Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz

Polish soldier Rawicz was condemned by the Russians and sent to Siberia. He traveled first by train, then by foot, through blizzards, to Camp 303. At one point nomadic Ostyaks, the primitive herdsmen of the Siberian steppes, came by, reindeer pulling sledges. One of them called the captive men Unfortunates. “Traditionally, from the time of the Czars we were, to his people, the Unfortunates, the prisoners of a regime which always sought to wrest the riches of Siberia by the use of unpaid labourers, the political prisoners who could not fit in the framework of successive tyrannies.” (57) The old Ostyak spoke of putting food out for those who escaped from the Siberian work camps. Escape. The thought was placed in Rawicz's mind.
In the midst of winter they built their own barracks. He became part of a group creating pairs of skis from birch trees. He volunteered to repair the Commandant's radio and befriended the Colonel's wife.
He gathered a group willing to attempt escape. They stole pelts and made clothing. The Commandant's wife helped with provisions. In mid-April, 1941, seven escaped.
With well written descriptions, Rawicz recounts their journey. Snow covered their early tracks and there was never signs of pursuit. They crossed the Lena River. They had meat from a stag caught by its antlers. They picked up a young Polish girl fleeing from another work camp. The only time they raided a village, they stole a pig. They helped a family thresh grain and were rewarded with supplies.
Then entered the Gobi Desert and after days of thirst happened upon an oasis. Five days after leaving the oasis, they faced death. Then, infrequent muddy water and snakes sustained the living.
In Tibet a night was spent with a herdsman and his family. They went into the Himalayan foothills in winter. They made it through the mountains and as they began to descend in early spring, they saw strange creatures. They were around eight feet tall and walked on their hind legs. “There was something both of the bear and the ape about their general shape but they could not be mistaken for either.” (228-229) Rawicz believes they were Abominable Snowmen. (229)
They finally came in contact with a British Lieutenant and six marching natives, India. They were deloused, cleaned up, given first aid at the British base. They were safe. Their journey had taken a year.
Rawicz went through a month of mental disturbance at a hospital in Calcutta. After his recovery he was determined to rejoin the Polish army, ending up in the Polish wing of the British Air Force. After the war, with his home and family gone, he started a new life in England.

This is certainly an inspiring story of the will to be free. Originally published in 1956, it has been reprinted several times. This 1997 edition contained an afterward by Rawicz, bringing the reader up to date on his life. He died in 2004.

There has been some controversy over the reality of Rawicz's account. Some historians say documents show that Rawicz was freed by Stalin under the terms of a Russian amnesty. ( The BBC did an investigation a few years ago that questions the validity of Rawicz's story:

The Lyons Press, 242 pages.

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