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Freedom trek: fleeing the Soviet Gulag, Slavomir Rawicz and six comrades--armed with almost nothing except an insatiable hunger for freedom--crossed an entire continent on foot.

One hundred and seventy million people, observes Dr. R.J. Rummel, were murdered by governments during the first eight decades of the 20th century. In his book Death by Government, Rummel writes: "The souls of this monstrous pile of dead have created a new land, a new nation, among us"--a land he has named Golgotha.

"Its inhabitants followed all the world's religions and spoke all its languages," Rummel continues. Russians, Chinese, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Latinos, Africans, European Jews--Golgotha's net has gathered from every kind of people. Unlike those killed on the battlefield in wartime, Golgothans were non-combatants killed for political reasons.

They were fed to the crematoria of Auschwitz; mowed down into the Babi Yar ravine; devoured by the Soviet Gulag prison camps; murdered by degrees through forced labor; starved to death through engineered famines in the Ukraine, China and Ethiopia; butchered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; and hacked to death by machete-wielding government mobs in Rwanda. Each of them had a name, a family, God-given talents, and aspirations for the future. At some point, each of the victims was subject to the pitiless, personalized malice of the Total State, administered by individual perpetrators who had made a personal choice in favor of evil.

In November 1940 about 150 ragged men, most of them future immigrants to Golgotha, were stuffed into a cattle train in Moscow for a 3,000-mile trip to Camp 303--an outpost of the Gulag, the expansive Soviet prison system consisting of a network of labor camps stretching across Siberia. Camp 303 was located near Yakutsk, just south of the Arctic Circle. During the first week of the long, grim journey, the prisoners established a rotation order permitting each of them to spend some time within the sheltering warmth of his comrades, and some time on the outside exposed to the numbing cold.

The hapless group included Russians. Ukrainians, Jews, Finns and men from the Baltic States. Half of those aboard were captured Polish soldiers, including 25-year-old Slavomir Rawicz.

"There were men, like me, who were determined not to die," recalled Rawicz in his memoir The Long Walk. "There were others in whom the spark of hope had already been crushed when they were first herded into these travelling coffins. They died without a whisper in the long nights when their turn came to stand out of the warmth of the ruck. They died standing and we did not know they were dead until the door opened in the light of morning."

At one point Rawicz found himself next to a Polish Jew who had been a shopkeeper in Beloyostok before the 1939 Soviet/Nazi gang rape of his country. After the invasion began, the shopkeeper sold his assets and bought diamonds, which he secreted in the heels of a specially constructed pair of boots. "So, his preparations made, he set out to flee Poland," Rawicz reminisced. "Where was he going? Why, to Germany. Because, he said, he did not trust the Russians. But, I argued, the Germans would have killed you; they hate Jews. 'Maybe, maybe,' he answered. 'But at least I was right about distrusting the Russians.'" Intercepted at the Soviet border, this desperate man was given a 10-year sentence in the Gulag.

Like his unfortunate friend and millions of others in WWII-era Europe, Rawicz had been caught between two murderous totalitarian monoliths. But Rawicz and a handful of his friends were to defy the Soviet apparatus of mass murder by embarking on an incredible continent-long trek, crossing frozen Siberian wastes and the barren Gobi desert in pursuit of freedom.

Arrested and Tortured

After rising to the rank of second lieutenant in the Polish Cavalry, Rawicz was helping manage his family's estate at Pinsk when he was activated shortly before the Nazis invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939. He fought on the front lines in Poland's gallant but doomed defense against the Nazi blitzkrieg, which pitted horse cavalry against panzer tanks. Military columns and refugees alike were torn to pieces by the Luftwaffe's dive-bombers. On September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east; the Polish defense evaporated, and the Nazi and Communist totalitarian monsters carved up Poland between them.

Several weeks after the Polish collapse, Rawicz returned to his family's home in Pinsk. Situated at the confluence of the Pina and Prypet Rivers, Pinsk is now part of Belarus. For several centuries possession of this small but strategically valuable city has shifted among Latvia, Russia and Poland; in 1939 it was Polish. As a young man, Rawicz had learned Russian and had spent some time on the Russian side of the border.

In November 1939, agents of the Soviet NKVD secret police strode into a welcome-home party at the Rawicz family estate and arrested Slavomir. He was taken to a secret police prison in Minsk, presented with what amounted to a blank confession and ordered to sign. "You will sign, you know--someday you will sign," insisted the secret police interrogator. When Rawicz refused, the officer replied with a confident smirk, "I feel sorry for you that you do not sign today. Very, very sorry."

