Witold Glinski is the last survivor of World War Two’s greatest escape. As he lovingly crafts another willow basket in the shed at his seaside bungalow in Cornwall, it’s hard to believe that this modest man walked 4,000 miles to freedom… all the way from a Siberian prison camp to India...
Witold was a teenager living in the Polish border town of Glabokia when he was arrested with his family by the invading Russians – at the time, in 1939, allies of Hitler.
Separated from his parents, he was taken to Moscow’s notorious Lubianka Prison and, aged just 17, condemned to 25 years hard labour, one among a million-and-a-half Poles sent to Siberia. It might as well have been a death sentence. So, he could either wait to die, or try to get away. Witold began plotting his escape as soon as he arrived, shackled in chains.
He volunteered to work as a lumberjack, and secretly carved signs on the trees, pointing the way to the south, and the free world.
Then he was befriended by the camp commandant’s wife. “She asked me to fix her radio,” he remembers. “She rewarded me with sweet tea and a slice of bread. But the best thing was that, above a desk, there was a map of Asia.”
Already a daring plan was forming as he tried desperately to memorise the details.
But commandant’s wife Maria Uszakof – even after all these years he remembers her name – read his mind. “She told me, ‘You’ll need good clothes and sensible shoes.’ She gave me a parcel of dried meat, new shoes, hand-knitted socks and long underwear.”
At midnight, with a savage blizzard howling around the camp, carrying a haversack that was a blanket tied at the corners, he tunnelled under the wire.
But when he made it through he turned to find six men had silently followed him.
“They were coming out of nowhere, like cockroaches in a bakery,” Witold says.
“I told them, we’ll walk for 20 hours a day, is that agreed? If they didn’t like it, they could sit down and wait for the Russians.
“The weather was too bad for patrols to operate, no animal or human would stick a nose out of the door, so this was our only chance. Our immediate aim was to get out of Russia. The border was 1,600 miles away. I pointed south – ‘That way!’”
The walkers set up a pattern. One man in front, forming a trail through the forest, two at the back sweeping over the footprints with pine branches.
He never discovered much about his comrades. They dared not trust one another. Their relationship was built on silent suspicion, not conversation.
Once they found a deer trapped in a ravine. They feasted on it for days afterwards and used pieces of the hide to bind up their thick felt prison boots.
Days before they reached the border with China, they had an encounter which is still vivid in Witold’s memory.
On the path was 18-year-old Kristina Polansk, a terrified young Polish girl who had fled barefoot through the forest from the Russians, who had killed her family and tried to rape her.
“She was very lonely and distressed and when I inspected her foot I knew straight away she had gangrene,” Witold says. “I didn’t want to be saddled with a sick girl, but what could we do?
“I made moccasins for her with the rest of the deer skin, and we carried her on a stretcher of poles with dry grass.
“But every day she got worse. Her leg turned black and the skin swelled and burst, it was terrible to watch.”
They crossed the Trans-Siberian Railway line, pushed on into Mongolia, and there Kristina became ravaged by fever. She shook each of the men’s hands, then closed her eyes and died.
The first to die were two of the Polish soldiers. Witold watched them deteriorate and recognised the signs of scurvy.
“They walked more and more slowly, their legs swelled up and they could pull out teeth with their fingers,” he says. “They died on the same day. By the time we had buried the first, the second was almost gone.”
The two men had always walked side by side. Now they were laid side by side in graves.
As they moved through Tibet and the Himalayas, they helped out on farms in return for food and shelter. But in the climb, the next man perished – another of the Polish soldiers, who stood on a ledge that crumbled under him.
In the final two weeks of their march, Witold had become ill and weak, and he can remember only snatches of images.