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Series 4 - 60. A New Currency of Commitment

The Long Walk to insanity

Saturday 4 December 2010, 10:00

Hugh Levinson Hugh Levinson edits BBC Radio current affairs programmes, including Crossing Continents and From Our Own Correspondent

Hugh Levinson's archive of books and papers relating to Slavomir Rawicz's legendary walk from Siberia to India during WWII

I am staring at a pile of papers on my desk. It's 5 inches high. To anyone passing by, it's just a rather tedious heap of orange and blue folders. But to me, it represents a period in my life when I became utterly obsessed with making a single radio documentary. So obsessed that at one point my boss feared that I was losing my marbles.

It all started about 5 years ago. I heard about a legendary tale of escape and endurance, a book called The Long Walk. It tells the story of Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer captured by the Soviets in 1939. He was tortured and sent to Siberia then made a dramatic escape from the gulag and started a mind-boggling trek south. He and his companions walked 4000 miles across Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and even traversing the Himalayas before reaching the safety of British India.

The book had been a bestseller and stunned readers across the globe. But there was one niggling question. Was it true? Perhaps arrogantly, I thought with the BBC's investigative resources we could find out. And so the madness began...

Radio 4 commissioned a documentary, and I started work early, looking up databases, sending out letters and emails and visiting potential interviewees. The brilliant reporter Tim Whewell was presenting the programme and as a Russian speaker, he had access to further sources. There were leads everywhere. The Polish museum in London? Check. A high school in Warsaw? Check. State archives in Belarus? Check. A veterans association in Latvia? Check. Human rights groups in Moscow? Check. US Army Department? Check.

And on it went. More leads. More dead ends. Lists of phone numbers. Conversations with elderly survivors of appalling atrocities - but of no relevance to our story. Leads. Dead ends. Some of the blind alleys were not surprising - such as the polite but firm rejection of requests for information from the French Foreign Legion. Others were entertaining - such as a sheaf of confidential wartime intelligence reports from across South Asia. As I leafed through the documents at the National Archive, I noticed that each month's despatch was accompanied by a comic poem written by the anonymous compiler.

And then there were some results. A bundle of documents from Pinsk! A hand-written note in a card file in Hammersmith! An amnesty paper from a Californian library! Amazing! Amazing! I remember jumping up from my desk and charging into my boss's office, eyes flashing as I told her the earth-shattering news of our latest discovery... and her gazing at me sadly, as she wondered when the mania would end.

The whole thing was probably made worse by the fact I had a comrade in madness. An independent American researcher called Linda Willis was on the same trail. Was it her incredible energy and resourcefulness that led her to write to hundreds of people, email many more and dig around in dusty archives across the globe over the course of 10 years?

Hugh Levinson driven to the edge by his quest for the truth in the legend of Slavomir Rawicz.

Hugh Levinson - driven to the edge.

Or was she as bonkers as I was?

Well, we did find out some facts in the end. Linda wrote a book, Looking for Mr. Smith. And I finally managed to produce a documentary, which aired in 2006. Now Tim and I have made a new version of the programme.

One reason is that the great director Peter Weir has made a film inspired by The Long Walk. He decided to direct his movie after listening to our documentary and consulting us about what was true and what wasn't.

The other reason for a new programme, is that since 2006 we have made some tantalising new discoveries.

New discoveries? I can feel the madness starting again...

Hugh Levinson is producer of The Long Walk

  • Listen to The Long Walk at 1330 on Sunday December 5th
  • Spoiler alert: Hugh wrote an article for the BBC News web site in 2006 at the height of his madness. Don't read it if you'd rather not know the outcome of his original research before you've heard the programme.
  • Rawicz's book, The Long Walk, was published in 2006.
  • The film of the book is called The Way Back and is due for release at Christmas. The picture shows the stack of papers that torments Hugh.

Comments

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    Wow, did you surprise me!
    I read the book "The Long Walk", allegedly written by Rawicz himself, and assumed that it was true because the cover said it was true, and of I remember correctly there was some implication that a movie was being made or had been made.
    It's been quite a while now since I read this book, but to the best of my recollection Slavomir Rawicz was captured by the Red Army in 1939. (He had gone home for leave.) He was sent to the Siberian Gulag along with a contingent of other captives - Poles, Czechs, Greeks, even Brits...
    Some time later, maybe 1942, he and a few friends escaped and traveled on foot, thousands of miles south to (I think) British India, where came the biggest surprise: Rawicz re-enlisted in the Polish army and fought against the Germans.
    It seems to me that Rawicz ate snake meat in order to survive (I mean who could forget that little detail!).
    Anyway, thanks for refreshing my memories about Rawicz. I'll be watching for the film, "The Way Back".

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    Just read your article " a long way back" you may be intrested to know that the chirldren and familys of the interned officers were also sent to the gulag's. I know of at least 3 people who completed the same trek through russia to iran and then to india, they are all now in their seventies but will tell their stories willingly.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    I read this book with increasing incredulity. Terrible weather, sickness, a young girl picked up along the way and a lot of welcoming locals who have well-stocked larders. Last week the temperature somewhere in Russia reached minus 54 degrees Celsius - you do not walk in weather like that. Well, that's my view!

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    I found this very interesting, as I have recently been researching the extraordinary personal history of Leo Kuzmicki, a Polish automotive engineer who worked for Norton motorcycles, the Vanwall motor racing team, Hunber cars and Hillman, where he was credited with designing the Imp engine. The story as I gathered it was that he attempted escape from Poland following the outbrteak of WW2 and fell into the hands of the Soviets. He was sent to a labour camp (possibly Siberia) but escaped and found his way to Bombay, thence to England by sea. I have contact details for a writer who got the story from Kuzmicki'sd widow (an Englishwoman)a few years ago.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    Just listened to this broadcast, and it reminded me of a german POW
    Cornelius Rost, who's epic tale was made into a film
    As far as my feet will carry me

    Too many people claim to have made this journey for my money


  • rate this
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    Comment number 7.

    I read a book some years ago, about a german officer after ww2 sent to lead mines in siberia who escaped and over several years of amazing adventures and hardship got to Turkey.Unfortunately the book is gone, I cant recall the title or the author of this"true" tale.It was a good read.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    thats the one . thank you BarfordHatter

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    I was given The Long Walk to read by my father as a child. I later found a copy at a jumble sale which I still have. I have read the book numerous time over the past fourty years,I have never let it out of my possession in case I never see it again. Whether it was Slav' or he heard the story from someone else and used it, the whole experience has facinated me for years.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 10.

    After reading this book in the 1960s, my parents began a written correspondence with the author because they were so fascinated by the story. He wrote to them on a couple of occasions and included a drawing of the yeti.

  • Comment number 11.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

 

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