THE LONG WALK
—An Epic Survival Story
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Thoreau reminds us, “The muskrat will gnaw its leg off to be free.” Throughout history, humans have endured unbelievable hardships in their quest for freedom from persecution, whether their efforts involve confrontations with the fire hoses and electric cattle prods of the likes of Bull Connor, the gunfire of the Vopos guarding the Berlin Wall or the perils of the Kmer Rouge infested jungles of Kampuchea.
In 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty of non-belligerence between the two powers. While the treaty established spheres of interest in Eastern Europe, it also secretly divided Poland between the two.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and Stalin followed suit on September 17. Trapped between the two monolithic meat grinders were millions of Polish people, who were to suffer ghastly persecution under Hitler and decades of repression under Soviet dominance.
For many years, one of my favorite books has been The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz, an epic tale of the quest for freedom by a small band of unjustly imprisoned men.
On November 19, Rawicz, then a young Polish cavalry officer, was arrested by the Soviet NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, while celebrating his wedding and taken first to Kharkov and then to Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison, for a lengthy and merciless purgatory of interrogation, torture and imprisonment unique to the stone cold insanity of the Stalinist form of totalitarianism. He was never to see his new young wife or his family and friends again.
Following a long, torturous journey, first crammed into a railroad car with other prisoners and then marched and dragged across the harsh winter tundra, an ordeal which many did not survive at all, half dead from exposure, exhaustion and meager rations, Rawicz arrived at his destiny, Camp # 303, on the north side of the Lena River in eastern Siberia.
Here, Rawicz had been sentenced to spend the next 25 years of his life at hard labor, convicted of trumped up espionage charges and a forged confession. In addition to daily hard labor cutting timber, the prisoners were forced to construct their own barracks or die in the extreme cold. In the meantime, they survived by sleeping in snow holes. Rations consisted of a daily bread ration, coffee, thin soup containing mostly turnips, and on rare occasions dried fish. Rawicz and others dreamed of the unthinkable: Escape.
Transferred from timber cutting to a workshop where he made skis for the military, Rawicz was befriended by the camp commandant’s young wife because of their mutual love for classical music. Slowly and secretly, she aided and abetted his plans for escape. In spare moments, he constructed a long bladed knife. He and six fellow conspirators stole furs from animals that had been shot or trapped by the guards and sewed together moccasins, parkas, and caps. They secreted away an axe head, a single spoon, a mug and small bits of bread.
There were seven, counting Rawicz himself: An American known only as Mr. Smith, an engineer who had been recruited to work on the Moscow Metro but had been convicted of spying; a Lithuanian prisoner named Marchinkovas; Eugene Zaro, a Yugoslav; fellow Poles Kolemos, Paluchowicz and Makowski.
They made their break sometime around Easter, April 13, 1941, near midnight during a heavy snowstorm so that the falling snow would cover their tracks. Like all escapes, this one was breathtaking in its suspense and precariousness. Timing had to be perfect to avoid guards and their dogs as the escapees fumbled through barbed wire and over deep trenches.
There followed long days and nights of non-stop flight through the freezing taiga, the men ever alert for police, soldiers, or informants. Campfires were out of the question. On one occasion, they gorged themselves on fresh venison after slaying a buck deer with their axe when they found his antlers entangled in the roots of a tree. On another occasion, they stole and slaughtered a pig.
Ever on the alert for pursuers, they crept carefully across frozen rivers and the closely guarded Trans-Siberian Railroad. The plan was to travel across Siberia, Mongolia and Tibet to safety in India. Along the way, they were joined by a 17-year old Polish girl named Kristina Polanska, who had witnessed her parents being beaten and strangled with barbed wire by a Ukrainian mob as land was reclaimed from Polish farmers during the Soviet invasion. Sentenced to work in Siberia, she had fled the sexual advances of her foreman.
Once across the border into Mongolia, the threat of recapture diminished. Using the cover story that they were pilgrims on their way to Lhasa to pray, they were befriended by Mongol herdsmen, who exhibited courtesy, generosity and hospitality to such impoverished travelers, providing them with figs, nuts, barley grains, oat cakes, and dried fish.
Surviving a severe storm in Mongolia’s Kentei Mountains, traveling thirty miles a day, they descended to a hot, dry plain. The trek across Mongolia consisted of a series of forced marches from water hole to water hole before entering the furnace of the Gobi Desert. After many days, surviving on snake meat, parched with thirst and near death, they arrived at a tiny oasis where muddy water provided some respite. Two of their members perished in the Gobi, first Kristina, who quietly drifted away, then Makouski, who died in his sleep.
The journey from the Gobi to Tibet took three months, during which they passed from intense heat to the freezing heights of the Himalayas. Tibetan villagers welcomed them and fed them generously, but the travel was nevertheless fraught with peril. The tallest, most forbidding peaks blocked their way. Sometimes, they were forced to scale rocks and cliffs hand over hand. They were warned by villagers to avoid Chinese troops, uncertain as to how they would be treated. Fearing awkward questions from officialdom, they bypassed the holy city of Lhasa.
One freezing night, Marchenkova also died in his sleep. Shortly before reaching India, Paluchowicz slid off a precipice and plummeted to his death.
Enduring gales, heavy snow and sleet, ravaged by scurvy, and infested with lice, their feet reduced to bloody pulps, the four survivors at last crossed into India where they met a patrol of native troops. After a journey of 4000 miles on foot in twelve months, the Long Walk was over.
Rawicz never saw his surviving comrades again. Regaining his strength after long days of delirium in a Calcutta hospital, he was shipped to rejoin elements of the Polish army fighting under British command in the Middle East. As the end of the war neared, he trained as a Royal Air Force pilot. After being mustered out, he spent the rest of his life living quietly in the United Kingdom as a woodworker and cabinetmaker.
The Long Walk, first published in 1956 and made into a film entitled The Way Back in 2010, is an unparalleled survival epic, a testimony to the endurance and indomitable spirit of Rawicz and his friends. It also provides a reminder, that the evils of totalitarianism forever lurk on the perimeters of our consciousness, that the horrendous mistreatment accorded prisoners within the confines of Hitler’s Stalags and Stalin’s Gulag are reflected in more recent times in the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and the dungeons of Chilean and Argentinian generalissimos.
Freedom is purchased at great cost but can easily be forfeited through inattention, indifference, or determined ignorance.