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UNESCO City of Literature: Slavomir Rawicz

10 April 15 words: James Walker
"After being unfairly imprisoned and tortured by an interrogator who makes Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs look like Walter the Softy, Rawicz planned his escape"
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Image: Raphael Achache

Rawicz’s ghost-written memoir has shifted half a million copies worldwide, making him a worthy topic for our UNESCO City of Literature feature, but today we’re celebrating him because he was Polish. With the threat of a UKIP/Conservative coalition on the horizon, it’s time we put immigration into context. So skip the next two paragraphs if you’re the kind of person for whom facts get in the way of a good story.

According to the 2011 Census, 12.7% of Nottingham’s population moved to the UK in the last ten years, compared to 7.0% nationally. In total, 19.5% of Nottingham’s population was born outside the UK, with Pakistan accounting for the highest proportion and Poland a close second. Half a million people in Britain speak Polish, making it the most commonly spoken non-native language. Polish migration has increased seven-fold since 2003 - hardly surprising given Poland joined the EU in 2004. But we need to pop back sixty years, to the end of World War II, to find the real reason these hardworking migrants were lured by our chip-littered shores.

After the fall of France in 1940, the exiled Polish Prime Minister and his government set up office in London, accompanied by 20,000 soldiers and airmen. They were a powerful Allied force who accounted for 150,000 troops under the command of the British Army and represented the largest non-British group in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Churchill was well impressed and vowed Britain would “never forget the debt they owe to the Polish” and pledged “citizenship and freedom of the British Empire” for all. Understandably, many didn’t want to return home to a Communist government and, after kicking up a stink, the Polish Resettlement Act 1947 was passed - the UK’s first mass immigration law. Now do the maths. As waves of immigration continued over the decades, a strong Polish community has developed, meaning our modern migrants aren’t just nipping over because we pay over double their minimum wage, but because the UK is where their family lives.  

Slavomir Rawicz married Marjorie Gregory in the year the Polish Resettlement Act was passed and eventually settled down in Sandiacre, where he became the proud father of five children and lived a relatively quiet life before passing away on 5 April 2004. Prior to this, he was a young lieutenant in the Polish cavalry who was incarcerated in Siberian Labour Camp 303 in 1940 because he spoke Russian and was therefore deemed a spy. There were so many of these camps during the Stalinist period that writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, described them as a “Gulag Archipelago”. At their peak, they accounted for roughly 14 million captives.

After being unfairly imprisoned, forced to work gruelling shifts in inhumane conditions, and tortured by an interrogator who makes Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs look like Walter the Softy, Rawicz began planning his escape with six other prisoners. It would see them trek across the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalayas before finally finding salvation in British India during the winter of 1942.

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City of Literature

While in Tibet, Rawicz claims to have seen a yeti (think Martin Keown crossed with Chewbacca) which led to his story being mocked. But let’s put this into context. Rawicz’s long walk to freedom would see two escapees perish in brutal conditions, ranging from snow blizzards to blistering heat. Throw starvation, dehydration, fatigue, high altitude and grief into the equation, and it’s a wonder the world didn’t contort itself into something far more sinister. Given that it only takes a few weeks in the Big Brother house before ‘celebs’ start ramming bottles of wine up their fadge, let’s not be too quick to judge what deprivation can do to a person.  

A BBC documentary in 2006 questioned the validity of other aspects of Rawicz’s story. A report based on former Soviet records, including statements supposedly written by Rawicz himself, showed he’d been released as part of the 1942 general amnesty of Poles in the USSR, and had subsequently been transported to a refugee camp in Iran. Three years later, Witold Glinski came forward and claimed everything Rawicz’s had said was true except one crucial factor: it was Glinski’s story. Then, in 2011, Leszek Glinlecki accused Witold Glinski of being a fibber on the grounds they’d been classmates when the long walk happened.

While all of this was going on, Linda Willis spent a decade thoroughly examining the facts and published Looking for Mr. Smith, which ironed out a lot of creases, but couldn’t say for certain that Rawicz’s story was untrue. Irrespective of what the friggin’ truth is, the ghost-written book has been translated into 25 languages and is one of the greatest adventure stories ever told. The public like a good yarn.

It’s most likely that Rawicz’s story is a composite of other stories, and there’s quite a few to choose from. Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Hitler, and it’s been estimated by British historian Norman Davies that he’s accountable for fifty million deaths during his reign from 1924-53. That’s excluding wartime casualties. This makes any escape from Siberia an absolute miracle.

Whoevers version of truth we choose to believe, bear this statistic in mind from author Tadeusz Piotrowski: there were approximately 6 million Polish deaths during WWII, which equates to about one fifth of the pre-war Polish population. Therefore, Rawicz’s story needs to be understood in the context of survivor guilt - a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.

War is absolutely incomprehensible unless you’ve experienced it, so it’s pretty pointless trying to rationalise events through a modern lens. The validity of his story should be determined by those who were there, not those who weren’t. Clearly there is great sensitivity surrounding these stories and at least we can say Rawicz wasn’t attempting to monetise grief, as large chunks of profit were donated to charities. Writing acts as a form of therapy, a way of ordering experience into manageable chunks and exerting some level of control over our lives. The book may simply have enabled Rawicz to come to terms with events fortunately beyond our everyday comprehension. Nobody can deny him that.

His story has done others good too. Political cartoonist John ‘Brick’ Clark read Rawicz’s book as a nine-year-old who discovered The Long Walk in the library at his boarding school. It would inspire Brick to become a travel writer and satirise political injustices around the world through cartoons. All of which he recalled beautifully in an earlier issue of the Nottingham literary graphic novel, Dawn of the Unread.

Now, Rawicz is integral to a very different fight. Let us celebrate one of one of the many Polish immigrants to settle down in Nottingham over the past sixty years who contributed to the wealth of local culture. Remember that on 7 May…

My Long Walk with Slav by John ‘Brick’ Clark is available on the Dawn of the Unread website.

Dawn of the Unread website

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