The Long Walk, did it ever happen?

The Long Walk, did it ever happen?

*Due to a new exciting article which has never been published in English about The Long Walk, I am republishing four articles three years after it all started on this site. These articles have covered most things and aspects of the Long Walk so far…so stay tuned for the new article coming up soon! 

The Long Walk, did it ever happen?

(By Mikael Strandberg/CuChullaine O´Reilly, first published on ExWebThe book the Long Walk – a true story of a trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz has inspired generations of arm chair readers and explorers world wide. Since it was first published 1956 it has sold more than 500 000 copies and been translated into 25 languages. Between Christmas and New Year the Hollywood movie The Way Back hit the screens in the US and the UK. It is based and inspired by the book. But the big question is, did the Long Walk ever happen? And if, by who?

The Long Walk

The Long Walk caused a sensation when it came out 1956. Allegedly a true story of a great escape from one of Stalin´s terrible gulags, initiated by the young Polish cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz. In April 1941, he escaped from camp 303, located south of Yakutsk, in a blizzard together with six other prisoners. Instead of choosing the shortest route to freedom and survival, by walking 2500 kms (1500 miles) east for the Pacific Coast and a possible boat to Japan, they headed directly south. 18 months and 6500 Kms (4000 miles) later only four of them reached freedom in British India in September 1942. Three died during the trek. Possibly the hardest walk ever.

To reach British India, under-provisioned and with hardly any equipment except their worn camp clothes, they crossed the dense Siberian taiga in deep snow, during one of the coldest recorded winters in history, passed Lake Baikal and continued through Mongolia, suffering extreme heat in the Gobi desert, before they made it to Tibet. Once on the plateau they crossed over the Himalayas into British India. After having arrived as free men, the four survivors split up, never to meet or talk again. Slavomir Rawicz was hailed as a hero when the book came out. But was it a true story?

Slavomir Rawicz

The authenticity of the book, which was ghostwritten by a Daily Mail reporter, Ronald Downing, was questioned from the outset. Eric Shipton, a legendary leader of Mount Everest expeditions, was one of these critics. He noted many inconsistencies about the distances mentioned. Explorer Peter Fleming, who knew the Himalayas very well, called the book a hoax. However, Rawicz met his hardest opponents at a lecture in London 1956, speaking about his book for a group of Polish ex-servicemen. While Rawicz was speaking, several men jumped up and claimed they had known the author before and during the war, that he had been in the infantry and not a cavalry officer and that his story was nothing but a lie. Rawicz never spoke again in front of his own countrymen. He claimed the hecklers were all communist agents.

BBC and Hugh Levinson

Until his death in 2004, Rawicz managed to avoid most of the critics, by either saying he had forgotten details, blamed the ghostwriter Downing for embellishing the truth or just by ignoring the questions which gathered more strength by the day. But, all along, he maintained that he had done The Long Walk.

Along comes BBC Radio 4 in the year 2006 and aired a documentary produced by Hugh Levinson, which destroyed Rawicz’s credibility. The BBC uncovered two really damaging pieces of evidence, proving that several of Rawicz’s claims were false. First, it was revealed that Rawicz had signed a document proving that he had been (a) freed in Russia, (b) went to Persia, and (c) had never been in India. Secondly, it was proved that Rawicz had been freed from the Soviet gulag camp in 1942, when he supposedly was making the Long Walk.

 

Looking for Mr Smith

The same facts were discovered by American researcher and traveler Linda Willis. She became fascinated by the Long Walk story ten years ago, and since then has been researching every aspect of this controversial escape story. Her book, released in November 2010, is entitled Looking for Mr Smith. In it Willis tries to find out who was the American member of the group of escapees. The author points out one of the oddest things about Rawicz’s story: that the four survivors, neither got to know each other well during the escape nor kept in contact after reaching British India.

Though Willis’s research didn’t reveal the identity of the elusive Mr. Smith, she did prove that Slavomir Rawicz never made the Long Walk. But, she concluded, somebody else might have.

Another version is discovered

There are quite a few escape stories from this era. For example, that of Cornelius Rost, the German man who escaped from Kolyma and allegedly walked to Turkey. He wrote a book, And As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me. Also Alexander Dolgun revealed a similar tale in An American in the Gulag.. But did anyone really do The Long Walk as described by Slavomir Rawicz?

