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Story, or True Story, and does it matter?
on 12 March 2012
In 1939 Slavomir Rawicz, a young Pole (like many Poles) had a chilling and brutal encounter with the USSR State machinery,at the time when Germany and Russia had a neutrality towards each other, but both saw Poland as a place to slake territorial hunger.
Rawicz, living near the border with Russia, and son of a Russian mother, and therefore fluent in Russian, was arrested as an anti-Communist agent. Imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Lubyanka prison, he was sentenced to 25 years hard labour in a prison camp in Siberia. Helped by the camp Commandant's wife, he and a group of other prisoners escaped and, suffering enormous danger and deprivation as they walked across desolate landscapes including Siberia itself in a particularly cold winter, the arid wastes of the Gobi desert, and the harshness of the Himalayas, reaching India and freedom with the Allies. Later, Rawicz moved to this country, and married an English woman. He died in 2004. An astonishing story, well written by a ghost writer. But this book, originally published in 1956, hit the best seller lists precisely because it purports to be 'The TRUE Story of a Trek to Freedom' Unfortunately later research appears to suggest the story is not completely true - or, if it is, that it may not be Rawicz's story at all, but the story of another modest Pole, who also settled in this country, Witold Glinski. A 2006 BBC documentary challenged Rawicz's claims offering Glinski as the real hero; however there have been other investigations which have since challenged Glinski's veracity as well. Does this all matter? Well, yes. However interesting a story I did not set out to read this as a novel. I read it as an account , if you like, of heroism, of strength, of the refusal of the human spirit to be crushed. In other words, to remind myself of the best, as well as the worst, we are capable of. But if the story is fake, only pretending to be true - than the book only reminds me of the worst. If it is a story, or a partial story, or a cobbled together story from several real and several imagined stories, then it is a metaphor or a pointer or a reminder of what the best and the worst might be, but is not the thing itself. I could have read it as The Long Walk BASED on a True Story, with great enjoyment, and given it 5 stars. It is absolutely true that many Poles suffered dreadfully from the historical relationship with their two rapacious totalitarian neighbours. It is absolutely true that the state machinery of both countries dealt appallingly, brutally, inhumanely with those it considered its enemies. Its undoubtedly true that some of those who were so brutally dealt with resisted and overcame, escaped, showing extraordinary strength, resilience, integrity and courage. And its important we know those people's stories, to remind us of what the best of being human might be But if we are sold something as true, and it is a lie, that matters. My sense is someone may have done this journey, or part of this journey, it may even have been Rawicz himself. But was it exactly as he lays out? Hmm much more difficult to believe, sack sewing Commandant's wife, Abominable Snowmen and 13 days in the Gobi desert between waterholes and with only 1 tin cup as a water carrying container between 8 people, and all.