Book review: ‘As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me,’ by Josef M. Bauer
February 25, 2017
For most laypeople, little is known about the infamous system of prison labor camps that were in place in the Soviet Union throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term gulag has gained some notoriety as the country's infamous national prison system into which unfortunate men were sent to work in abhorrent conditions until they perished from ill-treatment in brutal conditions.
Survivor reports are powerful glimpses into the murky shadows of the terrifying realities of the human barbarity that these camps represented to the world. One such remarkable story is Josef M. Bauer's "As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me," a 1955 account that chronicles the escape and survival of a German soldier who was sentenced to 25 years of penal labor in Siberia after being captured as an elite fighter on the Eastern Front close to the waning days of World War II.
Much of the tale of Clemens Forell is almost beyond comprehension, for so many instances of his Russian experience could have been his last, but amazingly those moments of perseverance and a relentless will to live were strung together throughout years, three of which were spent on the run in the frozen wastelands of Siberia.
Forell's experience began just as it had for countless other forsaken prisoners, aboard a slow-moving train that inched its way northeast into increasingly remote and barren lands, stopping only long enough to dump the dead and collect snow for water. The train took its time, Bauer writes, because "What was the hurry? None of the men had less than 25 years ahead of him, and every hour of this stop and start and shove-around was a bit off the life sentence, like a spoonful of salt from the sea."
Knowing what lay ahead, Forell already began to contemplate escape, the voicing of which often made a prisoner a pariah, for those left behind were usually punished on behalf of the escapee. But the further from home Forell traveled, the more his mind fixated on an eventual escape, in spite of the diminishing odds of success the further they were taken from civilization.
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The train journey alone lasted many days and was replaced eventually by a 40-day forced march with sledges, while the men were whipped relentlessly by their minders, "who knew exactly how much they could demand from their victims without killing them."
Arrival at their destination was hardly a reprieve from the despairing conditions for "the place to which they had been assigned lay beyond the limits of the finite world" — the extreme northeastern reaches of Siberia, at the edge of the Bering Strait, where the men were to work off their prison sentences deep beneath the earth, mining for lead, which, due to its toxic effects on the human body, made death an inevitability.
Suspicious of everyone
Not only were they to labor beneath the soil, they were also housed in caverns beneath the snowy tundra, and the fight to overcome claustrophobia became overwhelming, even though the caves were warmer than the frigid Siberian winters.
It was against this backdrop of desperate existence that Forell persisted in his hope of flight. Bauer's gripping narrative transitions from one landscape in which Forell has to survive into another, as he begins a hazardous attempt at liberation, even though thousands of miles of cold, unforgiving and hostile territory lay between him and redemption.
Never knowing who to trust, but aware that interactions with potential friends or foes was crucial to survival, Forell became suspicious of everyone, approaching each encounter with the utmost caution. The fear of recapture never left him, even when thousands of miles separated him from his former prison. Moments of opportunity were rare, but they were enough to give him hope, his main source of sustenance as his tall frame shrank and hardened with starvation and hard living.
Death was insistent, could be had for less than the asking. But life could only be won at the price of an immediate and insisting effort of will, and even then, it might elude him. "Death promised; life gave an enigmatic smile." Bauer's book is so astounding in that it reveals a man who faced that insistent death each day for years, yet somewhere within his shattered spirit there remained enough fortitude to press onward.
Whether it was the daily battle with the elements and with deprivation, or surviving a stint with greedy gold miners who were not above killing, or barely surviving a pack of savage wolves who smelled his blood and sensed his weakness, Forell fought on, and his story resonates even today.
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