The BBC and Linda Willis believed that The Long Walk had been made, possibly by another Polish man named Witold Glinski. Willis learned about Glinski in 2003. BBC reporter Hugh Levinson was tipped off about Glinski’s version of events after his first programme in 2006. In 2009 a reporter for Reader’s Digest, John Dyson, made Glinski famous by publishing an article claiming he was the man who really made The Long Walk.

Witold Glinski

Witold Glinski´s story is essentially identical to the The Long Walk described by his fellow Pole, Slavomir Rawicz, minus some outrageous claims, such as meeting the Abominable Snowman and not drinking water for thirteen days whilst crossing the Gobi Desert. Glinski told reporters he fled the gulag in February 1941. According to his own account, he was 17 years old when he journeyed to British India with his group in eleven months. The escapees, Glinski said, had walked 6500 kms (4000 miles), averaging 20 kms/day (12 miles).

Why did Glinski wait 50 years to tell his story?

Glinski told reporters that even his wife didn’t know the full story of his escape until 2003. In interviews with Linda Willis, the BBC and Reader’s Digest, Glinski claimed the reason he kept silent was because he was afraid of one of his fellow escapees, a murderer called Batko. Glinski asserted that he met the dangerous criminal in England, where both men had resettled after the war. When Batko threatened him, Glinski reported him to the British police, who arrested the Long Walk escapee. Because of this incident, Glinski maintains he was worried for the rest of his life that Bartok would seek revenge. When the original Long Walk book appeared, Glinski feared that the author, Rawicz, could have been an alias for Batko. So even though Glinski says his own story had been stolen, he never dared contact Rawicz.

How did Rawicz get his hands on Glinskis story?

Glinski says the most likely explanation is that Rawicz read his account of the escape, in official papers that he found in the Polish Embassy in London during the war.

Is Witold Glinski telling the truth? Did he do the 6500 km Long Walk from a camp near Yakutsk to British India?

Glinski has convinced reporters Hugh Levinson and John Dyson, author Linda Willis, and the young Polish explorer, Tomasz Grzywaczewski. They all feel he is very convincing.

They also say Glinski comes across as very honest, seems extremely credible, and always ready to answer any question or deal with conflicting opinions – even though he has no documentation to back up his story.

Doubts.

After weeks of intense research and interviews, tomorrow Leszek Gliniecki will question Glinski’s claims when it reveals new evidence.

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99 Comments for this entry

  1. I think that the book was really great and inspirational.

  2. Jan Kuligowski says:

    I first read the book about 10 years ago, I enjoyed the drama of it but I thought the details were at very least exaggerated … I bought it recently second hand and re-reading it I thought it was more than exaggerated and that led me to the BBC investigations and all the different threads calling it a hoax … I was disappointed although it’s still a good story … Glinski seems credible but at this point I suppose I’ll just imagine that someone made the trek minus the seemingly impossible details …

  3. ASP says:

    So, what happened in the interview? Did they find out if Mr.Glinski is telling the truth? Who were the other 3 people? I’m eager to know…

  4. Trevor van der Vyver says:

    Just watched the movie. Truth or not, I knew 2 independent guys that walked from Siberia to Germany.
    There must be many similar stories out there.

  5. Henryk says:

    This is outrageous. The very nerve of you to question a great Polish hero like Slavomir Rawicz. You’re all Communist liars, but you’re not fooling me.

  6. Robyn Dennis says:

    I was wondering if there is any documentation about whether the journalist Ronald Downing who ghost wrote the book doubted the story of Slavomir Rawicz or if he had been interviewed on the subject, especially since Slavomir Rawicz blamed him for over embellishing his story. I haven’t found any. After buying and reading the book I must say I felt rather cheated that it wasn’t true. Regardless of whether other people have made the trip. I read this book as a true experience. Not a novel.

  7. mikael says:

    See this article at http://www.mikaelstrandberg.com/2011/01/01/gliniecki-%E2%80%9Ci-have-solid-evidence-glinski-didn%E2%80%99t-do-the-long-walk%E2%80%9D/ You can hardly accuse Leszek Gliniecki for being a communist. Read his story.

  8. Teri Reid says:

    Glinieski and Rawicz both mention Mr. Smith. The author of
    “Looking for Mr. Smith” narrows him down to possibly an American engineer who went to the Soviet Union in the 1930′s. Is there any more current information on who he may have been?

