Thursday, April 03, 2008

Damn! Another Hero Bites the Dust!

Alan Dershowitz has said, adapting an old saying, "Don't have heroes, they always disappoint." I've been thinking about this today.

Slavomir Rawicz, with the British journalist Ronald Downing, wrote what has long been one of my favorite books. I was assigned it in an English class I took at Pleasant Hill High School round about 1962. I've read it several times and owned several copies since then.

It tells how Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer was captured by the Soviets in 1939 (yes, Poland had a cavalry in 1939 -- no wonder they lost) and, after being tortured at Lubyanka, sent to the Gulag. With the help of the commandant's wife, he escapes with six comrades and over a period of eleven months treks from norther Siberia to -- India! That's about 4,000 miles. They pick up one more person, a Polish girl named Kristina, along the way. Three die en route, including Kristina, but Rawicz with four others, makes to freedom. He eventually settles in England.

It is the story of a great walk to freedom, as inspiring a story of the human need for liberty as you could ever hope to read.

But there were always three things in the story that bothered a lot of people. He crosses the Gobi Desert without water. He crosses the Himalayas in the winter. Both of these seem to be physically impossible. He also sees two Yeti in the Himalayas. This as you know is an animal that is still unknown to science. Most seriously, perhaps, none of the other four other survivors has ever surfaced.

The last time I re-read the book, I went online to see if there was anything about the veracity of the book. I found a post on a message board by a daughter of his (he eventually had five children) that I found reassuring.

Now I see from this article, published in connection with a BBC show attacking Rawicz after his death in 2004, that the story may have been a hoax of some sort. The hard evidence: a document in his own hand saying that he was released from the Gulag in October 1942 as part of a general amnesty for Polish prisoners, and that he rejoined the Polish forces in Russia. Not only does the name on the document match his, but the birth date does as well. Although the book also has him rejoining the Polish forces in Russia, it has him escaping from the Gulag in April 1941, reaching India in March of 1942, and rejoining the Polish forces in Russia in July. The military document has him in the Gulag during that entire period.

I find myself wondering whether the military document could be the lie. If that document were written in Russia -- the BBC article doesn't say where it originated -- then he probably could not have said "and by the way, I foolishly escaped from your prison system before this amnesty was offered - maybe you people should arrest me and torture me some more." Better to claim to have gotten out legitimately.

But I know all along that I am resisting the conclusion that the book is somehow a hoax because I don't want to believe it. And of course there are other problems about the book. And now, on this message board there are rumors of an earlier manuscript, written by a person who really did make a similar trip, which Rawicz used to concoct his story.

Still, I can't agree with Alan, that we should not have heroes. We need them. We need people who will be examples of the the good, of the ideal. The reason for this is partly logical. Ideals are -- abstract. Why do you think that religious texts are so often written as stories? Love thy neighbor? What the Hell does that mean? It's concrete narrative details that move people. The Bo Tree. Samson and the Philistines. Golgotha. We need examples in order to know what the good is. Another part of the reason is psychological: we need to know that the good is possible, or why bother to seek it?

And yet heroes do tend to disappoint. How many heroes stay heroes? Not many. What should I do about it? The best I can come up with might sound cynical: If you can, try to have heroes who have been dead at least ten years, so every attempt to find the dirt on them (and if they are heroes there will be) has been tried, and has failed.
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Added Later: I'm still working on reasons to reject the hoax theory. I just reread Downing's intro to the book, telling how it came to be written. It's not easy to square his story with the idea that it was all Rawicz's scam. Downing came to him, because he was doing research on Yettis and heard that there was this Polish man in the Midlands who claimed to have seen something similar. Downing found that Rawicz had been talking about these experiences of his for years. His wife said he talked about them in his sleep. The book was Downing's idea, and it took some persuading to get Rawicz to go along with it. The conversations that produced the book lasted over a year, and Rawicz broke down in tears on three occasions as they talked of his travails. Of course, all this would be possible for a brilliant con man. Don't the great ones manipulate you into conning yourself? But no one is saying that's the sort of person Rawicz was. As far as I know, he is not accused of being a crook in any other matter. On the other hand, Downing himself is a mystery. No one seems to have any idea what became of him. He seems to have appeared one fine day to ghost-write this book, but then disappeared from history and never wrote anything again. It really is an enigma. Someone should write a book about that!
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