Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The Greatest Escape – Podcast #36

I recently watched a NOVA documentary on the famous Great Escape of World War II and my wife made the comment that I am a sucker for a good survival story. I explained to her that The Great Escape was a great story, but I knew of a much better one. It is one that is unforgettable to those that have heard it but is oddly known by very few. It is the story of Slavomir Rawicz and his great escape from a Soviet prison camp. The story is both astonishing and almost unbelievable at times.

Slav was well educated, having attended school to be both an architect and surveyor. He spoke fluent Russian, which he learned from his Russian mother. He was also married, but just barely. The wedding to Vera occurred on July 5, 1939 had occurred while he was on a 48-hour leave from the Polish Calvary, but Slav received orders to return to his unit before the celebration was over. He saw his wife for a few hours here and there over the next few weeks, but that would be about it.

On November 19, 1939, he was home again in Pinsk on a short leave. His mom decided to have a celebration and Slav was just about to talk to his wife again when he was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police and accused of being a spy.

The charges against him were incredibly vague and would never hold up in a court of law today. The assumption was that he was a spy simply because he was an educated man that spoke Russian, lived near the Russian border, and was enlisted in an army that was an enemy of the Russian state.

The Soviet Secret Police subjected him to all types of horrendous torture, which included water drops on the forehead, physical beatings, lit cigarettes on the back of the hand, and much more. Slav was forced to live in his own filth most of the time. This was all because he refused to sign a document stating that he was a spy. One day they fed him some fish that was laced with some sort of drug. While under its influence, he unknowingly signed the confession.

His trial, if you can call it that, lasted four days, during which time he was constantly insulted with comments like “Polish spy”, “Polish traitor” and “Polish fascist”. At one point the prosecutor in the case smacked him in the face four times and accused Slavomir of being a professional liar. At the end of the trial, they produced the signed document and sentenced him to 25 years of forced labor.

After one year of being denied any form of human contact, he was brought into the Lubyanka prison yard and realized that the 150 other men there had been treated in basically the same way. They were all herded on to trucks and ultimately locked into railroad cattle cars. Each train car was locked from the outside and the prisoners traveled in complete darkness without toilets or any heat for the next 3000 miles. Keep in mind that this was the dead of winter and that they only had thin prison clothing to protect them from the intense Siberian cold.

The men were unloaded from the train in December 1940 after traveling for one month and covering about 3000 miles. They were forced to march for 5 miles through the snow and cold Siberian weather before being ordered to stop. An estimated 5000 men spent the next three days in a potato field that was covered in 2-feet of snow.

Then a train arrived that was loaded with warm padded jackets, winter trousers and rubberized boots. While this was initially interpreted as a good thing, it was not. The men were handcuffed to a long chain, 50 men per side, 100 per chain. They were then pulled by a truck at about 4 miles per hour across Siberia. At one point the trucks got bogged down in the snow and the chains were pulled by sleds with reindeer.

They arrived at their destination during the first week of February, having walked for two months and covering about 1000 miles in distance. The prisoners were now at Camp Number 303, which was about 300-400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Upon entering the camp, they encountered 1000 Finns that had arrived previously. But there was one big problem. There were no barracks for the estimated 5500 prisoners at the camp. The prisoners were quickly put to work constructing 20 buildings that could sleep 300 prisoners per building.

Slav initially worked as a forest worker to cut down trees for the camp, but after one month he volunteered to make skis for Russian soldiers. This assignment brought with it two highly prized bonuses: working in the ski shop brought much-needed warmth all day and more than doubled his daily allotment of bread from 400 grams to 1000 grams.

Then one day the Commandant of the base, a guy named Colonel Ushakov came into the ski shop and asked if any of the prisoners knew how to fix his Telefunken radio. No one stepped forward, so Slav decided to offer his services. He wasn’t sure he could fix it, but did own a Telefunken back in Poland.

He didn’t know it at the time, but this would prove to be the turning point in Slavomir’s 25-year sentence. Upon entering Colonel Ushakov’s residence, Slav met his wife, the only woman on the base. In fact, she was the first woman he had seen since being arrested 18 months earlier.

The Colonel and his wife treated him well while he was working on the radio. He quickly figured out what was wrong with it but opted to drag out its repair so that he would be called back several times. Slav’s conversations with the couple led him to the conclusion that they were also prisoners in a sense. One didn’t end up running a prison camp in Siberia for no reason at all.

During one of the repair sessions, only the Colonel’s wife Ushakova was present and she asked Slav if he had ever contemplated escape. It was something that he had thought about constantly, but her question caught him off guard and he provided no immediate answer. She apologized on his next visit, but he decided to talk in the abstract.

