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Apr 29, 2014

Book Review: The Unwilling Survivor

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.

Book Review: The Unwilling Survivor, by Michael Kopiec

I don't even know where to begin with The Unwilling Survivor. That's how good of a book it is.

The Unwilling Survivor, by Michael Kopiec, published by Devora Publishing, is an amazing book. It is a true story, but is written and reads like a gripping fiction novel. The story is tragic, it is courage, it is faith, it is honor, it is horrific and there are probably more words that I just cannot think of.

Misha Kopiec, the father of the author, tells his son this story, beside the deathbed of Liza, Misha's wife and Michael's mother, when they decide it is time for Michael to know who his father really is, how he survived the war.

Mishe was a Polish boy, in a Polish village, son of a Jewish-Polish soldier. Misha's father was all about courage and honor and discipline. He trained his son in his ways, and Misha grew up seeing his father defend the family from anti-semitism, and was trained, by his father, to be prepared for any and every eventuality, with the knowledge that the discipline to stick to his training would be what would save his life in a world of anti-semitism.
The Unwilling Survivor

And his father was proven right, time and time again.

Misha grew up and became a soldier himself. The story follows Misha as a Polish soldier watching the Polish army overrun dishonorably by the Germans. Eventually Misha ends up captured by the Germans, more than once, and escapes, more than once. Misha ends up on the Russian side and becomes a Russian soldier, and again ends up captured by the Germans. Misha, however, is a survivor, and an honorable one. He refuses to do anything that will harm other Jews, despite the difficulties that puts on his attempts to escape or survive.

Misha somehow survives, against all odds. the gripping story is how he survives as a Jew in the German POW camps, the Russian army, behind Russian lines, in Polish towns full of anti-semitism, in the ghetto, on a train full of Nazis - filled with both SS and Gestapo officers, on a POW death march, in work labor camps, with partisans with unknown loyalties.... He tells the most unbelievable stories. With Misha not being a religious man, he does not talk about the hand of God being what saves him rather than others, but later in the book he begins to realize that is survival was so unusual while so many around him, including his family, were killed, and near the end of the book he is made to realize that it is clear he is meant to survive.

To avoid giving away too much of the story, anything besides Misha surviving... I am going to leave it at that.

I do have some other thoughts though, and I apologize for them being expressed kind of awkwardly. I just finished the book, yesterday on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and there were many parts of the book that strongly affected me.

I am really writing this because I want it online, as I have not found it anywhere else, but also because I want to know if anyone heard of this before... as I had not, and in the small amount of research I did, both online and asking people, it seems many others had not either. This story was just horribly shocking.

At some point in the book, Misha finds himself in the area of Babi Yar, shortly after the horrible massacres of Jews in the ravines of Babi Yar, the shootings of Jews in large ditches that would then be filled in with dirt. That part of the story of Babi Yar is well known. It was the next part I had never heard.

Kiev was being overrun by the Germans, and Misha and some other Russian officers were prepared for an intelligence mission in which they would pose as Germans, deep behind the German forces, and check how the Germans were preparing for the coming cold Russian weather, among other things. As they make their way to where they need to be, they come across a section of road they notice is unusually deserted. Suspicious, they then see a farmer driving a tractor on the shoulder of the road, after having driven off-road for too long. The glistening and moist road seemed irregular to them, and while suspecting the road might be booby-trapped, they could not understand what the situation before them was.

