BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Long Walk’ by Slavomir Rawicz

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It’s hard to believe that this a true story, yet hard to believe that it is not. The writer has describes in vivid detail how he led a group of political prisoners who escape from a Russian prisoners camp in northern Siberia. They must walk more than four thousand miles to reach freedom a year and a half later in India.

The author, at age 23 was a lieutenant in the Polish cavalry when World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939. Soldiers on horseback, no matter how brave and skilled, were no match for German tanks and dive bombers. The Polish campaign is soon over.

Poland’s defeat brings the nation under domination of Germany’s ally, Russian dictator Josef Stalin, and any Polish army officers are to be eliminated. Slavomir is arrested on a charge of being an anti-Russian spy. When he refuses to sign a dictated confession that he is not allowed to read, he spends a year in Moscow’s notorious Kharkov and Lubyanka Prisons. After a trial in Russia’s Supreme Court, he is sentenced to 25 years at forced labor in Siberia.

The same process was going on in most of the Eastern European nations now under Russia’s rule. Russia has a railroad line across the whole of Asia, from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean, and Slavomir finds himself in one of many trains, about sixty prisoners per cattle car, standing room only, no toilet facilities, a stop every few hours to get off under guard and stretch their legs, get a lump of black bread and drink of water. Three thousand miles, more than a week. Some died in transit.

They detrain at Irkutsk. Fifty trucks are waiting, each with a long chain attached. Prisoners were lined up on each side of each chain, with one wrist handcuffed to it. The trucks moved at a walking pace. Armed guards walked with them, but the walking guards were changed every two hours, with other guards riding on the trucks. Work camp 303 is a thousand miles north. They walked through three blizzards. Mortality was high that first month. It would have been worse except for the mobile kitchen which supplied daily bread and hot ersatz coffee.

Slavomir’s first work assignment was cutting timber for more cabins. But one day the camp commander announced an opportunity open to repair the camp’s only radio. Slav had had a similar radio at home, and volunteered. He found a loose wire on his first inspection, but parlayed it into a three-day job to get news from Europe which he passed on to other prisoners. He also gained the attention of the commander’s wife — the only woman in the camp — whom he taught to find the music she missed so much since moving to this far-eastern wilderness. She sympathizes with the injustice of his 25-year sentence.

He gradually forms a plan for escape, gathering six other men, each physically fit and intelligent. They set a date when the camp commander will be gone for a week, so that the propaganda officer, whom they all detest, will be in charge and to blame for their escape. The plan takes careful note of the night time patrol guards’ schedule, and of barriers they must cross; the camp has no electric power and no search lights. They have hoarded some of their bread allowance, they will travel at night and hole up in the daytime. It is now early springtime, but they are only 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

They get away without raising alarm, carrying only a knife, and an axe as tools/weapons. They drag a sheepskin behind them to throw dog’s off their scent. They will head south, trying to make 30 miles per night. The Pacific coast to the east would be much closer but is heavily militarized. Any pursuers will be unlikely to anticipate them heading southward to Mongolia

They cross the wide Lena River — still frozen over — and reach the rail line in May, still wary of meeting anyone. They are especially careful in farming country along the rail line. They do accept a 17-year-old fugitive girl, who is at first terrified of them but then sees them as protection for her own escape.

The group, now eight, make it safely across the railroad line, and the Mongolian border south of it, but now have a new problem. They all speak Russian, and one or more can speak Polish, German, French or English, but no one knows Mongol or Chinese. And their food supply is very low.

They still have two thousand miles to go, including the Gobi Desert, before reaching safety in India. The author is an excellent writer, bringing out both good and bad in his characters, and a viewpoint of mid-20th history that will be new to many of his readers.

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