Book review: ‘As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me’ by Josef M. Bauer
Special to the Daily
Most people know little about the infamous prison labor camps in the Soviet Union throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term “Gulag” has gained some notoriety and of course refers to the camps where unfortunate men were sent to work in abhorrent conditions until they perished, either from ill treatment or the brutal conditions.
Survivors’ accounts of the camps are powerful glimpses into the murky shadows of the terrifying realities of human barbarity. One such remarkable story comes from Josef M. Bauer’s “As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me.” In it, the elite German fighter is captured on the Eastern Front in the waning days of World War II. The book chronicles his escape and survival after being sentenced to 25 years labor in Siberia, a virtual death sentence.
What Clemens Forell endures is almost beyond comprehension. There are so many instances of his Russian experience, strung together over many years including three on the run in Siberia, that could have been his last, but amazingly those become his moments of perseverance, where he shows a relentless will to live.
Forell’s experience began just as it did for countless other prisoners, aboard a slow-moving train inching 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 wrote, 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 had already began to contemplate his 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. The train journey alone lasted many days and was replaced eventually by a 40-day forced march, with sledges, all while being whipped relentlessly by their captors, “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 — “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 sentences deep beneath the earth, mining for lead. Due to its toxic effects on the human body, the work made death inevitable.
Not only were they to labor beneath the soil, they were housed in caverns beneath the snowy tundra. The fight to overcome claustrophobia became overwhelming, even though the caves were warmer than the Siberian winters.
Against this backdrop of desperate existence, Forell persisted in hope of escape. Bauer’s gripping narrative transitions from one landscape, in which Forell has to survive, to another, as he begins a hazardous attempt at liberation, even though thousands of miles of cold, unforgiving and hostile territory separated him from redemption.
Never knowing whom to trust, but aware that interactions were critical to his survival, Forell became suspicious of everyone, approaching each encounter with the utmost caution. The fear of recapture never left, even thousands of miles away from the prison. Moments of opportunity were rare, but they were enough to sustain hope as his tall frame shrank and hardened due to 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 astounding in that it reveals a man who faced insistent death every day for years, yet somewhere within his shattered spirit, there remained the fortitude to press on. Whether it’s battling the elements and deprivation, surviving a run-in with greedy gold miners not above killing or barely staving off a pack of savage wolves who smelled blood and sensed weakness, Forell fought on and his story still resonates.
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