, some with the Star of David, and marched in a surprisingly bold strut for a defeated partisan group. The soldiers escorted them to a waiting convoy of trucks. Heavily armed men and attack vehicles interspersed themselves between the spaces of the convoy as the trucks drove away. Isakjan and Hayit continued to the Turkistani encampment, which turned out to consist not of tents, but of luxurious buildings in a wealthy section of the city. The battalion officers welcomed Isakjan as one of the first Uzbek company commanders. The commander of the first battalion was Kamal Alimov, his friend from the first days in the German army, who hugged Isakjan and invited him to a dinner. Alimov had somehow acquired a Russian girlfriend, who stayed with him through a number of campaigns. The officers sat down to sumptuous dinners every night. Isakjan saw beautiful women with the officers and even the enlisted men, who related to these women as lovers or housekeepers, sometimes two or three to a man. The officers explained: "The battalion was engaged in house-to-house fighting and came across many civilians doomed to die or surrender to the Germans. We realized this, and so did the partisans. Different languages present no problem in this situation. "The people could see that we were not German, and they wanted to follow us, especially the Jewish ones. We returned home often after a day of battle, gaining only a block in hard fighting accompanied by a date or a housekeeper. Our Jewish soldiers felt especially vehement about saving these people, and they often risked their lives to offer sanctuary." The girls sat with the men at the table, sharing the feasts. A few spoke some Russian and expressed their gratitude to the Turkistani officers and soldiers. Every evening these dinner parties attracted the men, and every night a different group hosted Isakjan. The Turkistanis, by tradition, are very generous to friends and guests, and could not do enough to please Isakjan. The Turkistani soldiers considered the highest form of entertainment to be a festive dinner, to cook great meals, give presents, and engage in clever conversation. He dined with friends including Alimov, Sattarov the Jewish medical officer, and Nuriddim Qari the mullah. Away from home, everyone became a brother, especially those from the same town. The Turkistanis celebrated their victory over those the Germans called `bandits' with the encouragement of their commander. In fact the Turkistanis had participated in a most infamous brutal suppression of a civilian population and destruction of a city which was not a military objective. The fighting pitted trained and well-armed troops against nonprofessionals. Reports brought back to Berlin by Isakjan and Hayit were not favorable, and criticized the lack of military control that Alimov exercised over troops. Isakjan prepared to leave for Berlin with Major Hayit, and several soldiers escorted them to the station. As he climbed the stairs for the train, they gave him another present, three heavy suitcases to add to the one he came with. Upon arriving back in Berlin, to the house he shared with Jurabay and Mrs. Rogozinski, Isakjan met with his friend from Jizzakh. They went out to dinner and traded news and gossip. Back home in Schonhauseralle, he opened the extra suitcases with Jurabay as witness. In the first, he emptied ten watches, all sorts of gold coins, materials, suits; the second, all kinds of clothing, nylon stockings; the one smaller suitcase, a stuffing of Zlotys, Polish currency.

What People are Saying About This

Matthew Aaron

As a history teacher, I was amazed at what we don't know about Europe and Asia. Survivor From an Unknown War was a great reading experience. An inspiring book! - Matthew Aaron, San Francisco, CA

Marci Annan

Survivor is one of those rare books that combines true history with literary genius. It left me breathless. I was reminded of Zhivago.

- Marci Annan, Philadelphia, PA

Leonard Keating

This was one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. It was very interesting and riveting.

- Leonard Keating, Villanova, PA

Eric Stahl

This riveting book is a personal journey, no more a holy quest, a young man in a cultural, political, and spiritual struggle. Narzikul was inside, but never a part of the opposing forces in a global conflict. This book provides a unique view of this horrible war. And its effect on one man, his nation, and the larger culture of three nations.

- Eric Stahl, Miami, FL

Jeffrey Adam

This is a book told in utter candor and superior writing skill. I was surprised about what the book said about World War II. I read it straight through!

- Jeffrey Adam, Philadelphia, PA

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