He said that escape was impossible because of the isolation of the camp in the Siberian tundra, but if he did ever escape, he would probably head 600 miles due east to the Kamchatka and then hop a boat to Japan. Ushakova pointed out that this would be a very bad move because the Kamchatka coast was heavily fortified and he was sure to be captured.

So, he then suggested that he would sneak aboard a train headed westward and work in the Ural mines until a later date. Again, the Colonel’s wife pointed out that would be impossible because of the difficulties of getting both travel and work permits.

He was not sure at the time if she just enjoyed the challenge of the idea of escape or if she really was helping him to do so. They decided that the best route was south to a country like Afghanistan.

Ushakova offered the following suggestions:

  1. He would need a small number of the fittest and most enterprising men.
  2. He should save ¼ of his daily bread allowance each day and dry it at the back of the ski shop on the stove.
  3. Skins would be needed for clothing and footwear. The officers hung their skins to dry on the outer wire of the camp. If one pelt was grabbed each day, the officers would never notice.
  4. They should leave at night during a heavy snowstorm to cover their tracks. The camp did not have electricity, so there were no lights to spot them immediately.
  5. She offered to provide sacking to make bags.
  6. Lastly, and most significantly, Ushakova added that the Colonel would be leaving on a trip shortly.

Slavomir realized that it was now or never. He found six other men and they started planning their escape in late March of 1941. Prisoners were allowed to move freely between barracks, so they all arranged to get bunks near the front of Hut #1, closest to their escape route.

Their supplies were minimal and very primitive. Mocassins and hats were crudely made from the fur. A 12” long x 3” knife was made from a broken saw blade. Pieces of flint were collected to light a sponge-like fungus called Gubka to start fires. Ushakova provided the men with an axehead, for which they fashioned a wooden handle.

On April 6, she indicated that the Colonel had gone to Yakutsk. She provided Slav with seven bags, each containing a flat loaf of bread, a little flour, 5 pounds of pearl barley, some salt, 4-5 ounces of tobacco, and some old newspaper. Being a non-smoker, I didn’t realize that the newspaper was intended to be used to roll cigarettes.

The men decided they would make their break for freedom three days later, a night during which the snow began piling up. They left at midnight after the camp had settled down. The snow was so heavy that the guard towers were not visible in the slightest.

About 100 yards from their hut door was their first obstacle – a row of coiled barbed wire. They had previously noted that the wire didn’t follow the contour of the ground, so they picked the spot with the greatest clearance and crawled underneath it.

Next, they had to clear a 6-foot deep dry moat that surrounded the camp. The tallest member of the group, a guy named Anastazi Kolemenos, jumped in the pit and the rest used him as a stepping stone. Once they all cleared, they pulled Kolemenos out of the hole.

Two rows of 12-foot high timber walls then stood in their way. Between the two walls was a path for patrol by the guards. Again, Kolomenos’ height proved advantageous as the other men all stood on his shoulders and pulled themselves up to the top of the wall. There was another coil of barbed wire at the outer base of the wall, but they simply jumped over it into the deep snow of the patrol path. They repeated this procedure for the second wall and third coil of barbed wire successfully. They were now free men, but far from civilization and there was the risk of getting caught.

They kept moving quickly until about 11 AM, at which point they found shelter under a big tree by creating shelter out of snow and branches. For the next five days, they traveled only under the cover of night, moving an estimated 30 miles each day. They didn’t light a fire for fear of getting caught. Surprisingly, there was no sign of pursuit.

Every day they pushed farther and farther south. They made Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world by mid-May and also encountered another surprise. They ran into a 17-year-old girl named Kristina Polanska, a Polish girl that had escaped from a Western Siberia work farm after the foreman there had tried to rape her. She joined the seven men on their escape to freedom.

They finally crossed the Russian-Mongolian border during the second week of June, having covered an estimated 1200 miles in 60 days. They now had little fear of recapture but knew that they needed to keep going. They decided that their final destination would be India, which was controlled by the British at the time and would mean absolute freedom.

While crossing the Kentai Shan mountains of Mongolia, they were able to meet people that were incredibly generous with their food and shelter. Sometimes they had to work for food but were happy to do so.

Unfortunately, they were not familiar with what lay in front of them. With no water and very little food, all eight entered the Gobi Desert. They ran out of food on the 5th day but luckily encountered a small oasis on the 7th day, which provided much-needed food and water.

