Saturday, May 7, 2016

Real Torture, Deprivation, and Life Triumphant

Review: The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz

In 1939, 25-year-old Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia following a torture-induced “confession” in Moscow. In 1956, he was living peacefully in England with his English wife. The years between are detailed in The Long Walk, the classic tale of Rawicz’ trek with seven others to freedom.

Rawicz tells his story from the calm, relaxed vantage of a decade’s separation from the events. If anything, this detached approach lends additional power to the tale. He spends less than a chapter detailing his torture at the hands of the NKVD “specialists” in Kharkov prison, almost passively detailing his weeks-long confinement in a upright-coffin-sized kishka cell standing in his own bodily wastes, his racking and the burning of his hands with hot tar, the systematic beatings and subtler tortures. Rawicz can even praise the kishka of Lublyanka prison where he is incarcerated during his show trial, because “…this kishka was clean, and the periods I was forced to spend in it were much shorter.”

Sentenced to serve in a labor camp in Siberia, Rawicz must first get there from Moscow. This trip takes him 3000 miles by train across wintry Russia, still barefoot in the button-less cotton blouse and belt-less pants which he wore in the Kharkov. He reports the death of numerous prisoners in his cattle-car, whose bodies were dumped alongside the track after being stripped of their prison garb. “Father Stalin only loaned the poor bastard his clothes for the duration of his stay in the USSR…”

When the caravan reached the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the men were chained by twos to the end of a dozen trucks, and marched to their camp. Although they were issued warmer clothes and rubber boots, 10 to 15 percent of the prisoners died on that final march.

At Camp 303, Rawicz decides to escape. He is aided in this plan by the bored wife of the Soviet commandant, who asks only that he wait until her husband is away and the camp is nominally under the command of the political officer. Rawicz chooses six other prisoners—one of whom, they discover to their surprise, is an American mining engineer who was arrested after a year’s work on the Moscow subway tunnels. “Mr. Smith” is strangely fluent in Russian, and may in fact be a spy, but the other five men are Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian prisoners. They collect supplies of dried bread, steal deer, sable and rabbit skins from the guards, and manage to create warmer clothing, shoes and other tools for survival before leaving the camp in mid-April, 1941.

The seven men, and an escaped Polish teen, Kristina, whom they meet on the east side of the half-frozen Lena River, had before them a daunting trek. They would need to walk more than 3000 miles south through Siberia’s spring blizzards and icy rivers, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Himalayas, in order to “surrender” to a British lieutenant in southern Nepal. Along the way, Rawicz lists their changing numbers almost diffidently in chapter titles: “Seven Cross the Lena River”, “Eight Enter Mongolia”, “Six Enter Tibet”, “Five By-Pass Lhasa.”

Concealed within this off-hand report of group size is nine months of gruelling travel, including nearly sixty days of suffering in the Gobi Desert. “We sweated it out for about three hours in throbbing discomfort, mouths open, gasping in the warm desert air over enlarged, dust-covered tongues.” And, “After a while he closed his eyes and I thought he had gone, but he was still breathing quietly… There was no spasm, no tremor, no outward sign to show that life had departed the body.” And, “The heat enveloped us, sucking the moisture from our bodies, putting ankle-irons of lethargy about our legs.”

This is no calm, beautiful serenity that surrounds the travelers, but a rasping deprivation they fight with every ounce of their strength. Rawicz and three of his companions would live through this self-imposed torment to reach India and freedom. Throughout their trip, all eight of the escaped prisoners fought grimly to stay alive. Why, during a period of history when millions were dying in a second World War and a dire Holocaust, would we celebrate the triumph of four souls over death?

Today, when the “right to die” is viciously debated in our forums, and moral outrage over "torture" is extended to discomforts that pale in comparison, The Long Walk is a refreshing celebration of the will to live. Whether you read it as a moral fable or a true account of escape from Siberia, its focus on life is a useful contrast to the discussions of the day.
I hope The Long Walk will remain as a memorial to all those who live and die for freedom, and for all those who for many reasons could not speak for themselves. I had to tell my story as a warning to the living, and as a moral judgment for the greater good.  Slavomir Rawicz, 1993 Introduction to The Long Walk