A few months later Rawicz was transferred to an immense fortress prison in Kharkov, Ukraine, where he became the personal project of a huge, muscular--and inventively sadistic--NKVD major known as "The Bull." "He ran his interrogation sessions like an eminent surgeon, always showing off his skill before a changing crowd of junior officers," reflected Rawicz. "His methods were despicably ingenious."

One of The Bull's preferred methods of breaking his subjects' will was to insert them in a kishka, a chimney-like subterranean cell that permitted a man to stand, but not move. No provision was made for the inmates' bodily functions, and the kishkas were never cleaned. Each day, Rawicz would be hauled out of his tiny cell, hosed off, and sent to The Bull for interrogation and torture. And each day The Bull's profane anger with Rawicz grew as beatings, pistol-whippings, and cunning torments involving water and lights failed to induce the innocent man to sign a confession. "All you have to do is put your name here and I will leave you alone," the torturer frequently bellowed as he shoved a thick finger at the confession.

Nights in the filth and mire of the kishka bled seamlessly into days of protracted torment: beatings, pistol-whippings, repeated burnings with lit cigarettes, and a session of knife torture that left permanent scars on the chest. As the torture proceeded, the prisoner grew more resolute--and his tormentor began to grow frantic. "The limit of endurance, I found, was long after a tortured body had cried in agony for relief," observed Rawicz. "I never consciously reached the final depth of capitulation. One small, steadfast part of my mind held to the unshakable idea that it was death to give in. So long as I wanted to live--and I was only a young man--I had that last, uttermost, strength of will to resist them, to push away that document which a scrawl of pen on paper might convert into my death warrant."

From Lubyanka to the Gulag

It's not known what was done to punish The Bull for his failure to break Rawicz. The prisoner himself was relocated to the NKVD's headquarters at Moscow's Lubyanka Square. Founded in 1917 by Polish gangster Feliks Dzherzhinsky (whose statue broods over Lubyanka Square to this day), the Soviet secret police was originally called the Cheka. To carry out its mission of terrorizing Soviet subjects into docility and--liquidating entire populations that proved troublesome--the Cheka filled its ranks with unreconstructed criminals, perverts and drug addicts.

"To us, us everything is permitted," insisted Krasni Mech (Red Sword), an official Cheka publication. The walls of Lubyanka's basement cells bore witness of that credo in action. Many of them had been left indelibly bespattered with gore during the purges of the 1930s. Thousands of Stalin's political rivals were taken downstairs to be fed the infamous "Lubyanka breakfast"--a cigarette and a bullet to the head.

It was in these demonic surroundings that the effort to "persuade" Rawicz began anew. His new tormentors may have lacked The Bull's physical presence, but they were just as persistent--and even more sophisticated. The brutality eventually climaxed with a session of slow-drip torture involving hot tar. At last, the interrogators abandoned the effort to extort a confession, choosing instead to stage a "trial."

The Soviet "justice" system preferred to induce its victims to confess. The regime benefited considerably from the spectacle of a human will broken to the power of the State prior to the man's execution. For much the same reason those who refused to confess were often dispatched to the farthest reaches of the Gulag, to die in anonymity.

When Rawicz was arrested in November 1939, he was fresh from his military training--a bronzed, muscular figure clad in the dress uniform of the Polish cavalry. When he was dragged before the Supreme Soviet Court a year later, he was a haggard, emaciated form clad in the formless garb of a zek (political prisoner). Casting a glance around the courtroom, he noticed that the officers present were not grim-faced automatons. These men, the vital central components of the Soviet mass-murder apparatus, chatted amiably with each other about family matters and the approaching Christmas holiday (despite the official atheism of the State they served).

"It was a crazy trial, run by madmen," recalled Rawicz. "It became in the end a test of endurance, between one weak, half-starved, ill-used Pole and the powerful. time-squandering State machine." For four days, under the supervision of an "elegant, well-groomed" prosecutor named Mischa, Rawicz was harangued, beaten, and denied food and water. "Why do they do it, I kept asking myself," he wrote. "Why do they waste all this time on one Pole?"

Eventually the court produced a document, purportedly signed by Rawicz, that was described as a confession to the charges of espionage and conspiracy. "You will therefore be sentenced to twenty-five years forced labor," announced an NKVD major. The prisoner cast a glance at the prosecutor, Mischa. "He smiled," recalls Rawicz. "There was no malice in that smile. It was friendly, the smile of a man who is stepping forward to shake your hand. It was as though he were encouraging me, complimenting me on the show I had put up."

