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The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz

January 22, 2011

Book Review: The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz

Far more riveting than any fictional account of perseverance and heroism,  this is a true life account of seven men and one woman who walk thousands of miles over hostile, enemy terrain without any outside assistance, just some meager tools to support their survival.

This story is told by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish soldier who was sentenced to 25 years hard labor in a Siberian work camp during WW II.  His crime was being in the Polish army during the Russian occupation of Poland. Slavomir and six other prisoners, including one American, attempt a daring escape from the work camp. Their impossibly outlandish plan is to walk thousands of miles to the safety of India.

With only a vague idea of the geography of the miles they cover, a few handfuls of food, an ax, and a knife, the seven men strike out to cross inner Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalayan Mountains.

In the kind of unexpected encounter that seems the trademark of similar stories of survival in WWII Europe, the seven men take a young woman into their party, becoming surrogate brothers and fathers to her. She is a fellow Pole who joins them on their trek to freedom.

The ingenuity, camaraderie, and perseverance of these eight people are truly astounding. The difficulties they face would drive most people to simply lie down and die, but in a strange way, the days and weeks of forcing themselves to keep moving forward becomes a habit they cannot stop.

The need to keep walking almost becomes an obsession; an obsession that, in the end, saves their lives. For months they are in hostile environments and travel under cover of night constantly wary of patrols or informants willing to turn them in. It isn’t until they are into Tibet that they even interact with the local people.

The physical and mental hardships these people endure defy everything I have ever been told the human body can withstand. The determined author survives torture at the hands of Russian forces, lives off scraps of food, is forced to march thousands of miles through arctic climate in only the barest of clothing, goes weeks without fresh water and months without proper food, walks across the largest and harshest desert on the planet, and treks through the Himalayan mountains with virtually no tools or decent protection from the elements.

It is hard to imagine what kept these men and woman going. Only a determined will to live and not be dominated is a plausible answer.

Flags:

The first few chapters convey the author’s experience in the Russian prison system as an alleged spy. He is tortured in an attempt to get a confession. The kinds of torture used are described. Some of this account is very, very disturbing.

Within the context of WWII, the atrocities committed by the Russian forces are discussed.

At one point in the trek, after they have avoided being discovered for weeks, they believe they have been seen. They decide amongst themselves that if the person they encounter gives any hint of willingness to turn them in, they will have to kill him.  They do not have to follow through on this decision.

Four of the eight trekkers die along the way. Their deaths are described in some detail, but respectfully, as these were the author’s very dear friends.

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