by Israel Drazin
Bryna Kranzler deserved the “USA Book News Best Books Award” because her book is a well-written, humorous presentation of a serious and significant event, the first large war of the twentieth century. The Accidental Anarchist is a translation of the diary of a young, rash, intelligent, religious Jewish man who reluctantly served in the incompetent Russian army during the 1904-1905 Russian-Japanese war when Russia and Japan fought over Manchuria and Korea. Russia wanted a warm water port on the Pacific for its navy and maritime trade. But Russia was poorly organized, ill-equipped, insufficiently trained, and willing to sacrifice millions of lives, including the narrator of these diaries. They lost the war and the loss led to the emergence of Japan as a power on the world stage.
Jacob Marateck who wrote the true diary entries of his experiences just before and during the war, wrote with humorous, delightful sarcasm. He left school when he reached his teens and looked for adventure. We read about his first job where he organized a strike, but because he was young and had no goal, the strike fizzled and was a failure. Like all Polish and Russian youngsters who lacked the will or courage to maim themselves to avoid conscription or who hadn’t sufficient funds to buy a replacement, he was taken into the Russian army.
We read that Jews were overrepresented in the Russian army, more than their percentage in the general population. Many of them, including Marateck, continued to observe Jewish practices in the army. They wore the tzitzit under their shirts, put on tephillin, and prayed daily. There is an episode where Marateck seeks to identify whether a man is Jewish and looks below his shirt to see if he is wearing tzitzit. There is an adventure where Marateck and his friend try to find a synagogue to attend Yom Kippur services, although they weren’t sure whether Yom Kippur was today or tomorrow. There is an incident where a vicious anti-Semite who sought ways to hurt Marateck was very frightened during a battle, saw a Jew wearing tephillin, thought they were a magic way to avoid being killed, fell to his feet, kissed the tephillin, and stopped being an anti-Semite. Later, he asked if he could kiss that tephillin again and was told that the tephillin were sleeping. Marateck encounters anti-Semites often, including once where he reacted, has a fist-fight with an officer, and is then tried in court for maiming him. If found guilty, he would have been shot. But he is saved in a humorous way. This is only one of several times when Marateck faced a firing squad. Another was when his commander forced him to stand guard after a long period of sleep deprivation, and he fell asleep during this duty.
But the Jewish episodes, as fascinating and plentiful as they are, are not the heart of the diaries. The key element is the hardships of Russian army service and the incompetence of its leadership. We read how the Russian artillery shot canons and the bombs fell on their own troops, about the lack of food and bullets and bandages; in fact virtually all necessary items were missing. We read how parents were told that their sons had been killed during a battle, but they were still alive. This happened to Marateck. Once, Marateck tried to find his brother who was assigned to another unit and he was falsely told that his brother was dead. In sum, this book is well worth reading because it is filled with significant history told in a humorous way.
This review first appeared on The Jewish Eye