Rawicz's story described an escape from Siberia through Tibet to India
By Hugh Levinson
Producer, BBC Radio 4's The Long Walk
An epic story of human endurance is being challenged. Did wartime prisoners really walk from Siberia to India?
In 1956, a Polish man living in the English midlands published an extraordinary book that became one of the classic tales of escape and endurance.
In The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz described how, during the Second World War, he and a group of prisoners broke out of a gulag in the Soviet Union in 1941. They walked thousands of miles south from Siberia, through Mongolia, Tibet, across the Himalayas, to the safety of British India.
The only question is: is it true? From the start, a ferocious controversy has raged about whether anyone really could achieve this superhuman feat. Critics particularly questioned one chapter in the book where the walkers apparently see a pair of yetis.
But The Long Walk was a sensation. It has sold over half a million copies and has been translated into 25 languages and is still in print.
Contemporary reviews raved about the story. Cyril Connolly said it was "positively Homeric". The Spectator said "the adventures it describes must be among the most extraordinary in which human animals have ever found themselves involved".
Born 1915 in Pinsk, Poland
Arrested in 1939 after Soviet occupation of Poland
His book, The Long Walk, described a 4,000 mile, 11-month escape by Rawicz and six prisoners from a Soviet camp to India
He settled in Nottingham, UK after the war, died in 2004
One of today's leading explorers, Benedict Allen, says The Long Walk has served as a personal inspiration. "It was just from the heart and - bang - you get this story of this man who lived this tale and I loved it for its simplicity."
Rawicz himself could never produce a single piece of evidence to support his story.
So now, 50 years on, I set out in a BBC Radio 4 documentary to investigate the claims. I sent out enquiries to contacts in Poland, America, Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Sweden and elsewhere. We sent out enquiries to Rawicz's old school, to the Polish military archives and to the Ministry of Defence.
The programme's presenter, Tim Whewell, travelled to Moscow to see if he could find any records of Rawicz's imprisonment in the gulag files - but there was no mention there.
Then our first breakthrough came from an unlikely source - an archive in Belarus, the most closed country in Europe. They sent us a package of documents which shed amazing detail on Rawicz's pre-war life.
There were official documents he had filled out as a young man, which tell us a lot about his family and his background. But they couldn't confirm his arrest, or his escape.
An amnesty document challenges Rawicz's account of his escape
Our next find came at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, a treasure trove of Second World War memorabilia.
We found Rawicz's military record, which clearly says he had rejoined the Polish Army in Russia. We wondered how this could possibly fit with the story of The Long Walk.
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.
Re-creating the journey
When I showed the evidence to Benedict Allen he was visibly taken aback.
Rawicz's wartime escape - across the Himalayas to British-ruled India
"It's shocking for me personally," he said, "because it means the whole of that great account is a - it's not all a fabrication, but the meat of it, the great wonderful inspiring trek, is actually not that.
"And it's all the more shocking because he has provided the evidence that all that was faked."
The news has also jolted French explorer Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, who is currently retracing the route of Rawicz's escape on foot and who has been walking for several months. We spoke to him by satellite phone from Mongolia.
"Let me just react physically, my hands are all wet right now, my back is completely wet," he said. "That, that is amazing. I'm shocked because I've been working on something that took me so much time, so much energy."
Delafosse-Guiramand remains determined to continue his trek in memory of victims of the gulag.
But what inspired Rawicz to write the book? Its dramatic passages tell of extremes of exhaustion, starvation and thirst as the group of prisoners survived snowdrifts and storms and even the pitiless Gobi Desert.
Explorer Benedict Allen says he had been inspired by Rawicz's story
"In the shadow of death we grew closer together than ever before. No man would admit to despair. No man spoke of fear. The only thought spoken out again and again was that there must be water soon. All our hope was in this."
A clue may come from the story of Rupert Mayne, a British intelligence officer in wartime India. In Calcutta in 1942, he interviewed three emaciated men, who claimed to have escaped from Siberia.