Rawicz found that his treatment briefly improved before being dispatched to his Siberian prison. He was led a relatively decent meal, allowed to bathe and given new clothes. Then he joined 150 other prisoners who were marched to a cattle truck--"One hundred and fifty lost souls turning up in the same pitiful costume at some devil's fancy dress ball." Their eventual destination notwithstanding, all of the men were grateful to be alive; they also reveled in the company of other human beings after lengthy solitary confinement.

The truck carrying Rawicz's group was one of countless others loaded onto Siberia-bound trains. The windows of most of the trucks were covered. However, at one stop, Rawicz--looking through a narrow opening--was able to catch a glimpse through the open windows of a truck on a parallel track. "Women," he said in a quietly horrified tone. "There are women in it. And children." Another prisoner shoved Rawicz aside to look. "They are Polish women," he cried frantically. "They are our women." They may have been Poles, or Latvians, or Estonians. In any case. the spectacle of innocent women and children being carted off to die in the Gulag tormented Rawicz and his comrades beyond any physical torture the NKVD had meted out.

As the train made its way to Siberia, those who expired were taken off each morning. The guards stripped each of the dead before burying them naked beneath a shallow covering of snow. "After all," one guard explained, "Father Stalin only loaned the poor b*****d clothes for the duration of his stay in the U.S.S.R. He won't need any for the next journey."

Camp 303

A month-long, 3,000-mile journey deposited Rawicz and his comrades in Irkutsk, near the southern tip of Lake Baikal. After more than a day spent in rags as the remorseless Siberian wind ravaged them, the prisoners were handed fufaikas--padded Russian jackets--before being shackled into a chain gang and marched toward Camp 303. The march would claim more than 10 percent of the prisoners. Each time a man died, the procession would stop just long enough to unshackle him. "They won't kill me like that," one of the prisoners whispered as a dead man was cut loose. "Me, neither," replied Rawicz. "We'll get there ... wherever we're going."

Weeks passed as the party trudged grimly northward. Three blizzards descended on them. Christmas came and went, marked by a weak but defiant chorus of Christmas hymns from the doomed men. The slack end of the chain grew longer as prisoners were claimed by cold and malnutrition. In February 1941, the prisoners finally arrived at Camp 303 on the north side of the Lena River--some 200-300 miles north of Yakutsk.

The surviving prisoners assembled on the grounds of the rectangular prison, where they were joined by the camp commandant.

"I am Colonel Ushakov," he began. "I am commandant of this camp. You have come here to work and I expect from you hard work and discipline. I will not talk to you of punishment since you probably know what to expect if you do not behave." The prisoners were told that they had to build their own shelters. With no doctors on hand, the only medical treatment would be provided by the Soviet soldiers.

After the commandant concluded his brief lecture, a second colonel--this one attired in a flamboyant uniform and radiating an attitude of immense self-satisfaction--mounted the podium. This was the camp's Politruk, or "political officer"--the NKVD official responsible for carrying on the unfinished work of breaking the prisoners to the State.

"Look at you," sneered the Politruk. "You look like a bunch of animals. Just look at yourselves! You are supposed to be the highly civilized people who fancy they can run the world. Can't you now appreciate what stupid nonsense you've been taught?"

"How can we look any different?" exclaimed a prisoner. "You won't let us shave, there's no soap and no clean clothes."

Stepping menacingly in the direction of the voice, the Politruk snapped, "I'll get your food ration stopped if I am interrupted again." Satisfied that he had cowed his audience into submission, he continued. "After a time here, and under the guidance of Comrade Stalin, we shall make useful citizens of you," he went on. "It is my job to help you to improve yourselves. It won't all be work here. You can attend classes to correct your way of thinking."

With that, the hard labor commenced. Rawicz was assigned to a forest detail, felling huge pine trees from 5:00 a.m. until sundown--the work only briefly interrupted by small, inadequate meals. Despite his circumstances, he and his fellow prisoners took pride in their work, and their sense of accomplishment combined with activity in the open air helped to restore some measure of health and strength to many of them.

In what little free time he had during the evenings, Rawicz visited the camp's library, which was cluttered with thick, unreadable tomes polluted with Soviet State propaganda. He and a group of friends also attended a few installments of the Politruk's indoctrination class. The Soviet functionary's slavish devotion to Stalin, and his dutiful recitation of potted Marxist cant, inspired parodies by several of the inmates, much to the delight of their fellows.

