The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (1956) by Slavomir Rawicz
The Long Walk, first published in 1956, is a gripping account of a Polish officer’s imprisonment in the Soviet gulag in 1940, his escape and then a trek of 4,000 miles (6,437km) from Siberia to India, surviving unimaginable hardships along the way, testing the seven men and their companion, a seventeen year old girl they came across on the way, to the limits. Its dramatic passages tell of extremes of exhaustion, starvation and thirst as they survived snowdrifts and storms and even the pitiless Gobi Desert.
“In the shadow of death we grew closer together than ever before. No man would admit to despair. No man spoke of fear. The only thought spoken out again and again was that there must be water soon. All our hope was in this.”
Australian director Peter Weir, celebrated for contemporary classics such as ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘The Truman Show’, decided the account deserved filming. “As a feat of endurance and courage and the tenacity of human beings to survive, I thought it was superb. I asked, ‘Does it stay with you enough to want to pursue it as a film?’ And this was the case.” The film, inspired by the book, but not a straight re-telling, was released December 2010 as ‘The Way Back’.
The subtitle of the book is ‘The true story of a trek to freedom’ but there is a controversy over this. There was evidence that suggested that Rawicz had not told the truth about his past, and that although he had been a prisoner in the gulag, he never escaped, but was released under an amnesty in 1942, and the documents, discovered by an American researcher, Linda Willis, in Polish and Russian archives, also show that rather than being imprisoned on a charge of espionage as he claimed, Rawicz was actually sent to the gulag for killing an officer with the NKVD, the forerunner of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. This could of course, be a fabrication.
Peter Weir researched the controversy. “It was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that’s how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film.”
This is why the film – to be released later this month – has a new title, The Way Back , and why the central character is not called Slavomir Rawicz. Yet it retains its power as a tale of courage and endurance. “It’s about the struggle that all of us have to survive every day. The struggle is on an epic scale, but survival is at the heart of it, and what keeps you going with all the difficulties and pain of life and the bad luck.”
The death of Kristina is very moving. “A wisp of a smile hovered around the corners of her mouth..her eyes were very clear and very blue. There was a great tranquillity about her. She closed her eyes. I looked at the open neck of her dress, and in a second I was down at her side with my ear over her heart. There was no beat. I did not believe it. I turned my head and picked up her thin wrist. There was no pulse. I dropped her hand and it thumped softly into the sand. In that God-forsaken place seven men cried openly because the thing most precious to us in all the world had been taken from us. Kristina was dead.”
This is the summary of Anne Applebaum, in ‘Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps’ (2003), “Rawicz claims to have escaped, with the connivance of the camp commander’s wife, in the company of six other prisoners, one of them an American (‘Mr Smith’). Along with a Polish girl, a deportee whom they picked up along the way, they made their way out of the Soviet Union. During what would have been an extraordinary journey, if it ever took place, they walked around Lake Baikal, over the border into Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, over the Himalayas and Tibet, and into India. Along the way, four of them died, the rest suffered extremes of privation..It is a superbly told story, even if it never happened.”
This was not the end of the story. Tim Whewell and Hugh Levinson investigated the story on behalf of the BBC in 2006. It became very clear someone had made the journey that Rawicz, who died in 2004, had so movingly described. Despite ill-health forcing an early retirement, he gave many talks about his experiences, raising money for orphans in Poland. He replied to the many letters from people around the world inspired by the book.
So why did Rawicz write the book? Who else would tell the world what happened to so many people? A comment about the book has much common sense.
“Many (of the one and half million internees) never made it out, and there are many people of Polish descent still living in Siberia, but also many escaped through a number of routes. This is not the only amazing story of a long distance journey during WWII. I recently found out that my own grandfather escaped from eastern Poland with the advance of the Russians, and he with five friends from his small town walked all the way to what is now Croatia, before joining the Allied troops in Italy. It took him nearly a year to do this. We have no evidence for this story, apart from his own testimony. Sadly he is no longer with us and so I can get no more details. Why is it necessary to question the validity of such stories so closely? Why does there have to be such a burden of proof?”
A clue may come from the testimony of Rupert Mayne, a British intelligence officer in wartime India. In Calcutta in 1942, he interviewed three emaciated men, who claimed to have escaped from Siberia. Mayne always believed their story was the same as that recounted in ‘The Long Walk’, but telling the story years later, he could not remember their names. So the possibility remains that someone, if not Rawicz, achieved this extraordinary feat.
Rawicz’s children, however, defended the essential truth of the book. They said in a statement: “Our father was dedicated to ensuring the remembrance of all those whose graves bore no cross, for whom no tears could be shed, for whom no bell was tolled and for those who do not live (or die) in freedom.”
Researcher John Dyson has interviewed Polish gulag survivor Witold Glinski. The likeliest explanation is that Rawicz read Witold Glinski’s genuine account of the escape, in official papers that he found in the Polish Embassy in London during the war. He has only recently spoken of his wartime experiences.
He told how he endured the deep freeze of a Siberian winter, the stifling heat of the Gobi desert, and the thin air of the Himalayas, living off the land, battling against disease and avoiding hostile tribes of nomads in China and Mongolia, to reach sanctuary.
Witold was a teenager living in the Polish border town of Glabokia when he was arrested with his family by the invading Russians, at the time, in 1939, allies of Hitler.