Mayne always believed their story was the same as that of The Long Walk - but telling the story years later, he could not remember their names. So the possibility remains that someone - if not Rawicz - achieved this extraordinary feat.
Rawicz's children, however, defended the essential truth of the book. They said in a statement: "Our father was dedicated to ensuring the remembrance of all those whose graves bore no cross, for whom no tears could be shed, for whom no bell was tolled and for those who do not live (or die) in freedom."
The Long Walk is broadcast at 2000 GMT on Monday 30 October on BBC Radio 4. You can also listen online for 7 days after that at Radio 4's Listen again page.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
My father, Feliks Krzewinski, did a very similar walk, east through Kazakhstan, then south and west through Iran and Iraq. I do have evidence, though - he was an artist. Most of his paintings were executed with knives and home-made brushes on bits of tent canvas, hardboard, anything he could get his hands on. Some are in The Imperial War Museum. He died in 1981, and had nightmares about his experiences right up to the very end.
Elizabeth Kay, Worcester Park, Surrey
It could be true. I have recently spoken to a Polish woman whose grandfather walked 10,000 km from Eastern Siberia to his home in Silesia in WW2. He took two years to do it. A friend once told me that he was in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) during the war when thousnds of Poles appeared having walked from the Soviet Union. They became one of the Polish Armies.
Joseph Hearn, Nailsea
This is a very interesting story but the account is not disproved on the evidence that is provided here. When he said he 'escaped' he could have meant that metaphorically i.e. he managed to leave the Gulag system. When read like this he may of indeed 'escaped' i.e. pardoned. Second, he may well have been sent to the Gulag on trumped up charges. This story does not give any evidence that his alleged murder of an NKVD man was in fact not fabricated. How do you know that he murdered the NKVD man and that the story was NOT fabricated? The evidence is not provided!
Doug Stokes, Canterbury
This type of story is not new. I am now nearly 55 years of age - when I was about 14 I purchased a book via my school's book club entitled "As far as my feet will carry me". It was the story of a German POW who escaped from Russia by walking. I was enthralled, I think he reached Europe via Iran?
Edward Hook, Norwich
One of the best programmes detailing the amazing journeys of the Poles who were shipped from eastern Poland to Siberia in WWII is ¿The Forgotten Odyssey¿. What many people do not realise is that even though Stalin let the Poles go, the Russians provided no assistance for them to get to the British in Syria (mainly). Many thousands never made it out and there are still many of Polish descent still living in Siberia, but also many escaped through a number of routes. These are not the only amazing stories of long distance journeys during WWII. I recently found out that my own grandfather escaped from eastern Poland with the advance of the Russians and he with five friends from his small town walked all the way to what is now Croatia, before joining the Allied troops in Italy. It took him nearly a year to do this. We have no evidence for this story, apart from his own testimony. Sadly he is no long with us and so I can get no more details. Why is it necessary to question the val!
idity of such stories so closely? Why does there have to be such a burden of proof?
In 1940 Poland was divided in two by the Germans in the west and the Soviets in the east. Much of the entire Polish middle class living in the Soviet sector was rounded up and sent to forced labour camps in the Gulag, mainly working timber in the Taiga. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Polish government in exile in London persuaded Stalin to release the Poles in the Gulag, under the pretext that they would be better fighting the Germans than cutting down trees. In a moment of weakness, Stalin let them go. The hundreds of thousands of Polish families made their way out of the Soviet Union as best they could. Clearly, they couldn't go west to the Easter Front where the fighting was, so they got out in other directions: across the Caspian Sea to British-occupied Persia, out through Vladivostock. Some may well have trekked through the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts and across the Himalaya mountains to India. If Rawicz himslef didn't make that journey, some Poles in 1941/42 almost certainly did.
