Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Long Walk

In eighth grade at Kaysville Junior High, a rather unpopular teacher named Mr. Rice showed us Escape from Sobibor, a movie that tells the story of an uprising in a German concentration camp.  I remember sleeping through some of it, but I also remember being intrigued by it, having learned much earlier about Anne Frank and the underground activity she and her family were involved in.  Later, I learned about the Soviet prison camps, the Gulag.  As with the story behind the movie I saw in junior high, the idea of escape from a vast system, stereotypically cruel and secure in most people's minds, has always been intriguing.  (To be completely honest, escapes from modern-day prisons are pretty intriguing.)  There is something redeeming and inspiring in hearing of people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the chance — not necessarily freedom itself — just the chance of freedom.

Book cover.In The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (ISBN: 978-1-59921-975-2) by SÅ‚awomir Rawicz, one can read about just such an escape and one that combines World War II history, the Gulag, and adventure travel into one.  Billed as a true story, the reader follows Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer, from Moscow's notorious Lubyanka to the a small outpost of a prison camp in northern Siberia, and then about 4,000 miles south, to India, after his escape.  The escape itself is one of the few truly exciting scenes in the book, as the rest reads much like a travelogue, but it is all adventure after adventure as the small party of fugitives walks through Russia and then the wastelands of Mongolia and China.  They pick up a fellow escapee near Lake Baikal and experience Oriental hospitality over and over again in their travels through the deserts and mountains of western East Asia.  These usually touching, sometimes comical, visits are a major reason the travelers made it to India alive.  As is to be expected, they lose a few of the party along the way to starvation and exhaustion.  In the end, though, their desire to be free is triumphant, as they walk out of the hills and into the arms of a British Indian patrol.

I enjoyed the book, which reads like a novel.  The story was exciting, intriguing, and exhilarating.  It was interesting to read the story of torture at the hands of the Russians, the hardships experienced by the prisoners during the prisoner transfer operation across the vast expanses of Russia, and the way the labor camp was organized.  The escape and the adventures that laid therein were also fun to read about and did give off the sense of the indomitable human spirit.  The only thing that may be a bit of a negative about the book (aside from some mild strong language typical of Englishmen (Rawicz settled in England after the war)) is that it likely doesn't live up to its billing as being a true story.  The epic adventure has gone under the microscope of investigators and researchers a few different times.  Since the author lived in England, the BBC did a bit of research, as well as an American woman who wrote a book about her efforts and her inconclusive results.  The one thing that has been established is that Rawicz likely did not make the trek.  After that, one is left to make one's own conclusions including a number of possibilities ranging from him doing part of it to others completing the year-long hike and from the story being a compilation of others' adventures to it simply being a prisoners' tale that became, thanks to the horrors of war and the Gulag, impressed so strongly in people's minds that they genuinely believed the story was theirs or their acquaintances'.  I am personally partial to the latter two ideas, but think that the book was a great story regardless of veracity and even though I went into my reading of the book knowing about the controversy, and therefore approaching it as fiction, it does cause one to think about freedom, liberty, and the indomitable human spirit.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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