The Nottingham Essay – Slavomir Rawicz

From issue 2: My Long Walk with Slav.

In Dublin, representatives of the 20 UNESCO Cities of Literature are gathering to have a good old natter about what the status means to them and how they are defined through their literary heritage. Nottingham’s representative is David Belbin, Chair of the City of Literature team. In exactly one month today (23 June) there will be a national custody battle to decide who gets ownership of the UK. Both of these issues can be understood in terms of literature, in particular Slavomir Rawicz, but I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Dawn of the Unread was at the heart of Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature bid in so many ways. We highlighted Nottingham’s incredible literary legacy; we positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse; we demonstrated digital innovation through storytelling across multiple platforms; and we consistently promoted other organisations at every opportunity.

I mention this as plans for a part II have been in progress for the past year and I am now finally ready to put forward an arts council bid after securing various match funding and partner organisations. Collaboration is at the heart of everything I do and this underpins the ethos driving the UNESCO Creative Cities network. This is in stark contrast to the linear views of Michael Gove, who is spearheading the ‘leave’ campaign for the Brexit debate. To quote D.H Lawrence, I don’t want to “stuff newspaper in your ears.” You can make your own mind up about Europe. Instead I’d like to turn to Slavomir Rawicz, the author of The Long Walk who featured back in Issue 2 of Dawn of the Unread.

coco
Chinese student Weng Wa Si Tou. Photo James Walker.

Rawicz features in our ‘Nottingham Essay’ series which are now available on our Youtube channel. The essays were originally published in LeftLion magazine when I ran articles for one year about why we deserved UNESCO accreditation.  Since then, I’ve been working with Nottingham Trent University students who have been creating photoessays as part of a Humanities at Work placement. The Rawicz essay has been visualised by a 2nd year media studies student called Weng Wa, Si Tou (Coco). Coco (above) is a Chinese student and so it’s been really interesting working with her as she has no cultural frame of reference for European history and so adding images to the audio has been very difficult. But hasn’t she done a good job, mixing humour with facts to guide the viewer through the talk.

Rawicz famously escaped from a Russian gulag camp in 1941 and eventually found freedom. His story was recently turned into a film called The Way Back (2010) and starred Colin Farrell. Rawicz is one of many Polish people who eventually settled down in Nottingham, something that would not be possible if Britain votes to come out of the E.U. Rawicz recorded his incredible story in the ghost written memoir The Long Walk, a book which caused much debate as some people argued that it was inaccurate and was perhaps a composite of other stories. Whatever the truth, it’s a story of hope and endurance which has universal appeal, hence why it has shifted millions of copies.

When Michael Gove was the education secretary he had a parochial view of literature, removing John Steinbeck and Harper Lee from G.C.SE reading lists. Books which got millions of kids reading, including myself. This infuriated Graham Joyce (whose daughter Ella collaborated with David Belbin for issue 14 of Dawn of the Unread) and he started a petition for Gove’s removal which attracted over 110,000 signatures. Now Gove wants us out of Europe altogether.

I will reiterate once more in the simplest language possible. Dawn of the Unread featured the story of a Polish immigrant called Slavomir Rawicz. His story has been turned into a photoessay by a Chinese student embracing British history as part of her studies. Dawn of the Unread takes Nottingham’s literary history as a means of encouraging people to read and feel proud of their history. Nottingham is one of 20 cities around the world using literature as a means of finding commonality rather than difference with each other.

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Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

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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. Available at wikimedia.

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)

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  • Alone in Berlin Hans Falada
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  • 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

More than just another Brick in the wall

In the above video artist and writer John Stuart Clark (aka Brick) discusses the process of creating his chapter for Dawn of the Unread. Below he explains why Slavomir Rawicz’s story is important to him.

The book I chose to write and draw about I discovered in my boarding school library a couple of weeks after being grounded for attempting to escape. I was nine years old and sick of being bullied because my parents were neither posh nor wealthy, like almost every other oik’s in the school. That book was The Long Walk and chronicles Slavomir Rawicz’s escape from a Soviet gulag camp in Siberia during WWII. It rang a lot of bells!

My approach was to tell the very personal story of how influential the book was on my efforts to escape the corrupt and brutalizing world in which I found, and have continued to find, myself living in. Whether in my choice of a precarious profession or my continual need to lose myself in the wilds, Slavomir Radwicz’s story filled me with the belief that anybody can overcome the insurmountable and triumph against overwhelming odds NOT to conform and become one of the herd.

My style is what it is, honed over many decades working as a political cartoonist, a job in which I am required to point out that the Emperor’s new clothes are an illusion, but with a touch of humour to soften the blow for the delusional. Since I have also written prose books and articles about my adventure travel experiences, it seemed only fitting to create a parody outdoor magazine, Mountain, Forest, Desert Monthly, that would feature snippets of interest to young readers that spring from the main comic as embeds. After all, libraries don’t just make public books and CDs and DVDs and maps – they also have racks of magazines and newspapers.

Brick shows how he found inspiration for drawing particular scenes
Brick shows how he found inspiration for drawing particular scenes. Artwork Brick.

The library used in my chapter…

While there are excellent new and refurbished local repositories (particularly West Bridgford and Worksop Libraries), I preferred to flog over to Wales to photograph the stunningly beautiful Llandudno Library. Financed by Conwy Borough Council and the Welsh Assembly’s Libraries for Life scheme, the make-over was done in consultation with Opening the Book, a design service whose modus operandi is very much about fitting the library to the needs of the reader-explorer rather than the staff or local authority’s obligations.

First visited in the course of presenting a workshop and talk, Llandudno’s is a library that blows the stereotypical fusty old image of dark corners, dark shelving and dark regiments of catalogued spines out of the water. No doubt a bugger to keep clean, the neutrality of the white and the wonderful innovation of tilted shelving (which can also be seen at Worksop) entice the explorer into the rows and layers of alluring spines much as the glass jars of coloured candy used to in sweet shops (yep, I’m that old). And gone is the rigid Dewey Decimal Classification system, replaced by a reader-centred stacking system that demands more user interaction of the staff and makes the whole experience of visiting the library more like an adventure.

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During April visit Central Library, Nottingham for Our Story: Polish Heritage in the East Midlands an exhibition celebrating the lives of migrants settling in Nottingham and the East Midlands after the Second World War

Slavomir Rawicz chapter released…

Slavomir Rawicz who died on 5 April 2004
Slavomir Rawicz died on 5 April 2004. Artwork from Issue 2.

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.

Rawicz incredible journey across the Himalayas is drawn by artist John Stuart Clark
Rawicz incredible journey across the Himalayas is drawn by artist John Stuart Clark. Artwork from Issue 2.

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 worked for a short while at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic as a technician.
Rawicz worked for a short while at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic as a technician. Artwork from Issue 2.

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

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