«A World Apart» by Gustaw Herling

Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska

by Wlodzimierz Bolecki (Author)
©2015 Monographs 268 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 7


Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart is one of the most important books about Soviet camps and communist ideology in the Stalinist period. First published in English in 1951 and translated into many languages, it was relatively unknown till Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s. However, the narrative of the author’s experience in the Jertsevo gulag was highly appreciated by Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprun and others. In this first monograph on Herling’s fascinating life, Bolecki discusses hitherto unknown documents from the writer’s archive in Naples. His insight into the subject and poetics of Herling’s book and the account of its remarkable reception offer readers an intriguing profile of one of the most compelling witnesses of the 20th century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Photographs
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I. Gustaw Herling-Grudziński: A Short Biography
  • 1. Childhood
  • 2. High School: Herling’s Debut as an Author
  • 3. University: First Steps in Literary Criticism
  • 4. The Literary Critic (before 1939)
  • 5. “The Time of Pens Laid Down”: The Road to the Gulag
  • 6. The Gulag
  • 7. The Road to Monte Cassino
  • 8. Taking Up the Pen Again
  • 9. The Living and the Dead
  • 10. Emigration
  • 11. Return to Poland
  • Chapter II. Habent sua fata libelli…
  • Chapter III. A Brief History of the Subject
  • 1. Historical Contexts
  • 2. Exile to Siberia
  • 3. Colonial Concentration Camps
  • 4. The Creation and Evolution of Soviet Concentration Camps
  • 5. The Ideological Sources of the Gulag
  • 6. The Birth of Genocide
  • 7. Communist and Nazi Concentration Camps
  • 8. Accounts of the Gulag before A World Apart
  • Chapter IV. How to Write: Between Memoir and Treatise
  • Chapter V. The Poetics
  • 1. Questions of Genre
  • 2. The Narrator
  • 3. Structure
  • 4. Style and Psychology in the Novel
  • 5. Narrative Perspectives
  • 6. The Narrative as Chronicle
  • 7. The Narrative as Treatise
  • 8. The Narrative as Commentary
  • 9. Comparisons
  • 10. Dealing with Shameful Things
  • 11. Descriptions of Nature
  • 12. Biographical Anecdotes
  • 13. Mottoes, Titles and Reading: Herling and Dostoevsky
  • 14. The Title
  • 15. The Epilogue
  • 16. The Moral Treatise
  • Chapter VI. Subject Matter
  • 1. The Organization and Functions of Slave Labour
  • 2. Categories of Prisoners
  • 3. Ecce Homo: Daily Life
  • 4. Camp Institutions
  • 5. The Masquerade
  • 6. “Rogue Books”
  • Chapter VII. The “Apartness” of the World Apart
  • Chapter VIII. The Polemic with Tadeusz Borowski
  • Chapter IX. From A World Apart to a “Russia Apart”
  • Appendix I. Gustaw Herling-Grudziński at the End of the Night
  • Appendix II. The First Reviews
  • Kazimierz Wierzyński
  • Józef Wittlin
  • Wacław Solski
  • Jan Lechoń
  • Tymon Terlecki
  • Maria Danilewicz-Zielińska: Suffering is not Ennobling
  • Appendix III. Barbara Skarga: The Testimony of A World Apart
  • Appendix IV. Author’s Epilogue in the Diary Written at Night
  • October 5th, 1994
  • October 4-10th, 1996
  • Appendix V. Conversations in Dragonea: A World Apart 1995
  • Włodzimierz Bolecki, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński
  • Appendix VI. The Last Conversation about A World Apart
  • Włodzimierz Bolecki, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński
  • Bibliography
  • Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s works (selection)
  • Paperback editions
  • Posthumous editions. Unfinished works:
  • Paperback editions
  • Dzieła Zebrane, annotated editions (ed. W. Bolecki, 2009-2013)
  • Interviews with Gustaw Herling-Grudziński
  • Foreign editions (selection)
  • Critical works on Gustaw Herling-Grudziński:
  • Edited volumes
  • Monographs
  • A World Apart: literary criticism (selection)
  • Miscellaneous (articles, book chapters)

List of Photographs

1.Dorota Herling-Grudzińska, née Bryczkowa, Gustaw’s mother

2.Jakub Herling-Grudziński, Gustaw’s father

3.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in the 1930s

4.Letter from Juliusz Kleiner, September 25th, 1941

5.Letter from Maria Treszczanowa, March 3rd, 1941

6.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, photos from the Yertsevo camp

7.Document confirming Herling’s release from the Yertsevo camp, January 19th(20th?), 1942