Fact or fiction, the book itself is an inspirational piece of work, and should be remembered, as Rawicz's children say, as a warning to present and future generations. We as humans need to do something never done before; learn from historic mistakes.
Whilst working in Romania in 2000, I met an man in his eighties, who showed me the second world war Romanian army boots that he had worn to walk back home, from the Gulag mines in the Ural mountains, where he was interned in a labour camp.
He has since died, but I am proud to have met such a man and be able to continue to let his story live on.
Simon Parker, Anglesey
I think the truth is still out there. The fact that he has faked the reasons of his imprisonment certainly open doubts about the rest of his history. However, it doesn¿t prove that the walk never happened, does it?
Hot Spring, London
"It has sold over half a million copies and has been translated into 25 languages and is still in print." When a book like this reaches so many people it is always going to inspire people. It gives them focus and meaning.
How truly sad that other people seek to puncture an inspirational story, and for what? Has society/the media reached a point were everything has to be challenged no matter the causalities, no matter what it does to people who used it to give their lives focus?
Olly S, York
To Olly S in York: Stories that purport to be true should be examined and - if proved to be false - debunked. The story is only inspirational if true. That people "used it to give their lives focus" makes verification all the more important - otherwise people are moulding their lives around a fiction and that really is "truly sad".
JA Booth, North Yorkshire
I think it is probably near the truth. Firstly, author R.C. Hutchinson wrote a novel entitled "Recollection of a Journey" which concerned Polish refugees & prisoners who walked around Russia during WW2 and eventually arrived, I believe, in Persia. Secondly, I worked with a Polish woman who was living in New Zealand (in 1975). She was a very troubled lady who would break down into tears frequently. I asked her about her wartime experience and whether she had in fact 'done the walk' and if she had sailed to NZ from Persia. She nodded and then asked how I knew. I simply said I had read about it in a book. While I am sure not all the facts are as written or spoken of, I feel that the human spirit, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, can enable victims to perform seemingly impossible feats.
Ken Newell, Torquay
My father met Rawicz in the 1960s, when he (Rawicz) was working as at the Building centre in Nottingham as a caretaker. He signed my fathers copy of the Long Walk with "Remember always, the precious heritage of freedom". I've read and re-read the book many times subsequently. Plenty of people have published embellished accounts of exploration before, but at the centre of them all is something based on experience. Its inconceivable that Rawciz didn't experience at the very least some of what he wrote about.
Simon Pope, London
Slavimir Rawicz has long been a hero of me and my family. 30 years ago, he did regular tours to schools and came to mine in Derby at the behest of the English Teacher who herself was a big fan. This story is fabulous and I so hoped that he would be proven to be true. Sadly there is now only a slither of hope. To all those that havent read it, please do. It is a wonderful story and deserves to be read regardless of authenticity. Though this evidence has made it a sad day for me.
My Grandfather, a Pole, escaped from Russia via Persia and joined the 8th army and fought in North Africa. He told me how he stowed away on trains, poached food, and made this incredible journey. I have no doubt that he and many of his fellow countrymen made this journey.
My father was a serving Polish soldier who was sent to prisoner of war camp on Lake Baikal during WW2 and he escaped and walked to what was then Palestine, then rejoined the Polish army in Egypt. This is most definitely not a trumped up story - how dare people who have had a cosy comfortable life try to "rubbish" tales of bravery which most of us couldnt even imagine, let along make up !
Sheila Smith, Croydon
My grandmother was forcibly taken from her home in Poland, along with her family, and put in a Siberian work camp at the start of WWII. Incidentally, she makes the point that it was better than being killed by the invading Ukrainians. After the amnesty, she *walked* from Siberia to British Kenya. She lost all her siblings during, or prior to, this period. She is in fact pictured (among many hundreds of children) in the book "Stolen Childhood: A Saga of Polish War Children" by Lucjan Krolikowski, which I highly recommend. History seems to have largely turned a blind eye to this unpleasant facet of WWII.
P S, Nottingham
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