I enjoyed reading this book immensely–the epic tale of Rawicz’s imprisonment, transfer to a Siberian prison camp, subsequent escape with six comrades and 4,000-mile hike to freedom was fascinating, touching and inspiring. When I sat down to write this review, I easily chose a rating of 5/5. However, curious about the fate of the book’s protagonists (which was left strangely unaddressed by the author), I did some light researching about the story and was horrified to discover that it is almost certainly untrue!
Now, I am a very suspicious, cynical person in general, but this caught me off guard; I was already familiar with the story, the book had been recommended by a family friend, and there is even a commendatory quote on the cover from historian Stephen Ambrose! That said, as soon as some doubt was cast on the story’s authenticity, I did recognise several warning signs that had simply not registered while reading the book. For example, many of the scenarios described did not seem physically possible to survive (particularly the number of days in a row spent hiking without any food, the crossing of the Gobi desert without any means of transporting water, and the hike over the Himalayas with no proper climbing gear). The aid rendered by the camp commandant’s wife and the female co-escapee they acquired along the way seemed more the stuff of novels than real life. Also, Rawicz’s descriptions of his comrades and their relationships with each other were shallow and cliched–not at all what you’d expect from a group of men who spent 18 months traveling and suffering together. His immediate rejoining of the Polish army upon release from a Calcutta hospital seemed unbelievable, as does the fact that he was never in further contact with his fellow escapees.
It is also not encouraging that the story was first “discovered,” then ghost-written, by Daily Mail journalist Ronald Downing, whose reputation is only better than his employer’s in that it is nonexistent. The BBC provides a very convincing argument for the story’s untruthfulness, as does Rawciz’s Wikipedia article. An article by explorer Mikael Strandberg gives a good summary of the doubts surrounding the book’s authenticity and he concludes in an update that “the story is inspiring, but it isn’t true.” The kindest opinion possible, held by researcher Zbigniew Stanczyk, is that Rawicz conflated several true escape stories into one, with the intent of gaining publicity for fellow sufferers of Stalinist gulags. Personally, I sensed nothing in Rawicz’s account to merit giving him the benefit of the doubt to such an extent.
Thus, a mass of probable untruths transformed a 5/5 book to a 1/5 for me and I regret the time I spent reading it. I will not even attempt the other book that was lent me (As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me by Cornelius Rost, aka Clemens Forell), which seems to suffer from the same issues.
[Why I read it: it was lent to our family by a friend of our inlaws.]