Among Camp 303's population of 5-6,000 people was found only one woman: Ushakova, the commandant's wife. As much a prisoner as any of the zeks assigned to the camp, Ushakova's most prized possession was a German-made Telefunken radio on which she listened to broadcasts of Russian music. When the Telefunken broke down, a call went out for a prisoner who could repair it. Rawicz, who had some experience with electronics, volunteered--thereby taking the single most important step toward his liberation.

For several days, Rawicz was brought into the colonel's home to work on the ailing radio, which was situated in the office beneath the inevitable official portrait of Comrade Stalin. As he worked, he would converse with the colonel and his wife. The commandant, leery of being seen out of character as a trustworthy cog in the Soviet machine, offered little more than recitals of the Party Line. The Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland were not "war," he insisted, but rather "liberation." When told of helpless Poles mowed down by the Soviet Union's Nazi allies, the colonel blithely replied, "When you chop wood somebody is always liable to be hurt by splinters."

Though the colonel was a martinet, his wife treated Rawicz with sympathy--commending him for his fluency in Russian, asking about his family and expressing admiration for the Polish composer (and national hero) Chopin. After several days, Rawicz finished repairing the radio--only to be asked a shocking question by Ushakova.

"Do you ever think of escape?" she inquired of Rawicz at a time when her husband was absent. As silence grew between them, she continued. "You do not answer.... You do not trust me. I thought you might want to talk about it. There is no danger in talking to me about it." She dismissed him, promising to call again if the radio needed "adjusting."

Seven Flee the Gulag

Several days later, after Rawicz had discussed escape plans with several fellow prisoners, the commandant's wife called on him once more.

"You are only 25," she began. "You need not have been afraid to admit that yon do not look forward to the next twenty-five years in these surroundings.... I am reasonably well looked after here. We have comfortable quarters [and] much better food than yours.... But I couldn't spend twenty-five years here. So escape must be an idea close to your heart and it may do you good to tell me what you think."

Rawicz and the commandant's wife discussed escape "as an abstract thing," discussing possible escape routes. The obvious course would have been to flee due east, across Kamchatka to Japan. However, that route would have taken fleeing prisoners to a heavily guarded border. An alternative would have been to smuggle one's self aboard a west-bound train, seeking a refuge in the Ural mountains. Eventually it occurred to Rawicz that the most promising avenue was due south, past Lake Baikal, across the Siberian steppes and the Gobi desert, through Tibet, and into India.

With the covert support of Ushakova Rawicz assembled six prisoners--the fittest and most enterprising men he could find: A blonde-haired Latvian giant named Anastazi Kolemenos; a 37-year-old Polish officer named Sigmund Makowski; a Polish Cavalry sergeant named Anton Paluchowicz; a Yugoslav named Eugene Zaro; a Lithuanian architect named Zacharius Marchinkovas; and an American businessman who insisted--in flawless Russian--on being called "Mister Smith." Each of them hoarded a portion of the daily bread ration and made other furtive preparations to leave.

Shortly before Easter in April 1941, Rawicz was again summoned by the commandant's wife. Explaining that her husband would be briefly out of the camp, she handed the prisoner seven sacks to use for carrying provisions--chiefly food and combustible moss used to start fires. On the night before their departure, the seven future escapees attended an indoctrination class, watching the Politruk's performance with barely suppressed mirth.

A few hours after the class ended, Rawicz, amid thick darkness, felt a tap on his shoulder. It was "Mister Smith." "Now," he whispered urgently. Rawicz passed the word along to the rest of his little band.

The long, murderous march to Camp 303 was intended to impress on its victims the supposed futility of trying to escape. Although the camp was ringed with razor wire and guard towers, there were no searchlights. Rawicz and his companions were able to slip under the fence and head to the banks of the Lena River with little difficulty. Once they had found a secure place, they took an inventory of their provisions.

"Each man had a flat baked loaf, a little flour, about five pounds of pearl barley, some salt four or five ounces ... of tobacco and some old newspaper," explained Rawicz. Each of them also had the hoarded remains of the daily bread ration and some crude improvised moccasins. The party had also brought a small axe and a knife. Sergeant Paluchowicz also had a debilitating liability: He had lost all of his teeth to repeated beatings by the NKVD and had no dentures with which to chew food. At the camp he had soaked food in water to soften it. As an escapee, he had to knead all of his food in the snow before it was rendered edible.

