Our first chapter is released today to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Slavomir Rawicz who passed away on 5 April 2004 at the age of 88. Rawicz was a Polish Army lieutenant who was imprisoned by the Russian NKVD after the German-Soviet invasion of Poland. He was sentenced to 25 years hard labour for ‘spying’, despite having a mother who was Russian, and consequently the ‘great stone fortress prison of Kharkov opened its grim gates to me in April 1940.’ It was here that Rawicz encountered chief interrogator The Bull, who ‘ran his interrogation sessions like an eminent surgeon, always showing off his skill before a changing crowd of junior officers.’ The Bull revelled in sadism, forcing prisoners to excrete while chained up and whose interrogations were so frequent it soon became impossible for prisoners to distinguish between day and night. The Bull was particularly proud of showing off his Cossack knife which he used with ‘dexterity and ingenuity’ in an attempt to force a false confession from his victims.
Things got slightly better when Rawicz was transferred to the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow but the torture continued. At one point he was strapped to the now familiar ‘operation table’ where tar was poured on his body. Rawicz commented that it was a variation on torture that would have made even the Bull envious.
From here Rawicz was transported, in cramped cattle trucks, to the sub-zero temperatures of Siberia. Many ‘died without a whisper in the long nights’ when their turn came to stand out of the warmth of the truck on a scheduled stop. ‘They had no graves, the ground was iron-hard and impossible to dig. They were taken away and snow heaped on them’.
The cramped conditions meant prisoners quickly got to know each other, not through name but by character. ‘There were leaders, those determined not to die, others whom the spark of hope had already been crushed’. But for Rawicz it was the jokers that helped people pull through, offering humour and temporary relief from the horrifying inhumane conditions. When the train eventually arrived at Irkutsk the men were chained together and marched hundreds of miles to Camp 303 – where, on arrival, the survivors had to build their own accommodation from scratch.
Rawicz eventually managed to escape the Gulag in 1941 where he fought through the blizzards of Siberia and the blistering heat of the Gobi desert on his long walk home to freedom. So incredible is Rawicz’s story that some critics have suggested he embellished certain events, issues which are addressed by political cartoonist John ‘Brick’ Clark in his chapter published today.
My Long Walk with Slav is released on 8 April 2014 and can be downloaded from our official website.
We are tweeting The Long Walk until 8 April 2015. Please follow @SlavomirRawicz
- Survivors (3650daysinthegulag.com)
- A Night in Karlag (russianhistoryblog.org)
- The Long Walk (fiftybooksproject.blogspot.co.uk)
- A Sobering Reflection on Real Torture and Deprivation (blogcritics.org)
- The Way Back review (kazakhnomad.wordpress.com)
- Conwy Gigs (brickbats.co.uk)
- Obituary: Slavomir Rawicz (guardian.com)
- Interview John Clark (leftlion.co.uk)