Separated from his parents, he was taken to Moscow’s notorious Lubianka Prison and, aged just 17, condemned to 25 years hard labour, one among a million-and-a-half Poles sent to Siberia. It might as well have been a death sentence. So, he could either wait to die, or try to get away. Witold began plotting his escape as soon as he arrived, shackled in chains.
He volunteered to work as a lumberjack, and secretly carved signs on the trees, pointing the way to the south, and the free world.
Then he was befriended by the camp commandant’s wife. “She asked me to fix her radio,” he remembers. “She rewarded me with sweet tea and a slice of bread. But the best thing was that, above a desk, there was a map of Asia.”
Already a daring plan was forming as he tried desperately to memorise the details.
But commandant’s wife Maria Uszakof ,even after all these years he remembers her name, read his mind. “She told me, ‘You’ll need good clothes and sensible shoes.’ She gave me a parcel of dried meat, new shoes, hand-knitted socks and long underwear.”
At midnight, with a savage blizzard howling around the camp, carrying a haversack that was a blanket tied at the corners, he tunnelled under the wire.
But when he made it through he turned to find six men had silently followed him.
“They were coming out of nowhere, like cockroaches in a bakery,” Witold says.
“I told them, we’ll walk for 20 hours a day, is that agreed? If they didn’t like it, they could sit down and wait for the Russians.
“The weather was too bad for patrols to operate, no animal or human would stick a nose out of the door, so this was our only chance. Our immediate aim was to get out of Russia. The border was 1,600 miles away. I pointed south, ‘That way!’”
The walkers set up a pattern. One man in front, forming a trail through the forest, two at the back sweeping over the footprints with pine branches.
He never discovered much about his comrades. They dared not trust one another. Their relationship was built on silent suspicion, not conversation.
‘Mr Smith’ was a mysterious American who had been working as an engineer in Moscow when he was arrested.
Batko was Ukrainian, wanted for murder in his homeland, muscular and fiercely determined. Zaro was a café owner from Yugoslavia, and the others were Polish soldiers.
They would have to rely on one another as their struggle to survive got tougher. Witold took charge. Growing up in the country, he had learned which plants and fungi were edible and how to cook them, how to hunt fish and trap animals.
Once they found a deer trapped in a ravine. They feasted on it for days afterwards and used pieces of the hide to bind up their thick felt prison boots.
Days before they reached the border with China, they had an encounter which is still vivid in Witold’s memory.
On the path was 18-year-old Kristina Polansk, a terrified young Polish girl who had fled barefoot through the forest from the Russians, who had killed her family and tried to rape her.
“She was very lonely and distressed and when I inspected her foot I knew straight away she had gangrene,” Witold says. “I didn’t want to be saddled with a sick girl, but what could we do?
“I made moccasins for her with the rest of the deer skin, and we carried her on a stretcher of poles with dry grass. But every day she got worse. Her leg turned black and the skin swelled and burst, it was terrible to watch.”
They crossed the Trans-Siberian Railway line, pushed on into Mongolia, and there Kristina became ravaged by fever. She shook each of the men’s hands, then closed her eyes and died.
They buried her in a shallow trench and covered her body with stones. They wept, he remembered, but they didn’t say a prayer.
Gradually fields and forests gave way to sand dunes and bare rocks, and the marchers came to their toughest test, sweltering in temperatures of 40ºC in daytime, freezing at night, and ravaged by dust storms.
“We walked in the dark, and sheltered from the sun under our ragged clothes propped on sticks,” Witold says. “Wolves and jackals would circle around us. For water, we sucked frost from stones in the early morning, then turned them over and found moisture below. We got so thirsty we even sipped our own perspiration, and some drank their urine. We were desperate. Every activity all day was a hunt for things to eat. There were lots of snakes, up to a metre long – each of us had a walking stick, so we used them as prongs. You would stab the fork down to catch the snake, then cut off its head. It would continue to wriggle for hours. Then we cut a ring around the body and peeled off the skin, rubbing sand on our hands to get a better grip. Next, you had to take out the spinal cord, carefully because it’s poisonous, chop the body into pieces and boil it. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat snake, until finally we had to.”
The next to die were two of the Polish soldiers. Witold watched them deteriorate and recognised the signs of scurvy.
“They walked more and more slowly, their legs swelled up and they could pull out teeth with their fingers,” he says. “They died on the same day. By the time we had buried the first, the second was almost gone.”
The two men had always walked side by side. Now they were laid side by side in graves.
As they moved through Tibet and the Himalayas, they helped out on farms in return for food and shelter. But in the climb, the next man perished, another of the Polish soldiers, who stood on a ledge that crumbled under him.
In the final two weeks of their march, Witold had become ill and weak, and he can remember only snatches of images.
A local guide took them through the mountains, along paths so narrow they had to go sideways, to a pass that led down into the area that is now Bangladesh.
Witold can recall a steep, dusty track, a military vehicle approaching, and then men in uniform, armed with fearsome-looking knives. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the end!’ Then I realised these men were well dressed, well disciplined, definitely not Russians.”
In fact they were Gurkhas, waiting with a very British welcome, a jug of tea and a plate of cucumber sandwiches.
The Long Walk was over. The greatest escape was complete. I believe Witold Glinski, a Jehovah’s Witness, is telling the truth.
“I hope ‘The Long Walk’ will remain as a memorial to all those who live and die for freedom, and for all those who for many reasons could not speak for themselves.”—Slavomir Rawicz