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Sławomir Rawicz (1 September 1915 – 5 April 2004) was a Polish Army lieutenant who was imprisoned by the Russian NKVD after the German-Soviet invasion of Poland. In a ghost-written book called The Long Walk, he claimed that in 1941 he and six others had escaped from a Siberian Gulag camp and began a long journey south on foot (about 6,500 km (4,000 mi)). They endeavoured through the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas to finally reach British India in the winter of 1942. In 2006 the BBC released a report based on former Soviet records, including statements written by Rawicz himself, showing that Rawicz had been released as part of the 1942 general amnesty of Poles in the USSR and subsequently transported across the Caspian Sea to a refugee camp in Iran and that his escape to India never occurred.
In May 2009, Witold Gliński, a Polish WWII veteran living in the UK, came forward to claim that the story of Rawicz was true, but was actually an account of what happened to him, not Rawicz. Gliński's claims have been questioned by various sources.
Rupert Mayne, a British intelligence officer in wartime India, claimed to his son to have interviewed three emaciated men in Calcutta in 1942, who claimed to have escaped from Siberia. According to his son, Mayne always believed their story was the same as that of The Long Walk - but telling the story decades later, his son could not remember their names or any details.
Early life and army career
Sławomir Rawicz was born on 1 September 1915 in Warsaw, the son of a landowner. He received private primary education and went on to study architecture in 1932. In 1937 he joined the Polish Army Reserve and underwent the cadet officer school. In July 1939 he married Vera, his first wife. She went missing during WWII.
According to his account, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union defeated Poland, Rawicz returned home, where the NKVD arrested him on 19 November 1939. He was taken to Minsk, then sent to Kharkov for interrogation, then to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was put on rigged trial. He was tortured to make him confess to being a spy which initially was unsuccessful. He was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour in a Siberian prison camp, ostensibly for espionage as were thousands of others. Researchers for the BBC Radio program The Long Walk in 2006 unearthed documents indicating that the charge against Rawicz might have been for killing, in the defence of his country, a Russian NKVD officer.
The Long Walk – Escape from the Gulag camp and walk to India
According to the account in the book, Rawicz was transported, alongside thousands of others, to Irkutsk and made to walk to the Gulag Camp 303, which was 650 km south of the Arctic Circle. His labour duties in the camp included the construction of the prisoners' barracks, the manufacture of skis for the Russian army, and the repair and operation of the camp commandant's radio.
In The Long Walk, Rawicz describes how he and six companions escaped from the camp in the middle of a blizzard in 1941 and headed south, avoiding towns. The fugitive party included three Polish soldiers, a Latvian landowner, a Lithuanian architect, and an enigmatic US metro engineer called "Mr. Smith"; they were later joined by a 17-year-old Polish girl, Kristina. They journeyed from Siberia to India crossing the Gobi Desert and Himalayas. Four of the group died, two in the Gobi, two in the Himalayas. The book also mentions the spotting of a pair of yeti-like creatures in the Himalayas.
According to the book, four survivors of the 11-month trek reached British India around March 1942 and stumbled upon a Gurkha patrol. They were taken to a hospital in Calcutta. Towards the end of the book, Mr. Smith asked Rawicz about his future. Rawicz told Smith he would rejoin the Polish army. Once released from the hospital, the survivors went their own ways. Some were still permanently sick from the torture they had faced at the Russian camp.
WWII activities after imprisonment
According to Rawicz, he moved from India to Iraq, then re-entered the Soviet Union in June 1942 and rejoined the Polish Army on 24 July 1942 at Kermini. He then returned to Iraq with Polish troops and moved on to Palestine, where he spent time recovering in a hospital and teaching in a military school. He claimed that General Władysław Anders had recommended his transfer to Britain for training as a pilot of the Polish Air Forces in Great Britain.
Soviet records confirm that Rawicz was a Polish soldier imprisoned in the USSR, but differ from The Long Walk in detail on the reasons for his arrest and the exact places of imprisonment. Polish Army records show that Rawicz left the USSR directly for Iran in 1942, which contradicts the book's storyline. Aside from matters concerning his health, his arrival in Palestine is verified by the records. The story of the escape to India comes from Rawicz himself.
Captain Rupert Mayne, an intelligence officer in Calcutta, years after the war, said that in 1942 he had debriefed three emaciated men claiming to have escaped from a Siberian Gulag camp. Mayne did not provide any further details and did not identify Rawicz as one of the men.
After the war he settled in Sandiacre, Nottingham, England, and worked at the Nottingham Design Centre. He married Marjorie Gregory née Needham in 1947; they had five children. In the early 1970s he became a technician at the Architectural Ceramics course at Nottingham Trent University School of Art and Design. A heart attack forced him into early retirement in 1975. He lived a quiet life with his family, giving public talks and answering fan mail, until his death on 5 April 2004.
Three weeks after Harold Nicolson reviewed The Long Walk for The Observer, the newspaper published a short article entitled "Long Walker", in response to readers' questions about Rawicz's postwar life. In addition to the familiar biographical details to 1956, presumably supplied by author or publisher, the article added: "About his real name he preserves secrecy".
The Long Walk
The Long Walk was ghost-written by Ronald Downing based on conversations with Rawicz. It was released in the UK in 1956 and has sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 25 languages. The Readers Book Club edition (1958), and the "concise" version (ed. S. H. Burton) brought out by Longmans and Green in their Heritage of Literature Series for schools (1960), helped popularise the book. The "concise" edition went out of print in the late 1980s.
Other versions and historical research
Various people have researched the veracity of the story. Examples include:
- Witold Gliński, a Polish survivor of the war, claimed that he was the person who did "the long walk". Reader's Digest published his story in 2009.
