Posts tagged The Long Walk

“I think I should tell you about myself” from Rawicz’s book

Finished Slavomir Rawicz’s book titled “The Long Walk.” Different in other ways from the recent Hollywoodized movie “The Way Back.”  Why did the movie veer off as it did from this true story from the early 1940s? More than enough drama without going off the serpentine path these escapees took from a Siberian prison camp, all 4,000 miles of it.  Without giving all the story away, if you are interested in reading the book or watching the movie, I will insert something from p. 116 that I thought was particularly good. It fits with the drum I’ve been beating for a long time about what conditions were like in Ukraine in the 1930s.  So much sadness even before the 1940s for those who survived the terror famine in the 1930s and what they encountered once sent off to Siberia or Kazakhstan to be “rehabilitated.”

The movie changed the name of the one fugitive girl (Irena) that joined the party of escapees, her name was Kristina in the book.  She wanted to let the other seven men know who she was so thus the title of this blog, she started with:

“I think I should tell you about myself,” she said.  We nodded.  It was a variation of a story we all knew.  The prison camps were filled with men who could tell of similar experiences.  The location and the details might differ, but the horror and the leaden misery were common ingredients and stemmed from the same authorship.

After the first World War Kristina Polanska’s father had been rewarded for his war services by a grant of land in the Ukraine under the reorganization of Central European territory.  He had fought against the Bolsheviks, and General Pilsudski was thus able to give a practical expression of Polish gratitude.  The girl was the only child.  They were a hard-working couple, these parents, and they intended that Kristina should have every advantage their industry could provide.  In 1939 she was attending high school in Luck and the Polanskas were well pleased with the progress she was making.

Came September 1939. The Russians started moving in.  Ahead of the Red Army “Liberators” the news of their coming reached the Ukrainian farm workers.  The well-organized Communist underground was ready.  It needed only a few inflammatory speeches on the theme of the overthrow of the foreign landowners and restoration of the land to the workers, and the Ukrainian peasants were transformed into killer mobs.  The Polanskas knew their position was desperate.  They knew the mob would come for them.  They hid Kristina in a loft and waited…”

The rest of Kristina’s story is too sad to recount here in this blog as is true of all these stories coming out of Ukraine and Kazakhstan I have collected over the years.  Suffice it to say, Kristina was an orphan and met up with these men who had gone through far worse trials of being separated from their families and also severely tortured.  The movie, of course, did not go indepth as to what had happened to Kristina before she met up with them. Nor had the movie shown the tortures that Rawicz went through at the hands of the Soviets which is at the beginning of the book.

Therefore, next time an old timer from the Old Country might say to you, “I think I should tell you about myself…” Let them tell their story. But my guess is that you will have to patiently ask questions (maybe loudly and insistently) and need a box of tissues handy when you get the answers.

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Reading “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz

My husband read this book titled “The Long Walk” written by Slavomir Rawicz when he was in 6th grade, it was published in 1956. It’s about a Polish army officer who was “sized up” as a spy for the Germans by the Soviets. The recent movie starring Ed Harris “The Way Back” is based on this book but leaves out all the torture and hardship Rawicz lived through as a 25 year old privileged army officer first in Kharkiv (Ukraine) and then in the terrible prison in Moscow.  That was almost two years worth before the agonizing one month train trip (3,000 miles) on the trans-Siberian. Prisoners were treated like cattle and then these “Unfortunates” were forced to walk in the deep snow with chains north to Camp 303 in the northern part of Siberia close to Yakutsk.  The film makers leave out many things but they DO portray other things quite accurately about the 4,000 mile walk.  I recommend seeing the movie if you don’t want to bother with the book.

The following is the description of what the inmates looked like based on their ages, according to 25 year old author Rawicz:

“And all the time my mind juggling with pictures of the stockaded camp…and always the men about me, the young ones like me who were resilient and quick to recover, the forty-year-olds who surprisingly (to me, then) moved slowly but with great reserves of courage and strength and the over fifties who fought to stay young, to work, to live, the men who had lived leisured lives and now, marvelously, displayed the guts to face a cruel new life very bravely. They should have been telling tales to their devoted grandchildren, these oldsters.  Instead they spent their days straining and lifting at the great fallen trees, working alongside men who were often half their age.  There is a courage which flourishes in the worst kind of adversity and it is quite unspectacular. These men had it in full.”

The same could be said of the “Enemies of the People” women who were depicted in what I have blogged about the last several days in “Till My Tale is Told.” Many women in ALZHIR prison camp should have been with their grandchildren instead of felling trees and being used as slave labor.

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Unwritten Places (Part II)

I’m simultaneously reading the very well written book titled “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz which was published in 1956. The real author (in English) of this great story is Ronald Downing, but the Polish army officer, who showed true grit by surviving lengthy interrogations and brutal torture, is Rawicz who walked 4,000  miles to freedom in the early 1940s from a Siberian gulag.  I’ll blog more about this book when I am finished.

For now, I still can’t get over how an index of a book would ignore the place names in Kazakhstan in the other book I’m reading “Till My Tale is Told.”  The name of this book was taken from a poem I found in Afterword. Notice the word “ghastly” was left out of the title.” Perhaps no one would read a book that was that forbidding. Indeed, it is a painful book to read through from 16 women’s perspectives.

