The sentence is full of cliches, I know: Novembers are always “bleak” (especially when you’re in prison), and keys always “rattle” in locks; guards are always “broad-shouldered” and they always “march purposefully.”
Still, I was caught up in it. I consulted the book jacket to try to find something about the author, whose name meant nothing to me, and found that there was nothing at all about him there—no photo, no bio, nothing.
The book was priced at fifty cents so I bought it. And proceeded to read it through during the next days. It seemed to me a masterful job. And the cliches fell away like melting snow.
The little help there is on the book jacket tells us only that Slavomir Rawicz was a young Polish officer, arrested by the Russians on Nov.18, 1939 and, after suffering a lot of gratuitous brutality and a painfully farcical “trial,” is condemned to serve a sentence of twenty-five yeas of hard labour in Siberia.
The train journey there—the prisoners crammed into sealed boxcars—takes three months (and makes the Zhivago family’s transportation from Moscow to the Urals in David Lean’s film of Pasternak’s novel feel like a Sunday excursion)..
Rawicz’s closely-wrought description of camp life during the first third of the book is considerably more than just predictably harrowing, but much more terrifying than that is his moment by moment account of his 1941 escape from the camp—with six trusted fellow prisoners: two Poles, a Lithuanian, a Latvian, a Yugoslav and (oddly) one American. Later they add to their number a desperate young Polish girl, Kristina, who is running away from a forced labour farm. Together they somehow manage to walk 4000 miles from Siberia to India—a journey which involves a terrifying trek across the Gobi desert.
Frustrated by not knowing anything about Slavomir Rawicz and his gripping book—there is a brief note opposite the title page stating that “Slavomir Rawicz acknowledges his debt to Ronald Downing (who is Ronald Downing?) who helped him write this book (what does “helped” mean here?)”—I turned, as we all do, to Google and found this:
In the early 1950s, Slavomir "Slav" Rawicz, who has died aged 88, met a journalist, Ronald Downing. So taken was Downing with the epic story of Slav's escape from a Siberian labour camp in 1941 that he persuaded him to write about his experiences.
In 1955 [Actually it was 1956], The Long Walk was published. It was the story of a good and gentle man caught up in the savageries that followed Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, when that country was partitioned between the Nazis and the Soviet Union.
Slav's account started in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow, as he was sentenced to 25 years' hard labour for "spying", after the 12 months of interrogation that had followed his arrest on November 19 1939. Dispatched to Siberia, he and thousands of others were transported in open cattle trucks, in sub-zero temperatures, to the end of the line at Irkutsk, where, chained together, they were force-marched hundreds of miles to Camp 303 - which the survivors had to build from scratch.
In April 1941, with the aid of the camp commandant's wife, Slav and six others escaped in a blizzard. They then walked 4,000 miles south, living off the land, through the Gobi desert and over the Himalayas, until they reached India and were rescued by a Gurkha patrol. Sheer determination had overcome bitter cold, suffocating heat, thirst, starvation and injury. It took them a year. Three of the seven died on the way.
By the end of his ordeal, Slav weighed 5 stone. He never recovered his full health, but his humane will never betrayed it. After a period in hospital, the four dispersed, never to meet again.
Slav, the son of a landowner-cum-artist, was born near Pinsk, in western Poland (now Belarus). His mother, an accomplished musician, was Russian, and he grew up to speak the language fluently. As an adventurous boy, he roamed the glades and rivers of the Pripet marshes, fishing, sailing, making shelters and trapping his own food, all of which helped in his later, testing years.
Following private education, from 1932 to 1938 he studied architecture and surveying in Warsaw. In 1937, he joined the Polish reserve army, qualifying at the cavalry cadet officers' school the following year. In summer 1939, he married. The young couple had 48 hours together before Slav was mobilised as Germany invaded Poland. He never saw his wife again.
Poland's valiant defence ended after three weeks. Slav returned to Pinsk, where he was arrested by the advancing Soviet forces. He never saw his parents, siblings or home country again.
After India, in 1942 he was sent to Iraq, then to Palestine, where he taught at the Polish cadet school, helping at an orphanage in his spare time. Personally recommended by Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders, legendary commander of the Second Polish Corps, he came to Britain in 1944 to train as a pilot with the Polish air force.
After the war, he settled in the Nottingham area, where he worked as a school handicraft and woodwork instructor, as a cabinet maker and in store display. In the 1960s, he was employed by the Nottingham building and design centre.
After the centre closed, in the early 1970s he became my technician - I was a lecturer - on the architectural ceramics course at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University) school of art and design. Our friendship developed across the ensuing decades, but a heart attack forced him into early retirement in the mid-1970s.
Slav had met Marjorie Needham at a dance in 1944. They were married in 1946, as soon as a special dispensation was obtained for the uncertainty about his first wife's survival. Marjorie, a librarian, helped with The Long Walk, which, never out of print, has been published in more than 25 languages, including, since 1990, Russian and other eastern European tongues.
From the royalties, Slav and Marjorie bought a ruined but delightful historic house on a hilltop near Nottingham, which they pulled into shape over the years while raising five children. There was never any spare money, but they managed with their Catholic faith, ingenuity and love.
Retirement was not a concept Slav entertained. Besides keeping a large garden in order for almost half a century, each year he received hundreds of letters from people all over the world, inspired by his book, often school children. With Marjorie's help, he answered them all. He gave talks, emphasising his watchwords, the "precious heritage of freedom".
Marjorie died three months ago. Their two sons, three daughters, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren survive him.
Slavomir Rawicz, escaper [“escaper”?] and crusader for freedom, born September 1 1915; died April 5 2004
I still have no idea how Slavomir Rawicz managed to write this astonishing book. And what did Ronald Downing do?