Biography of Jailbreaker Rufin Pietrowski Part 1

About the Polish jailbreaker Rufin Pietrowski, biography and history of the man who escaped from numerous prisons.


Rufin Pietrowski

Like thousands of other Poles, Pietrowski fled into a self-imposed Parisian exile after the Polish defeat by the Russians at Ostroleka in 1831. Twelve years later the homesick Pole, armed with a forged passport identifying him as Joseph Catharo, a native of Malta, slipped secretly across the Ukrainian frontier. He was going back to his beloved Kamenets-Podolski, a small river town some 220 mi. southwest of Kiev. Well versed in French and Italian, with a fair command of English and German, Pietrowski taught languages in the Podolian capital for nine months. Unfortunately, his habit of confiding to intimate friends that he was Polish, not Maltese, led to his downfall. Arrested and tried as a war criminal, Pietrowski was sentenced to death. The order was commuted to life imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp, and he was assigned to Ekaterinski-Zavod, a government distillery 180 mi. north of Omsk.

Beginning his sentence on July 29, 1844, Pietrowski elected to become a model prisoner. A year later his captors rewarded the obedient Pole by removing his leg chains and giving him an easier job in the factory countinghouse. This inside position brought Pietrowski into daily contact with visitors who came from all over Siberia to purchase liquor and grain. Stealthfully, he queried them in detail, acquiring a firsthand knowledge of possible escape routes. Well aware that recapture would mean instant death, or at best a lingering torture, Pietrowski made his final preparations. He forged two passports, the usual one needed by peasants to go from village to village, the other a rarer document, which bore the czar's official seal and permitted the bearer to make long journeys. He let his beard grow and fabricated a sheepskin wig to protect his head against the piercing, 60-below Siberian winter.

At the end of December, 1845, Pietrowski got his chance. Finally allowed to live outside the camp barracks--a privilege granted only to the most trustworthy prisoners--he moved in with two fellow Poles who had built a small wooden hut for themselves. On the night of Feb. 8, 1846, Pietrowski put on three woolen shirts and a pair of heavy cloth trousers, wrapped a long fur cloak about his shoulders, and disappeared into a howling blizzard. He also carried a bag containing a spare pair of boots, another shirt, and blue trousers--the standard costume for a Siberian summer. For provisions he had a few crusts of bread and some dried fish, saved from his meager rations.

Struggling through hip-deep snow, the weary Pole did not stop until he reached the nearby village of Soldatskaya, where he paused briefly to warm himself at an inn. The rest was costly. A pickpocket stole nearly all his money and both passports, a loss that meant immediate arrest if he were asked for identification. Nevertheless, he pushed on for Irbit, a regional capital famous for centuries because of its annual trade fair. Joining hundreds of other strangers heading for the festivities, Pietrowski continued on past the town and into the forested, snow-covered foothills. As a general rule, he circled the few villages he saw, keeping to the dense woods and scooping out holes in the snow for sleeping at night.

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