  9. Janet says:

    I am reading The Long Walk and nearly finished it. I began to doubt its verity before I heard anything about whether it was true or not. First, at the oasis on the caravan route: surely the 8 would have kept to the well used path knowing they were likely to meet people who would help and that it must be almost flat. So…why strike out South knowing that way was a deserted desert? They only started going South to put the prison guards off. Once over the border why go in the most uninhabited, inhospitable way for no good reason? It is an amazing story but if true I feel major wrong decisions were made.

  10. Is there anyway to view the original 50 comments? I am looking for a comment someone made about their relative Dominik Tomaszewski, who claimed to have made a similar escape and journey. I cannot recall if I saw it here or elsewhere.

  11. mikael says:

    I did not know that, John, let me figure that out!

  12. mikael says:

    Ok, John, I have done this extra page at http://www.mikaelstrandberg.com/comments-the-long-walk/ with all the comments. The problem is wordpress who has set a limit. But here they are all of them from the beginning.

  13. unknown says:

    read this book when i was 14. the book was well worn no front or back cover and had been in a fire so the top and bottom of the pages were burnt off.
    I think the condition of the book added to the experience of my reading.

    Story stuck with me and i now have the name and author seeking a good condition hard cover version for keeps

  14. Bengal Bayman says:

    How can I read the book free?

  15. mikael says:

    It seems to have changed, since I wrote that I am afraid!

  16. carl evans says:

    The Long Walk,is a brilliant literary adventure story of the highest class.True,how true,who knows.What amazed me throughout was the minute detail,it seems as if the writer had to have a photographic memory plus.Considering the trauma of pain,hunger,tiredness which was always simmering,how did he remember.

  17. Kate says:

    I am very interested in this story and all theories. My great grandfather supposedly made a similar escape from Irkutsk but it would have been sometime between 1885-1895. He described his tale in an Auckland newspaper in about 1907. (See Papers Past website and search Rosegger-Agster). Some of the details in the article are definitely wrong and i am unsure how much was the journo and how much was my ggrandfather. He could speak fluent Chinese and held info evenings in sydney regarding the culture. This is no doubt a result of the time he spent getting through China. If anyone can help me with finding out more about this I would be very grateful.
    Cheers kate

  18. john dodd says:

    Going across the the ghobie Desert. Was the best way to go as the Rusians wauld have thought as everybody else did that nobody wauld go that way.And therefore nobody got caught. FIND ME ON TOP GEAR VIA U TUBE. john dodd beast

  19. Melinda Gilbert says:

    Just finished reading The Long Walk this week and was suddenly struck with the need to know more! I thought first of looking for the other survivors – especially Mr. Smith, as the first order of business. Little did I know I would become ensnared in this whole hoax or truth and who’s truth business!! Now I feel left behind as all this was really active a few years back and am wondering if anyone is still “on the case”. Surely Linda Wallis and you, Mikael, are continuing to explore, right? Is anyone still out there researching?

  20. Mikael Strandberg says:

    Big news coming up! We have just come over some extra ordinary research done by Harvard researcher!

  21. Teri Reid says:

    Good for you, Mikael. Please inform us as soon as possible!

  22. Paul Ptack says:

    Has anyone ever tried to walk the same route and do what they did??

  23. Paddy barker says:

    As I was reading the book I kept saying to myself the only reason I am continuing to read is because I am told it is a true story. I kept feeling it was too far fetched and beyond belief. Now I feel totally let down to find that there is doubt about its authenticity. Can,t someone research whether the escape was recorded at the camp and maybe the story of Ushakovaa who gave him the axe? The relationship between the escapees seemed unrealistic and unnatural and the fact that mr smith remained just that is questionable. What about records at the hospital where they ended up? How about questioning his wife and children about it?

  24. Just finished finished reading book a second time. Great read. What details are available from British Army detachment that the Gurkas belong to? The army would have some reports on the incident of meeting the escapees. What about the Polish regiment he travelled to following his recovery in India? And yes, the identity of the mysterious Mr. Smith, who must be on State Department records, passport details etc. September 2013 — end

  25. Rod Piwowarski says:

    My Grandfather’s name is Zdzslaw Piwowarski he walked from Russia through Afghanistan then on to India. I still have his passport that was issued in Bombay. He documented his walk with his friends, an account is also apparently in the Polish Museum in London (The Producer of film was trying to contact my family but we only heard about this after the film was released! ) when you grow up as a kid hearing the stories you kind of know it’s something
    that actually happened. Also I quized my Grandfather (not enough) after I read his account. I suspect there is a strong link to the walk but it’s probably impossible to be certain.

