As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me

Probably the worst adaptation of a book ever made. Director Hardy Martins (2001)

There have been various issues raised regarding the validity of Slavomir Rawicz’s long walk to freedom in John ‘Brick’ Clarke’s opening chapter to Dawn of the Unread. Yet ‘truth’ is problematic when judged retrospectively by generations for whom the circumstances and conditions of war are incomprehensible. Rawicz’s story, probably the product of a collective consciousness, is an emotive story, one of human endurance in the face of adversity, which serves as a form of ‘witness literature’. Who is actually the witness is less important than the brutal tale it tells.

As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me offers a very similar set of circumstances but differs from Rawicz’s story in that it is a fictionalised account written in the third person by author Josef M Bauer. It tells the true story of Clemend Forell, a German soldier sentenced to 25 years hard labour in a Siberian lead mine who treks 8,000 miles over 3 years before eventually finding freedom. The book, like Rawicz’s, is an international bestseller, translated into fifteen languages and selling over 12 million copies.

Forell (which is a pseudonym of Cornelius Rost) was so mentally and physically scared from his experiences that he was unable to put together a connected and chronological narrative of his own. The book is the result of a series of interviews started in 1954. Like many of his generation, Forell was an ordinary man with modest life plans. His was to set up his own photo-reproduction business when he was called up for Labour Service in 1938. He progressed through the ranks and became part of the ‘fire brigade’ a wartime expression which basically meant he was specially trained to handle many weapons and was sent to dangerous places to make ‘progress’ where ordinary troops had failed.

Cornelius Rost at a London press conference in 1958. He was revealed as the 'author' twenty years after his death

Cornelius Rost at a London press conference in 1958. He was revealed as the ‘author’ twenty years after his death

He rose to the rank of Lieutenant and was dropped in Urals on the Eastern Front where his job was to blow up bridges and slow down the progression of the Red Army. On the way back from this mission his unit was circled by some Russian Cossacks who plastered them with machine-guns and grenades. Forell miraculously survived the onslaught, despite being shot through the mouth. The bullet remained lodged in his cerebellum for the rest of his life. He was sentenced in 1945 and marched through Moscow for two and a half days, along with around 20,000 other soldiers, where locals howled and spat at them. Like Rawicz he spent time in the infamous Lublyanka prison before receiving 25 years penal labour in Siberia.

Unlike Rawicz, Forell escaped alone. But he was well equipped on his journey thanks to a Doctor who, due to cancer, could no longer escape himself and so handed over his meticulous preparations. The Doctor’s motivation was simple: tell my wife I died in peace. When Forell eventually made it home to Munich on 22 December 1952 he conveyed the message via a letter, though it is not indicated whether she ever received this or why he did not do this in person.

During his escape Forell befriended numerous groups of people and at one point the story veers into a kind of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, with greed having fatal consequences for his conspiring comrades. He encounters bears, a pack of wolves, and perhaps most incomprehensible of all, the kindness of a Jewish man who takes him home and provides valuable contacts.

The story focusses mainly on his trek across Siberia, with the latter stages of his journey neatly and quickly wrapped up in the final pages. The book does not have chapters, perhaps to maintain a sense of momentum. There is an interesting insight into the suffering of the Russian people when Forell is advised by the kindly Kolka to be honest about being a convict if questioned by locals. “We are mistrustful in this country but we also know the meaning of compassion. This is the country of the outcast, and the ragged, half-starved Strafniki will find nothing but kindness here. It is freedom and prosperity that arouse our mistrust.”

This is evident when he finds refuge in Abakan, only to discover the entire village has been forcibly removed and that the Soviets regularly circle the area by plane. At one point they even drop bombs on a herd of sheep suspecting they may be humans defying orders and retreating back home.

The senseless destruction of animals is a useful narrative device for conveying the atrocities of war. In Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being bombs are dropped on whales as a means of offloading weight unused in a bombing raid and as a means of target practice. In Téa Obreht’s incredible debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, animals in a zoo start eating their young during a bombing raid. And perhaps the closest Forell comes to peace in his three year and two month journey is when he befriends a dog called Willem who offers unconditional love and loyalty, as well as warmth on those cold lonely nights.

Cornelius Rost (27 March 1919 – October 1983)

RELATED READING

  • Alone in Berlin Hans Falada
  • Defying Hitler: A Memoir Sebastian Haffner
  • If Not Now, When? Primo Levi
  • Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman who Defied Hitler by Frank McDonough
  • Stalingrad Antony Beevor
  • Surviving in the Killing Fields Haing Ngor (with Roger Warner)
  • The Long Walk Slavomir Rawicz
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