The seven escapees plunged southward, dragging a sheepskin behind them to disguise their scent, avoiding open fires, and foraging for whatever food could be found. Near the banks of Lake Baikal they found a grim token of a previous escape attempt: A crude cross bearing the phrase vechnaya pamyat (in everlasting memory), three initials, and a date--1846. "You know," commented Marchinkovas, "we are probably the first men to see this cross since the day it was planted here." The seven men briefly inclined their heads in prayer, "for the one who died and for our own deliverance."

A little further south still, the group added to its numbers by welcoming another fugitive--a 17-year-old girl named Kristina Polanska. A native of the Polish Ukraine, Kristina and her family had been burned out of their home when the Soviet "liberators" arrived in September 1939. Captured by the Red Army, she was among the women and children dispatched to a Gulag camp in Western Siberia. There she was routinely beaten and mistreated by Russian inmates, and narrowly escaped being raped by the commandant before making her own mad dash for freedom.

For months, seven men and one young girl plodded across Siberia, crossing the trans-Siberian railroad. Sometime after June the party finally reached the Mongolian border. Occasionally they encountered isolated people along their route--farmers, woodsmen and others--who took pity on them, offering food and other provisions. Some Mongols proved to be singularly hospitable, feeding and sheltering the party during a locust storm and giving them directions to Lhasa--a Tibetan refuge beyond the unforgiving Gobi desert.

Drought and Death

During the crossing of the Gobi desert, death claimed several members of Rawicz's party. The first to succumb was Kristina, whose cheerful demeanor and faith in God never wavered during the entire ordeal. This was a blow from which several of the fugitives never recovered. To survive, men need something--somebody--to serve and protect, almost as much as they need food and water.

"In that God-forsaken place seven men cried openly because the thing most precious to us in all the world had been taken from us," Rawicz remembered. "Kristina was dead.... We accused ourselves of having brought her here to her death." Smith quietly admonished his friends not to blame themselves. "I think she was happy with us," he pointed out, urging the men to offer the youngster a Christian burial. "There was no service," Rawicz observes, "but each man spoke a prayer in his own language.... So we said goodbye to her and went our empty way."

For weeks, the men trudged through the Gobi. Sergeant Makowski was the next to perish, leaving "six dried-out travesties of men" shuffling across the desert. Just before their strength was completely exhausted, they came across a minuscule creek--a small crack in the ground where water collected in small, muddy pools.

For several days they followed that "God-sent ribbon of moisture," reasoning that where there was water they would likely find rood. Eventually they were driven to hunt and kill large desert snakes, which they washed down with droplets of water extracted by chewing mud. Incredibly, this diet gave the six survivors sufficient strength to make it across the Gobi. On the far side of the desert they encountered yet another Mongolian nomad, who fed them and gave them directions to Lhasa.

Once in Tibet, the six were literally besieged by hospitable natives eager to help them. The leader of one village, who spoke fluent Russian, provided food, shelter, the means to bathe, and warm beds in which to sleep. Similar generosity was extended as the fugitives continued southward. After nearly a year, the party had finally reached India--but not before losing two more of their number while crossing the Himalayas.

Free and Safe

In March 1942, Rawicz, Smith, Zaro and Kolemenos staggered into northeast India, near the location of modern Bangladesh, where they were intercepted by six Indian soldiers. Thrusting out his hand, Smith said, in English: "We are very glad to see you." To his companions, Smith declared: "Gentlemen, we are safe."

"There we were, the four of us, stamping round, kicking up the dust, hugging one another, laughing hysterically through the blur of tears, until we collapsed one by one on the ground," recalled Rawicz. "All that misery, all that sorrow, the hardship of a whole year afoot, so that we might live again."

After being fed, bathed and allowed some time for convalescence, the four parted company. Rawicz journeyed to England, where he hoped to enlist in the fight to liberate Poland. But at Yalta, Franklin Roosevelt--Stalin's most powerful benefactor--acting under the influence of Alger Hiss--Stalin's most important foreign agent--ceded Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe to Soviet control. Rawicz remained in England, where he met his wife and wrote his memoir.

"I did not write my story for personal gain," he observed in 1997. "It was done as a memorial to all those ... who could not speak for themselves.... There are many other similar stories. I am not the only one."

On behalf of the 170,000,000 citizens of Golgotha, Rawicz offered this sobering witness to the living: "Freedom is like oxygen.... When lost, freedom is difficult to regain."
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Title Annotation:History--Struggle For Freedom
Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Date:Apr 19, 2004
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