  26. Mr. Smith says:

    I presume Mr. Smith could of been working secretly in Russia at the time. While the U.S. officially did not have an intelligence service their was some degree of professional means to collect vitally needed information through the use of expatriates living and working in country. I presume to think the truth is not pretty and for what it’s worth do feel Mr. Smith’s role is best left uncovered. To Smith’s credit, he did play his hand up to the very end.

  27. John Rowley says:

    I have just had the most incredible encounter with a man who started talking about his deceased Polish step father and his walk from a Siberian Gulag in the Arctic circle to freedom. I listened in awe as I had read the book The Long Walk back in the 60′s. He phoned his mother and allowed me to listen in to the conversation. I have no doubt that this man did in fact carry out a walk similar to that claimed by Rawicz.

  28. jan hager says:

    The story may or may not be true,but I would’nt make it dependant on soviet records,the soviets were known to alter documents how it suited them

  29. Liz Foster says:

    I grew up with this story. I knew Slavomir Rawicz, he married again and settled in my village, I sat next to his son at school, his younger sister was at the same school, they went on to have 2 more children and moved to Sandiacre next to my Gtreat Aunt & Uncle`s farm – Church Farm, where they lived their for the rest of their lives. I have a sketch of the Yeti he gave me with his signature and inscription on the back `Observed in the spring of 1942` I read the book which I thought was better than the film.

  30. comrade stalin says:

    henryk, it seems everyone who questioned him came away with same feeling, he was bullpooping.By the way the comie’s are done i think? didn’t the wall come down? and of course when somewhen claims they walked 4000 miles through some of the harshest climates in the world no one should question that, right? maybe he also stole the space shuttle and went to mars and back, book coming out soon

  31. Clyde says:

    First read of it in ’88, and yes I have the original hardback from April 1956. That story was part of my life, always inspiring me. When I heard the Radio 4 broadcast in ’06, I felt betrayed, angry and let down. Then it all sunk in how it’s funny no one tried it on with the girl, and how they only seemed to lose their tempers once with one another, at the point in The Gobi when Kristina succumbs to the ordeal and dies. Too good to be true. I’d always wonder how on Earth no one else but myself ( pre internet ) seemed to know of this incredible tale. Seems it was held under scrutiny, sceptically, from the very beginning. Only sold half a million. Turns out his ghost writer was in fact his landlord who was a journalist with a keen enthusiasm for the Abominable Snowman of the Himalyas. We all know about that part of the book. Turns out he owed money to said landlord. Turns out he bought a house with the cash from the royalties. Scientists were plagued by the mosquitoes of the Siberian spring in the marshes when trying to investigate the Great Siberian Explosion. How come Rawicz didn’t mention this obstacle, or this unmissable telephone or telegraph wire stretching across the Gobi?

  32. Clyde says:

    @John Rowley
    Apparently many an eastern European has made an escape south or east from the Soviets. Doesn’t mean it was Rawicz. Twenty five years on from discovering The Long Walk, I shall be hunting down Willis’ book, Looking For Mr. Smith. Read Michael Kruppa’s Shallow Graves in Siberia. One guy making his own way to Afghanistan during WW2. But thanks to Rawicz, I’m now sceptical about every ” true story “.
    He brought the side down in my opinion.

  33. Karen says:

    I read this book in the late 80s at 19 when I worked with Slawomir’s grandson and felt honoured to eventually meet his grandfather, albeit just once. Whether completely true or not, this amazing story has touched the hearts of so many people and will continue to do so, inspiring controversy and debate for many years to come; for that we have only Slawomir to thank and any personal attack on his family is rather unnecessary.

