“Like some great, slowly-moving reptile,” the captives handcuffed by fifties to the long line of heavy steel chain trudged mile after mile through deep drifts of snow, struggling on in the blackness of the killing cold and bitter Siberian artic night.
The prisoners were in large measure Poles, captured, tortured, tried, and sentenced by Stalin and Moscow’s KGB to hard labor in camps – if they made it. The tale of the toll of death was told by the length of empty chain.
During the second week of the march, somehow someone learned that it was Christmas Eve and suddenly “there was a thin, wavering sound, odd and startling that grew in volume” as it swept like the swirling snow up and down the line. “It was the sound of men singing, men singing with increasing power in the wastes of the Siberian wilderness” unchecked, engulfing and engaging and hauntingly inviting everybody who had a voice left to join in. “A marching choir of nearly five thousand male voices drowning their despair in a song of praise for the Child who would be born on the morrow. The song was ‘Holy Night’, and those who did not sing it in Polish sang it in the language in which they had learnt it as children.”
But then someone started the Polish Christmas carol, “Jesu’s Lullaby”, which tender words were never finished.
“See how the world lies in sorrow and sadness, give us Thy blessing, O bring Heaven’s gladness! Lullaby, Jesu, O sleep now, my treasure, mother is watching with love none can measure. Lullaby . . . .”
Half-way through men broke down and wept. “Our hearts,” remembered Slavomir Rawicz, “were full to bursting with the bitter-sweet memories of other Christmases.”
Many would die on the march, their bodies unhooked from the chain, the corpse cast out into the snow. Only in their hearts would any of the men be home for Christmas. Most never would.
As I wrote at another time and in another place, there’s something significantly special about the mere mention of home at this time of year that strikes an empathetic cord, strums the emotional heart strings and replays the melody of childhood memories.
That first long march, the long trek Mary and Joseph took, to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem, must also have been arduous, the couple anxious, and truth be told, would in the days and months and even short years ahead get worse not better.
But that night.
What a night that was.
(Excerpts are from p.49 of the book “The Long Walk” subtitled “The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz.)