“Since then, at an uncertain hour

That agony returns

And till my ghastly tale is told

This heart within me burns.”

Preface to Russian edition “It seemed as if the monstrous Stalinist regime had given birth to a new type of human being, writes Vera Shulz, in her memoirs, “a submissive, inert creature, mute and devoid of initiative…”

I believe what Vera writes is the continuation of a the “slave mentality” that exists today in Kazakhstan, (i.e. bride kidnapping, human trafficking).  However, the old Soviet laws which the women “politicals” were found guilty of that I found in the index of the Vilensky book are telling.  Also, I think it is an interesting quote by Tolstoy that perhaps still holds true today in contemporary Central Asia.

Tolstoy “Russian laws are tolerable only because everybody breaks them; if not one broke them, they would be unbearable.”

Article 7 – measures in public interest

7:35 – socially dangerous elements

35 – specifying public interest measures

58:8 – terrorism

58:10 – subversion – discrediting a Soviet court

58:12 – failure to denounce

70 – Criminal Code

One more quote that refers directly to these unwritten places in the index but are very much in the contents of this book.

p. 164 – “More than a year passed, and I was living in exile in Kazakhstan on the shores of the Aral Sea, working in a local school teaching Russian to little Kazakhs. The town of Aralsk, if this collection of straw and clay huts spread out under the blazing sun could be called a town, drowned in the arid sandy wastelands around the Aral, and I felt completely homesick for the green of central Russia, blinking back the tears when ever goods trucks passed by loaded with Russian birch logs.” By Vera Shulz (this was written @ 1938)

I can only hope that if Indiana University Press plans to have a second edition of “Till My Tale is Told” they should go through and find the places in Kazakhstan that are “unwritten places” which are not found in the index but in the womens’ tales.

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“The Way Back” or “The Long Walk” of 4,000 miles out of Siberia’s prison

Last night we watched “The Way Back” starring Ed Harris and a superb cast of actors (including one 16 year old girl). The movie is based on a true story of an original group of 7-8 men who walked away from an Siberian prison camp in 1941.  My husband, as a young boy, had read the book that was first published in 1955 titled “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” written by Ronald Downing.  That alone clinched our decision to experience this epic journey through cold, mountain passes and thirsty, Mongolian deserts. My husband wanted to see how close the movie fit to his recollection of reading this book 45-50 years ago.

Interestingly enough, Ronald Downing had started his own quest in Tibet of the legendary abominable snowman. However, he instead started gathering information about a Polish man, Slavomir Rawicz, who had walked across eastern Siberia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, through China, Tibet and the Himalayans to finally gain his freedom in India. That was more compelling to write about than a snowman.

No doubt the film’s director Peter Weir had some parts of Downing’s book “Hollywood-ized”  However, the main meaning comes across in the special features after the movie.  That is, the inhumanity present in 100s of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union is little known by people from the West.  I’m guessing for every 100 movies about Nazi atrocities in concentration camps, you have one movie about what Stalin did to his own people of the U.S.S.R. with the Siberian gulags. (That would also include Kazakhstan’s KARLAG system too)

The Soviet system was extremely brutal to their political prisoners who were imprisoned alongside REAL criminals of thieves and murderers.  There is one character, Valka, in this story who owned a knife, he called it “the wolf.” He also had tatooed on his chest the faces of Lenin and Stalin.  Though he believed in communism, he actually helped the other “politicals” survive in the wilds with the use of his knife. Yet he turned back once they got to the Trans-Siberian railway which they thought was the end of the Soviet Union and walking into freedom…sadly Mongolia had been taken over by USSR and so their trek to freedom continued.

The movie skipped over the Himalayans since the over two hour long movie had already shown its audience enough of the bitter cold of Siberia and reaching Lake Baikal and then the dry desert scenes. Also, I don’t think the actors or camera and production crews could fathom doing more marathon type survivalist living in the mountains.

The real hero of this story (played by Jim Sturgess) in both the movie and the book was Slavomir Rawicz, this Polish army officer who had been captured by the Red Army and accused of being a Nazi. His wife had been tortured to create a false testimony against him and Slavomir was summarily imprisoned by the Communists out to Siberia. He successfully trekked 4,000 miles after escaping from a Siberian prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal which lasted about a year because he knew how to live in the outdoors and survive on nature’s food and water.  He was accused by the Ed Harris character, known only as “Mr. Smith” of not being able to survive in the prisoner’s camp because he was too kind and helped other prisoners.  Perhaps his kindness and knowledge of how to survive is what eventually prevailed and got the two other men out alive with him.

Apparently, the older American, dubbed “Mr. Smith” had earlier watched his 17 year old son die at the mercy of communists then he was sent to the gulag and once “free” went on the Lhasa, Tibet. We don’t know if he survived once he parted ways with Slavomir and the others.  Also, I’m not sure if the movie ended accurately which showed how Slavomir had waited until Poland was free from the bonds of communist oppression to see his wife again after being separated for almost 50 years.  I would like to get a copy of the old book titled “The Long Walk” to read what my husband had read 50 years ago.  Such a remarkable story had a great impact on him.  The movie may have a profound impact on many other westerners as well.

Why don’t more people in the West know about the gulag system that happened throughout Russia and Kazakhstan?  Little is written because few people survived the cruel brutalities!  I would highly recommend watching this movie “The Way Back.”

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