On the 12th day in the Gobi, Kristina fell unconscious twice and they noticed that her legs were incredibly swollen. She died the next day and was buried in the desert.

On the 17th day, the same thing happened to one of the men. A 37-year-old Polish Army captain named Sigmund Makowski also died.

They were clearly dying from a lack of food and water. Luckily, some mud was spotted on the 20th day and they were able to extract the water by dipping the edges of their sacks in the mud and sucking the water out of the cloth. But they still had no food. All they had seen during their entire trek through the desert were snakes, so they spent the next three weeks eating the occasional snake. They left the desert after about 30 days and the loss of two lives.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. It took an additional 3 months for the remaining to cover an estimated 1500 miles of the Chinese province of Kancu and Tibet, which brought them to the biggest obstacle of them all – the Himalayan Mountains. Sadly, they lost a third member of their team in early December. A 28-year-old Lithuanian architect named Zacahrius Marchinovas died in his sleep.

In January – the dead of winter – they entered the foothills of the Himalayas. The winter was not as bad as what they had experienced in Siberia, but they were in far worse physical shape at this point in the journey. They climbed up and down snow-covered ridges and valleys without any climbing gear. The conditions were brutal. The worst peak took them 6 days to go up and down.

It was during this descent that a 42-year-old Polish member of the team named Anton Paluchowicz vanished while they were lowering themselves down. They later realized that he had lost his life by falling into a deep chasm.

Only a few days later the remaining men crossed into India and were spotted by 6 soldiers with an NCO officer. They had to walk a few more miles to be picked up by a truck, but that was nothing compared to the incredible journey that had just been on. It was their first time on wheels since that dreaded Russian train ride that took them to Siberia.

British troops cared for and fed the four survivors well. Infested with lice, all of their body hair was shaved off and burned along with all of their clothes and furs. They spent nearly a month recovering in a hospital in Calcutta. The four survivors went their separate ways and never saw each other again.

If you have read Slav’s book titled “The Long Walk” from 1956, you probably noticed that I skipped perhaps the most unbelievable claim in the book. Slav said that during their descent from the Himalayas, they spotted two tall creatures covered in fur, the so-called Yeti or Abominable Snowman. This claim, coupled with his account of traveling through the Gobi Desert without water, and successfully climbing peaks of the Himalayas that even experienced climbers would find difficult, has always brought claims that the book was a fake.

Up until his death in Nottingham, England on April 5th, 2004, Slav stood by the story and insisted that it was true. But recent facts that have been uncovered bring incredible doubt to its legitimacy.

First, a BBC investigation in 2006 of the Russian and Polish archives found out that he was not imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Instead, he was sentenced for the killing of a member of the Soviet secret police. The documents, some written in Slav’s own handwriting, also show that he was released from the gulag in 1942 as part of a general amnesty program for Polish soldiers. That means that he probably never escaped, and even if he had, he never made the incredible journey that he had always claimed.

But back in 1942, a British Intelligence officer in Calcutta named Rupert Mayne interviewed three emaciated men that claimed to have escaped from a prison in Siberia and made that incredible journey. Mayne never recorded the names of the three men but was certain that the book the Long Walk was the same story he had been told.

So, if the journey was made and the recently uncovered records show that Slavomir Rawicz never made the escape, then who did?

Recently, in 2009, a man named Witold Glinski came forward and said that he was the one that made the incredible escape. Glinski claims that he knew his story was stolen by Rawicz but wanted to forget the war and move on. His story is basically the same, with some slight changes. There was no encounter with the Yeti, Kristina actually died from gangrene, and a guide took them through the Himalayas, avoiding the high peaks, into India. He did note that he never knew much about the men that he traveled with.

So there you have it. A story thought true for more than fifty years is filled with unanswerable questions.

Some have suggested that Rawicz read of Glinski’s story in government files and wrote the story based on those facts. Others have suggested that the ghostwriter of the book, Ronald Downing, embellished Rawicz’s escape quite a bit in an effort to sell more books. There is also the possibility that both Rawicz and Glinksi made the same journey together but were unaware of it. Or maybe Glinski is taking claim to Slav’s story now that he is deceased. Or there is the possibility – well I’ll let you come up with your own questions and decide what happened, if it happened.

This is definitely not the end of the story. I just found out that Peter Weir has directed a movie called “The Way Back” based on Slav’s book. It is scheduled to be released this fall and stars Jim Sturgess as Slavomir. Colin Farrell and Ed Harris also star. Of course, all of the names have been changed. For example, Kristina has supposedly been renamed Irena.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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