Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Long Walk--Book Review

I just finished a book that chronicles human endurance. It's about a Pole, arrested falsely by the Russians just prior to WWII, as so many were. He was tortured endlessly in attempts to break his spirit so that he would cough out a confession to spying. He, like so many others he was to meet, were not spies.

He lived for months in a dark tunnel prison cell where he could only stand or squat in his own filth. Yet he didn't break. Finally, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 25 years hard labor in Siberia. The Russians needed a free work force and this young Pole, just 25, was about to become part of that forced labor.

He then endured with thousands of others a forced march from near Moscow to the outer reaches of Siberia. For hundreds of miles the prisoners were chained together in groups of 20, to march behind one Russian lorry, in the snow. Many of the older men dropped under these terrible conditions and then were unchained and their bodies left.

He noted that many of the men marched off to the Siberian camps formerly had rather sheltered lives, came from higher income families, from various countries, and shouldered in to bear the hardships that came with brutal internment.

Those who made it to the Russian work camp were told there were no barracks available and they would not be out of the cold until they built their own barracks. This was accomplished by work groups taken into the Siberian forests to cut timber. Others hewed it down and the barracks were built in a couple of months time. They were notably more comfortable now, although they slept on plank bunks softened only by moss they collected in the forests.

Slav, the pole, volunteered for duty making skis, for the Russian troops, out of wood brought in straight out of the forest. Throughout my time reading this book, I marvelled at the resourcefulness of even the Russians, who made do with almost nothing, hewing what they could to live their own lives out of resources at hand.

The prisoners lived only on a bread ration and coffee.

Slav then volunteered once again, to help fix a vacuum tube radio the camp commander had in the house he shared with his wife. This was turning point for him. Slav had harbored thoughts of escape for some time.

When on the march, to the camps, the whole group of Russians and their prisoners had been caught up in a terrible blizzard. Their trucks and lorries were slogged and stuck. They called in the locals, who came, driving reindeer before them, and they had been then led out the remainder of the distance to the camps by these very small local people and their reindeer. Slav had conversed with one who described leaving out food for "the unfortunates", those men who tried to escape the camps. This had placed in Slavs mind the idea of escape.

The commanders' wife herself broached the subject. She asked Slav, who spoke fluent Russian, "do you think of escape? You are young. 25 years here and your life is gone." This question was risky for Slav to answer and he panicked at first. But the next trip to the commanders house, he opened up and spoke as if a third person was escaping and what would they do. The commanders wife gave advice on which way. Slav had thought it best to make for a port city 600 miles away and try to get out that way. The Commanders wife said that would be no good, as it was heavily patrolled and they would certainly be caught and killed.

Slav eventually decided the only way to avoid recapture would be to head the one direction where no one would think escapees would dare attempt--across Siberia, south and east, through Mongolia and Tibet to India.

The commanders wife told him what would he would need to do. He would need to save half his bread ration and dry it, steal furs, hung on wires from the officers, after they hunt sable, because, she said, they would never notice, and form them into clothing and moccasins. She eventually slipped them an axehead.

Slav made himself a knife, ground out at the ski shop where he worked. They watched the patrols at the edge of the camp and together with another prisoner, chose five fellow prisoners to join Slav and his friend. They ran at midnight with snow falling, which they knew would help cover their tracks. Getting out of the camp was an ordeal enough, going under layers of wire, down a mote, up the far side, over a tall smooth barrier on the far side, more wire, then they ran.

Seven men. They carried only the dried bread, tinder for fire, they had dried from forest moss, a flint, the clothing and shoes they fashioned from sable skin, the axe head and the makeshift knife. They walked 30 miles a day. They soon adjusted to going sometimes two weeks without food and days without water. Slav had memorized a map but other than that, they used the sun to guide them. They had no experience in navigating by stars, so could use only the sun to guide them and they would pick up far distant navigation points by climbing to a high point each morning to choose.

They stole a pig from one village by befriending the pig, then killing him when they were far distance from the village. Slav felt bad about betraying the friendly pigs trust, but they had no choice. They would gorge themselves for a day on any meat they encountered or killed, then would carry the rest. Tehy became lice infested and soon fought the effects of scurvy.