- Leszek Gliniecki, another Polish war survivor, claims to have multiple documents showing that Glinski could not have been there.
- Linda Willis did a decade of research on most parts of the story, without reaching a definite conclusion, but cleared up some details.
Leszek Gliniecki has copies of official documents which state that Witold Glinski was born in 1926 (22 November), was sent into forced exile to a special settlement Kriesty in Arkhagelsk Oblast (Province), Russia, and stayed there from 24 February 1940 to 2 September 1941. This is confirmed by the international organisation "Memorial", the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and the Arkhangelsk Province archives. The above information would not allow Witold Glinski to take part in the Long Walk. Archives of the Polish Army in the West, and his death certificate Confirm that Witold Glinski was born in 1926.
- Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski, an author of an account of escape from Siberia during the Russian Civil War in the 1920s.
- Looking for Mr. Smith (2010), book by Linda Willis, documenting her research into the story behind The Long Walk and her findings.
- Random Acts of Heroic Love (2007), a semi-biographical novel by Danny Scheinmann, about a man who escaped a POW camp in Siberia in 1917 and spent three years walking home to his village in Poland. Based on a true story of the author's grandfather.
- Seven Years in Tibet, an autobiographic travel book by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who escaped from British India into Tibet during the Second World War.
- As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me (2001), a film based on a book by Josef Martin Bauer, concerning the alleged escape of German World War II prisoner of war Cornelius Rost (under the alias Clemens Forell) from a Siberian Gulag camp back to Germany. There are a number of significant skeptical issues concerning this escape story.
- The Way Back (2010), an epic drama film inspired by The Long Walk (1955), the memoir by former Polish POW Sławomir Rawicz, who escaped from a Soviet Gulag.
- Levinson, Hugh (30 October 2006). "Walking the talk?". BBC News, International version. BBC News. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
- Dennis Ellam and Adam Lee Potter (16 May 2009). "The Greatest Escape – war hero who walked 4,000 miles from Siberian death camp". Mirror.co.uk.
- Скрадзенае жыццё Вітальда Глінскага (Belarusian)
- Hugh Levinson, "Walking the talk?" Monday, 30 October 2006, BBC News, UK
- BBC Radio "The missing link came through documents discovered by an American researcher, Linda Willis, in Polish and Russian archives. One, in Rawicz's own hand described how he was released from the gulag in 1942, apparently as part of a general amnesty for Polish soldiers. These are backed up by his amnesty document and a permit to travel to rejoin the Polish Army. These papers make it almost impossible to believe that Rawicz escaped, unless there is a case of mistaken identity. However, the name and place and date of birth all match. The documents also show that rather than being imprisoned on trumped-up charges 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."
- Amazing escapes: illustrated with photographs and prints Thomas G. Gunning – 1984 "On a snowy night in April of 1941 , Slav and six other prisoners – Sigmund Makowski, Anastazi Kolemenos, Anton Paluchowicz, Eugene Zaro, Zacharius Marchinkovas, and Smith, an American who never gave his first name – crept out of their ..."
- Spectator 1956 "They were Smith (50), an American civil engineer; Paluchowicz (41), a sergeant in the Polish cavalry; Makowski (37), an officer of the Polish Frontier Force; Zaro (30), 'a Yugoslav, I think'; Marchinkovas (28), a Lithuanian architect;"
- The Economist 1956 "Kolemenos, the fourteen stone Latvian landowner, "a kind and helpful giant of a man "; Makowski, the precise Polish army captain, Paluchowicz, " tough, toothless, devout, old Paluchowicz," the sergeant of Polish cavalry ; Zaro, the Jugoslav clerk and resilient humorist of the party ; Marchinkovas, the Lithuanian architect"
- The Spectator: 1956 "Rawicz, with the unflamboyant help of Mr. Ronald Downing, tells their astonishing story in The Long Walk,"... "The Lithuanian died in his sleep one night, and they lost the toothless, indomitable Paluchowicz down a crevasse."
- The Long Walk "I saw Paluchowicz reach the end of the slope. I turned to Zaro and in that instant saw the rope jerk about the sticks and become slack ... But Paluchowicz had vanished. Like fools we stood there calling out his name. No one answered."
- Life Is... p101 Ray Rouse – 2007 "That decision meant walking four thousand miles under extremely difficult conditions in order to gain freedom. Marchinkovas, Makowski, and Paluchowicz failed the test. Rawicz, Smith, Kolemenos, and Zaro passed it and lived."
- The Observer article may be based on an interview: "About his real name he preserves secrecy. He is about forty, is handsome in a lined and slightly weary-looking kind of way, and is extremely shy and modest. He is very happy in this country, and retains his Polish nationality only because of the hope which Poles often have that one day there will be a Poland to go home to."
- "The Way Back". IMDb. 2010.
- Symmes, Patrick (January 2003). "To Tell the Truth Is it fact or is it fiction? The perplexing story behind The Long Walk.". Outside online – Canon Fodder. Mariah Media Inc. Retrieved December 16, 2011.
- "Exclusive - The Greatest Escape". Mirror. May 16, 2009.
- Willis, Linda. Looking for Mr. Smith. ISBN 1616081589.
- Strandberg, Mikael, et. al. "The Long Walk Articles". MikaelStrandberg.com. This is an excellent collection of articles relating to The Long Walk, the movie 'The Way Back' based on the book, Linda Willis' Looking For Mr. Smith, and related materials.
- StRIX [Peter Fleming (12 July 1956). "The Long Bow". The Spectator. p. 13. An interesting contemporary discussion of Rawicz's book by a noted explorer.
- Richardson, Hugh (1957). "Review: The Long Walk". Himalayan Journal. Insightful comments on the book from a noted Tibetologist and British diplomat.
- Freedom Trek Grigg, William Norman 19 April 2004 The New American