  34. Bong of India says:

    I read the book a couple of years ago. Some things struck me at the time. (a) The escapees are supposed to have walked into Sikkim, which was not in British India proper but was ruled by a local rajah subservient to the British Crown. Sikkim was relatively peaceful and it seems unlikely that the British would be using their prized Gurkha troops to picnic in Sikkim when there was a pressing need to hold the front in Burma against the Japanese. (b) Which military hospital (MH) were they admitted to in Calcutta? Despite what Mother Teresa would have one believe, Calcutta isn’t a very big city. Even during WW2 most of the MHs were scattered about the country; the casualties were mostly evacuated to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) as it was nearer to the action. So it shouldn’t be too difficult to verify which MH treated a group of mysterious strangers, of whom it seems only “Mr Smith” seemed to speak English. (c) Calcutta (and the entire North East of India) was crawling with Yanks at that time. How did they not get to question him? (d) The escapees travelled together for 4 years but still the author insists on calling the man Schmidt. This seems a bit of overacting. I don’t think this Smith/Schmidt ever existed. (e) The author claims to have been first interned in the Lubyanka prison. His description seems ordinary enough as prisons go. But around that time Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was put there too and he describes in Gulag Archipelago one important detail which no prisoner could have not noticed, and bitterly mentioned: the prisoners had to sleep with their hands visible outside the blankets, which the guards checked every now and then through the peepholes.

  35. Claire Swazey says:

    It’s not uncommon for military men to call friends by their last names. It took years for my husband to get out of the habit, after he left the military.

    However, that being said, I do think that Rawicz’ story is thoroughly debunked. That’s a shame. I had loved the book. But my hat’s off to those who truly did make “the long walk”.

  36. bb says:

    A lot of Germans walked from Sibiria to Germany manny years ago

  37. jmasefield says:

    Mikael, has the Harvard research become available yet? Thanks for your efforts here!

  38. mikael says:

    I haven´t heard anything, I will look into it immediately.

  39. Di says:

    I found the book in Oxfam, couldn’t put it down, I would love to know more about their lives. Going to try and get the film from Amazon. Whether it was a totally true account or not one thing is for certain there are many personal accounts of stories like this and it makes me feel lucky that I have never had to endure anything like it. I personally believe it happened, why make it up?! There are a lot of courageous people in this world, past and present, and it is an insult to doubt them.

  40. mikael says:

    Hi! Do read all articles for perspective, see http://www.mikaelstrandberg.com/the-long-walk-articles/ M

  41. hansh huber says:

    nobody crosses the gobi dessert in summer without water and provisions on foot. i had my doubts about this story before, but when it came to crossing the gobi i knew it was a fake.

  42. When I first read the headline, the story rang a bell. When I then read that the protagonist was a Pole, I knew this was different to the one I was aware of, which was a German guy doing the same, except for not escaping to India, but to Iran. There’s even a movie about it on German television with a similar ending as the one of Heinrich Harrer returning home from seven years in Tibet and seeing his son for the first time, if I remember right.

    The “escape from a Gulag” story seems to be popular material, indeed.

    Did it ever happen? Who knows.
    Is it a good story? Definitely yes!

    Seems that this is p

  43. Teri Reid says:

    Mikael, is the Harvard research available yet?
    Thanks. Teri Reid

  44. William Jacobs says:

    Interesting Article

    I just wanted to share with the readers of Mikael’s Long Walk webpages a very interesting article onto which, through the wonders of Google, I just strayed: Peter Fleming’s (written under the pseudonym “StRIX”) “A ST Sunday The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz, was discussed”, The Spectator (12 July 1956), page 13 (http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/13th-july-1956/13/a-st-sunday-the-long-walk-by-slavomir-rawicz-was-d).

    Peter Fleming was a noted explorer (and the brother of Ian Fleming of James Bond fame!). The article dates from shortly after the publication of The Long Walk. It discusses a contemporary BBC radio program on the book and raises a number of interesting skeptical points concerning Rawicz’ story.

  45. William Jacobs says:

    Two More Interesting Items

    Two more pieces which should interest the readers of Mikael’s Long Walk webpages:

    (1) The Wikipedia article on Slavomir Rawicz is accompanied by a Talk page containing several insightful discussions by Wikipedia authors concerning The Long Walk’s veracity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:S%C5%82awomir_Rawicz

    (2) One item referenced in those discussions is a review of The Long Walk by Hugh Richardson in The Himalayan Journal (1957): http://www.himalayanclub.org/hj/20/15/reviews-23/ . Richardson, a noted Tibetologist and for several years a British diplomat in Lhasa, strongly challenges Rawicz’ account.

  46. Rafal says:

    Ahhhhaha:)lol Yeah they crossed the Himalayas in paper sandals:) If you ever done any type of mountaineering or even scrambling youd’d know what ot takes to do 3000m peak nevermind a range like the Himalayas. Myself I wanted this story to be True But The Only Lesson To Be Learned Here Is the one of Human Greed.

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