Near a large lake, not far north of the Trans Siberian railway, they saw a form in the brush who had seen them and discussed what to do. They charged the unknown person and it turned out to be just a wisp of a girl, a child, a teenager, whose parents had been killed in Poland and she had been captured by Russians and sent to work on a farm. The manager tried to rape her and she had run away.

The seven bearded men talked about what to do about this girl, this child, and it was the American among them, Mr. Smith, arrested in Moscow where he had been an architect, accused of, what else, spying, who softened quickly, when the girl stated, "I'm coming with you."

They behaved towards her like brothers and fathers. The girl and Mr. Smith, the American, talked at length, forming a father, daughter relation, and he vowed to buy her pretty clothes and take her back to America with him. She cheered them, made them laugh, told them how safe she felt now with them, and the seven scraggly dirty men became desperately protective and fond of the girl.

On and on they walked, and finally passed out of Russia into Mongolia and then they celebrated. The Mongolians helped them whenever they were encountered, gave them food, were entranced by them. The group had to swim many rivers. On they plodded, with aching and blistered feet, empty stomachs and teeth falling out from scurvy.

They accidentally ended up crossing the Gobi desert. Slav said it was just a name on a map to him. He had no idea what faced them. Thirst almost immediately attacked them. Tehy had no means to carry water. They had no food. They rested during the horrible heat of mid day and after 13 days, all felt they were soon to die.

The girls legs and feet became swollen. All of them had been collapsing suddenly. But the swelling in the girls feet had extended clear up her thighs. The biggest man of them, determined to save her, when she could no longer walk, carried her, until he too collapsed. Then, one awful day, she could not be roused and closed her eyes for good. The men were devastated, horrified, guilt ridden. Despite their own suffering, they dug a grave and buried her. Soon after, one of the men showed the same signs, swollen feet, then legs, and finally he also died.

But like a miracle, one morning, they spotted something from a rise far off, squinting, they also looked and then marched to the spot. An oasis. There was water. A caravan had been through recently. They'd eaten meat. The men chewed on the bones, cracked them open and sucked down the marrow.

They stayed a day there then marched on and soon were in trouble again. They finally found a muddy place and were able to suck water from the mud. After which, being starved, Mr. Smith suggested they begin eating the snakes. tehy'd seen many but not considered them possible food. They created two forked sticks from their staffs and caught two, cutting off their heads with the axe. They survived henceforth through the Gobi on snakes and soon ran into some Mongolians who gave them food and water and were amazed they had made it across the Gobi carrying nothing with them.

They crossed finally into Tibet, receiving help by all Mongols and Tibetans they encountered. They could not communicate with most of the Mongols and Tibetans they encountered but learned to bow in greeting and departure and they got direction by using the word Llasa. They did not say they were escaped prisoners, when they encountered someone who spoke Russian, French or German, just that they were pilgrims going to Llasa, but they did not enter Llasa. They were fearful of cities and capture still.

Two more men died as they crossed the mountains of Tibet, including the Himalayans. One fell to his death in climbing in the mountains. They had only some wire they had found, at the oasis, and had formed climbing ladders from that wire. The next man suddenly died also, in the night, in the Himalayans. Four of the original eight, comprised of seven men and the teenage girl, finally walked out of the Himalayans into India and ran into a group of British soldiers. 4000 miles and nine months of walking. It took them months to recuperate, part of which time they were sedated in a hospital.

This is an epic story of unbelievable courage, resourcefulness and endurance.

The Long Walk, a Gamble for Life, by Slavormir Rawicz as told to Ronald Downing.

My brother, the contractor, whose company is suffering now, in this economy, is quite the history buff. He recommended the book to me. He's reading some book now about the Spanish American war. He is becoming more and more anti war. He didn't used to be.

I was talking to him recently about the brutality cited almost matter of factly in this book, The Long Walk. War seems to let loose the demons inside people. Maybe that's why the bible says Thou Shalt Not Kill, a commandment quickly shelved if war is in the air.

He talked about letters in this book, written by Americans, and sent home to their families.

One letter, in the book he is currently reading, disturbed him greatly. The young man was telling family how a group of women and children were huddled in hollow, in the Philippines, and how they shot them so easily it was like shooting hogs back home.