The farmer stops and they decide to try to figure out what is happening. Upon speaking with the farmer, they discover that they, the Germans (at that point they were posing as German soldiers), had put the mess in the road:
"Well, why would the Germans soldiers do this? And what is it?"[...] As the words came out of his mouth, his eyebrows moved up and he took a step back as if someone had pushed him. "It's -- Jews".
Not certain I'd heard him correctly, I demanded, "What's Jews?" His hand was shaking uncontrollably and his eyes were wild as he pointed down toward the mud and said, "That - that's Jews."
It made no sense. My mind simply couldn't comprehend what the man was saying. "Are you mad? What are you pointing at? What Jews?" I demanded. "I don't see any Jews."
Swallowing, his expression was one of horrified disbelief as he asked incredulously, "You really don't know?"
"Know what?" I countered and added that we'd just arrived. The guy remained silent and I was about to say something else when he finally spoke. "The soldiers brought them here form the valley where they were shooting the others."
"You're telling me the soldiers were shooting some Jews in a nearby valley?" I asked him.
He responded almost sheepishly, "Well, not just some Jews, there were - thousands," he whispered...
.... "They brought the Jews from Kiev and all the villages surrounding the city.. the killings went on nonstop for more than two days."
My ears suddenly began to ring, and a nauseous dizziness overtook me. It was in his eyes the man was telling the truth. ...
"So what does that business have to do with what we have here?" The farmer's face confirmed I'd reestablished myself as an unpredictable Nazi brut.
Sputtering with fear, he tried to explain. "The soldiers brought some of the Jews here. They were making sport.... they ran panzers over them!"....
"I - I don't know why, sir. They just brought a few hundred here and made them lay down in the road."
"And you saw this with your own eyes?"
"Yes.. the soldiers marched them here and had them undress. There were large piles of clothes by the side of the road. Finally, they made the Jews.."
"And they ran over them with the tanks?" The old man shook his head in confirmation, and told us there were hundreds of German soldiers, but there were also civilians. "Everyone was eager to see the spectacle", he explained.
At that moment, one of my men bolted for the side of the road and began retching... he was the first to see... All of us suddenly looked at our feet.. At first we couldn't make out anything identifiably human... but when we really focused on the mud, things began popping up all around us. It must have happened to us at about the same moment, because all a once, we were all backing out of that ugly slime.
For me, it was - fingertips - incredibly tiny, tiny fingertips. Suddenly all of us could see the monstrous truth, it was everywhere.... I found myself drowning in a sea of earlobes, flattened eyeballs, and - the fingertips of children. It clung to the tires of our vehicles and was caked to our boots.
"What did you see?" I demanded.
"They were mostly women, children and older men.... the Germans killed most of the younger men in the valley, over there... It was odd, the Jews were very quiet, even the children didn't cry. I don't know,, maybe they were in shock, or maybe they knew there was no hope. They knew they were as good as dead."
"I think they just got tired of shooting them. All I know is when they marched them out here, it was madness, like some kind of crazed carnival because the soldiers and civilians were more like an out of control mob.... For example, they were laughing and taunting the Jewish women as they arrived.... The Germans laid them face down on this section of the road and ordered them to strecth their arms out ahead of them. Some of the Jews clasped hands as they lay face down, naked, and waiting for - well, you know.."
... "You mean they just rolled their tanks over these women and children while they were still alive? Are you saying they didn't shoot them first?" The farmer began to cry. "No, sir, they just kept riding over them....."
"Why did they keep rolling over them? Wasn't it enough to do it once?"
Well, the first time some of the Jews were still alive.... they just kept riding over them, again and again, until they turned them into - this..."
"What do you locals call this place? I demanded of the farmer.
"It's called Babi Yar. The name of this place is.. Babi Yar"
That si by far the most horrific incident described in the book, and it was truly shocking to me, considering I knew of the famous massacres of Babi Yar via the shootings, but had never heard of this.I actually had to put the book down at this point and let it sink in.
Michael Kopiec

While this was the most horrific and horrifying story, there were other horrible stories as well, such as what happened to his family, what happened to 20 females in the camps including his good friend who he grew up with. Despite the horror, there was also heroism, defiance and courage, even within  the horrific stories. There was concern for other Jews, there was protection and humanity.

A long-standing question was answered. Why more Jews did not try to escape, or revolt against their German captors, when it was clear they could have. The answer is that they knew that while they might get out and successfully escape, the result would be that they would cause the murder of other Jews, as the Germans would take out their anger on the remaining prisoners. They refused to do anything that would hurt other Jews, even to their own detriment.

I guess this book must tell the bulk of the story of the survival of Misha, but it really only takes us through mid-1942. I would have liked to know how he continued to survive the next 3 years, what he experienced and how he continued to make it.

Another question I have is his name - Kopiec. Without giving away too much, at some point he needed a different name and he took the name of a person he had killed for killing people close to him. I understand why he used that name at that time. What i don't understand, and would like to, is why he continued using that name after the war and after his redemption. Why did he not go back to his family name, especially considering how few survived?

This book, The Unwilling Survivor, is a must-read. Read it as a novel, but it is a true story. It will shock you, it will draw you in. It will question what you know - about the Holocaust, about humanity about heroism and courage, and about concern for other Jews and other people suffering troubles.

buy The Unwilling Survivor on Amazon.com: $19.76

buy The Unwilling Survivor on Urim: $19

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.

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  1. Incredible.
    Looks like he wrote a sequel continuing the story post 1943:

  2. Having read & immensely enjoyed these books, I'm just curious as to whether the veracity of the story told can be corroborated. A search of available holocaust archives for victims / survivors from the city of Rzeszów, Poland reveals no one by the name misha mattes or misha kopiec (although the records are far from complete so this proves nothing). Additionally, the first hand recounting of a polish cavalry charge against tanks towards the beginning of the book is somewhat odd seeing as that never actually happened...


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