(By Mikael Strandberg, CuChullaine O´Reilly) The book the Long Walk - a true story of a trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz has inspired generations of arm chair readers and explorers world wide. Since it was first published 1956 it has sold more than 500 000 copies and been translated into 25 languages. Between Christmas and New Year the Hollywood movie The Way Back hit the screens in the US and the UK. It is based on and inspired by the book. But the big question is, did the Long Walk ever happen? And if, by who?
The Long Walk
The Long Walk caused a sensation when it came out 1956. Allegedly a true story of a great escape from one of Stalin´s terrible gulags, initiated by the young Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz.
In April 1941, he escaped from camp 303, located south of Yakutsk, in a blizzard together with six other prisoners. Instead of choosing the shortest route to freedom and survival, by walking 2500 kms (1500 miles) east for the Pacific Coast and a possible boat to Japan, they headed directly south.
18 months and 6500 Kms (4000 miles) later only four of them reached freedom in British India in September 1942. Three died during the trek. Possibly the hardest walk ever.
Survivors never talked again
To reach British India, under-provisioned and with hardly any equipment except their worn camp clothes, they crossed the dense Siberian taiga in deep snow, during one of the coldest recorded winters in history, passed Lake Baikal and continued through Mongolia, suffering extreme heat in the Gobi desert, before they made it to Tibet.
Once on the plateau they crossed over the Himalayas into British India. After having arrived as free men, the four survivors split up, never to meet or talk again. Slavomir Rawicz was hailed as a hero when the book came out. But was it a true story?
The authenticity of the book, which was ghostwritten by a Daily Mail reporter, Ronald Downing, was questioned from the outset. Eric Shipton, a legendary leader of Mount Everest expeditions, was one of these critics. He noted many inconsistencies about the distances mentioned. Explorer Peter Fleming, who knew the Himalayas very well, called the book a hoax.
However, Rawicz met his hardest opponents at a lecture in London 1956, speaking about his book for a group of Polish ex-servicemen. While Rawicz was speaking, several men jumped up and claimed they had known the author before and during the war, that he had been in the infantry and not a cavalry officer and that his story was nothing but a lie. Rawicz never spoke again in front of his own countrymen. He claimed the hecklers were all communist agents.
BBC and Hugh Levinson
Until his death in 2004, Rawicz managed to avoid most of the critics, by either saying he had forgotten details, blamed the ghostwriter Downing for embellishing the truth or just by ignoring the questions which gathered more strength by the day. But, all along, he maintained that he had done The Long Walk.
Along comes BBC Radio 4 in the year 2006 and aired a documentary produced by Hugh Levinson, which destroyed Rawiczs credibility. The BBC uncovered two really damaging pieces of evidence, proving that several of Rawiczs claims were false.
First, it was revealed that Rawicz had signed a document proving that he had been (a) freed in Russia, (b) went to Persia, and (c) had never been in India. Secondly, it was proved that Rawicz had been freed from the Soviet gulag camp in 1942, when he supposedly was making the Long Walk.
Looking for Mr Smith
The same facts were discovered by American researcher and traveler Linda Willis. She became fascinated by the Long Walk story ten years ago, and since then has been researching every aspect of this controversial escape story. Her book, released in November 2010, is entitled Looking for Mr Smith.
In it Willis tries to find out who was the American member of the group of escapees. The author points out one of the oddest things about Rawiczs story: that the four survivors, neither got to know each other well during the escape nor kept in contact after reaching British India.
Though Williss research didnt reveal the identity of the elusive Mr. Smith, she did prove that Slavomir Rawicz never made the Long Walk. But, she concluded, somebody else might have.
Another version is discovered
There are quite a few escape stories from this era. For example, that of Cornelius Rost, the German man who escaped from Kolyma and allegedly walked to Turkey. A book, And As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, tells his story. Also Alexander Dolgun revealed a similar tale in An American in the Gulag. But did anyone really do The Long Walk as described by Slavomir Rawicz?
The BBC and Linda Willis believed that The Long Walk had been made, possibly by another Polish man named Witold Glinski.
Willis learned about Glinski in 2003. BBC reporter Hugh Levinson was tipped off about Glinskis version of events after his first programme in 2006. In 2009 a reporter for Readers Digest, John Dyson, made Glinski famous by publishing an article claiming he was the man who really made The Long Walk.
Witold Glinski´s story is essentially identical to the The Long Walk described by his fellow Pole, Slavomir Rawicz, minus some outrageous claims, such as meeting the Abominable Snowman and not drinking water for thirteen days whilst crossing the Gobi Desert.
Glinski told reporters he fled the gulag in February 1941. According to his own account, he was 17 years old when he journeyed to British India with his group in eleven months. The escapees, Glinski said, had walked 6500 kms (4000 miles), averaging 20 kms/day (12 miles).
Why did Glinski wait 50 years to tell his story?
Glinski told reporters that even his wife didnt know the full story of his escape until 2003. In interviews with Linda Willis, the BBC and Readers Digest, Glinski claimed the reason he kept silent was because he was afraid of one of his fellow escapees, a murderer called Batko.
Glinski asserted that he met the dangerous criminal in England, where both men had resettled after the war. When Bartok threatened him, Glinski reported him to the British police, who arrested the Long Walk escapee. Because of this incident, Glinski maintains he was worried for the rest of his life that Batko would seek revenge.
When the original Long Walk book appeared, Glinski feared that the author, Rawicz, could have been an alias for Batko. So even though Glinski says his own story had been stolen, he never dared contact Rawicz.
How did Rawicz get his hands on Glinskis story?
Glinski says the most likely explanation is that Rawicz read his account of the escape, in official papers that he found in the Polish Embassy in London during the war.
Is Witold Glinski telling the truth?
Glinski has convinced reporters Hugh Levinson and John Dyson, author Linda Willis, and the young Polish explorer, Tomasz Grzywaczewski. They all feel he is very convincing.
They also say Glinski comes across as very honest, seems extremely credible, and always ready to answer any question or deal with conflicting opinions - even though he has no documentation to back up his story.
Or is it neither Rawicz nor Glinski?
However, a fellow Polish man gave ExplorersWeb a third version of events: "At the time Glinski was supposed to be a 17-year-old escaping from hard labour at a Gulag he was, in fact, with me in at the Kriesty where he was attending school, aged 14," the man said, in addition offering archive documents to support his story.
There were many heroes back then, the Pole agrees, but we should celebrate those who deserve it. Check in tomorrow for his tale.
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