He also reads a lot about the Civil War. Just like now, back then, many men were eager to join and leave the relative boredom of home and farm life for what they imagined to be the exciting life of soldiering, by comparison. These men were in for a rude shock.

Injured enemy soldiers were sometimes dispatched with hammer blows to the head. One battle sealed the PTSD fate of a young boy, caught in the fighting. Billy the Kid. The battle was so brutal that northern soldiers were dismembered while still alive. Some had their penises cut off and stuffed down their throats causing them to suffocate. The horrors of this battle later would be cited as cause for Billy the Kids' turn to a violent life of crime.

I was reading an article in Smithsonian magazine while waiting for an appointment. Unfortunately, the last two pages had been torn out, probably by someone taking a coupon or recipe home. The article was about the battle of the Little Big Horn, Custer's Last Stand.

I did not know that Custer's men were in the process of attacking a large Indian encampment composed of many tribes banding together for better protection against the soldiers. Money was the motivating factor in the attack. Seems mineral deposits had been found in the reservations hills and the government wanted the Indians pushed out of the region so the mineral wealth could be exploited.

There had been a celebration the night before, so the Indians in the camp were late rising. Many were swimming in the river, when word of soldiers killing a boy farther up the river came in. Then reports a woman and two Indian children had been killed. Crazy Horse was one of the last to hear of the attack and he spent precious time preparing for war, saying prayers, painting his face. The soldiers were engaging on the side of an embankment then would run up the hill and take positions to fire down on the Indians.

Crazy Horse and his men raced up the back of the hill. Crazy Horse did "run bys" charging right out in the open beside the firing soldiers to draw their fire and draw them out of cover. Then his men would pick off the soldiers.

In the end, the soldiers panicked and ran, often bunching together instead of holding positions. Custer and his entourage, viewing the battle from a farther rise, were the last to die.

I wish the last two pages of the article had still been there, pieced together from eye witness accounts laid to pen by the Indians themselves. Indians learned scalping from the whites. This is something I didn't know. My brother also told me this, and told me where whites picked up this gruesome habit, but I forgot what he told me.

There is nothing noble about war, even when it is necessary to defend ones borders from evil. Truth is seldom told of battles or the reasons for a war and conduct of soldiers is whitewashed over in the blur of history. We have learned nothing except how to kill even more people with deadlier weapons. You'd think, after all this time, after the combined horrors of centuries of wars, we would do all that is possible to keep war only in our human history.

Are we all the dysfunctional descendant children of raging bloody warmongers going back generation upon generation? Does this leave us no hope of healing?

The sins of the fathers visited.

A very interesting movie is Defiance. This movie, although I cannot recall the details well, is a true story about two Jewish brothers, Poles, whose parents were killed by Germans, turned in as Jews by the local chief of police, fearful for his own life. The brothers ran into the woods and hid, and soon found others hiding also. They banded together to survive. One brother wanted to fight, to kill the Germans and eventually they split and he joined with the Russians, where he too, was considered trash, as a Jew.

The other brother continued to shelter a misfit band of men, women and children, some old, securing food and shelter. EVeryone had to work, no exceptions, was one rule. They learned to fight. When their camp was surrounded, some sacrificed themselves to remain and distract the Germans while the others, including old men and women, fled through swamps by using their belts to join themselves together.

IN the movie, the most touching scene, was as they were coming out of the swamps, they came under German fire and all seemed lost. ONe of the men, who knew nothing about even throwing a grenade, charged forward, and exploded with the grenade he was trying to throw, sacrificing himself. Suddenly there was fire from another side, and the Germans were cut down and the ragtag band of Jews were safe.

Out of the woods came the other brother with a small band of fellows who had broken off from the Russian fighting force. He had come back and saved his brother and the group.

This movie examines two views, two reactions. The one brother took up arms and the other made such statements to his band as "We are hunted like animals but we will not become animals." He felt it was very important not to become like the Germans, in acts of revenge. They fought only when directly threatened.

We are a vicious species, no doubt.

I was raised a Christian and could not, in my young mind, join the principles of war and God. I could not understand why or how Christians could be so violent and ignore so thoroughly even the commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill. I still do not understand it.

Sometimes, this wantonly violent planet and the zealous religions, so vocal worldwide, actively supporting wars and guns and violent representations, seem surreal, like a farcifal circus act to me.

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