10 People Who Survived the Impossible

Escaped a Soviet Gulag — Walked 4,000 Miles
Slavomir Rawicz was sentenced to 25 years in Siberia where he was forced to build camps like this one. Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Slavomir Rawicz, a young Polish cavalry officer, was called up to defend his country against the Nazi and Soviet invasions that started World War II. He was captured by Soviet forces, and sent to Moscow in 1939. There, he was convicted on a trumped-up charge of espionage, and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. He survived a brutal trip to Siberia, in which he had to ride in the back of an open cattle truck in sub-zero temperatures and then march hundreds of miles in chains.

In April 1941, in the midst of a blizzard, Rawicz and six other prisoners escaped, with the help of the warden's sympathetic wife. They trekked 4,000 miles (6,437-kilometers) to the south, crossing the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, and enduring harsh cold, blazing heat, thirst and starvation. Three of the seven died along the way, and by the time they had reached India, where they were rescued by a Gurkha patrol, Rawicz weighed just 70 pounds (31 kilograms). Though he never fully recovered from his ordeal, Rawicz lived to the age of 88, and his story eventually became both a book ("The Long Walk") and a film ("The Way Back") [source: Adams].

Over the years some skeptics have questioned parts of Rawicz's story, but were unable to conclusively disprove it. A British intelligence officer actually interviewed three emaciated men in India in 1942 who claimed to have made such a journey, though he could not recall their names [source: Levinson].