8.Commemorative photo of radio-telegraph operators on their training course. Encircled: Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (left) and Jerzy Giedroyć, 1942

9.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in Iraq

10.Document confirming the award of the Monte Cassino Memorial Cross

11.Certificate of completion of training as a reserve officer cadet, February 15th, 1945

12.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s temporary Polish ID card

13, 14.Photos taken by Herling-Grudziński in the desert in Iraq

15.Herling-Grudziński, second from left

16.Photo taken by Herling-Grudziński in Palestine

17, 18.Photos taken by Herling-Grudziński in the Middle East

19, 20.Photos taken by Herling-Grudziński in the Middle East

21.Photo taken by Herling-Grudziński in the Middle East

22.Krystyna Domańska and Gustaw Herling-Grudziński

23.Krystyna Domańska’s ID card

24.Certificate of completion of army service in the Polish Armed Forces, issued to Gustaw Herling-Grudziński on September 17th, 1947

25, 26.Letter from Maria Dąbrowska, September 21st, 1949

27.Letter from Wojciech Żukrowski, June 11th, 1948

28.Benedetto Croce with his daughters Alda and Lidia (right) in the Villa Tritone, where Herling-Grudziński met Lidia

29.Pages from the notebook Herling-Grudziński bought in Sverdlovsk, about 5 cm by 7 cm, with a metal binding

30.Letter from Józef Wittlin, August 12th, 1947

31.Mikhail Koriakov, “Tell them the truth about us”, The New York Times

32.Letter from the A/B Wahlström & Widstrand publishing house to Irena Szymowicz, October 27th, 1953

33.“Labour camps in Russia”, a review of A World Apart in The Scotsman, October 11th, 1951

34.[Rémy Roure?] “Les camps de concentration soviétiques”, a review of A World Apart in Le Figaro, June 28th, 1952

35.Cover of the notebook containing the first version of the story “Chłód Serca” [“Coldness of the Heart”], 1945

36.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in Naples

37.Manuscript of the epilogue to A World Apart

38.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, 1945

39.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in Rome, 1946

40.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński with his wife Lidia in the 1990s

41.Cover of the first English edition of A World Apart, 1951

42.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (right) with Giovanni Spadolini, acting President of Italy, 1992

43.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (left) with Ryszard Kapuściński, 1990s

44.Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s study in Naples, 2007. Photo by Włodzimierz Bolecki


A World Apart by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński became essential reading in Poland shortly after the political transformations of 1989 and after the abolition of censorship in April 1990. But even when the first official edition (1989) was being prepared for publication in Poland, it was hardly unknown. In a 1981 poll in the monthly Res Publica it was voted among the most important Polish books of the twentieth century, enormously influential in shaping attitudes among the Polish intelligentsia, and throughout the 1980s it was printed and reprinted by a large variety of underground presses. In spite of this, the first official print runs reached several hundred thousand copies, making A World Apart not only one of the most important works of modern Polish literature, but also a bestseller.

The present book, written in 1993 and later expanded, has only one goal: to assist teachers and students in their reading of A World Apart as a work of literature and as historical testimony, with attention to both its literary and historical aspects, as well as to Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s life, closely bound up as it is with the book’s subject matter.

In view of this aim, I decided, despite the nature of this book, which is that of a mini-monograph, not to include any in-depth editorial, biographical, textual or historical analysis or detailed interpretation, which I shall leave for another occasion. ← 7 | 8 → ← 8 | 9 →

Chapter I

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński: A Short Biography

1. Childhood

We know very little about Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s childhood and early years. All the references to his early life in his many autobiographical writings, memoirs and reminiscences are full of gaps and things passed over in silence; again and again, when we try to reconstruct this period of his life, we come up against unanswered questions. There is still much archival research to be done. One of the things we know least about is the question of Herling’s Jewish roots, tackled for the first time only very recently by Irena Furnal.1

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was born on May 20th, 1919, the youngest of four children of Józef and Dorota Bryczkowska.

The event took place in the hamlet of Daleszyce on July 17th, 1919, at 1pm. Jakób-Josek Herling, aka Grudziński, 47 years of age, a merchant temporarily residing in the village of Skrzelczyce, in the Szczecno district, and a permanent resident of the city of Kielce, came to us in person, and in the presence of witnesses Chaim Miodecki, a clerk in the Jewish community’s board of administration, 49 years of age, and Dawid Nawarski, shopkeeper, 50 years of age, both residing in the hamlet of Daleszyce, registered a male child, declaring it to have been born in the village of Skrzelczyce, in the Szczecno district, on May 20th of that year, at 7am, to his wife Dobrysia, née Bryczkowska, 39 years of age. During the religious ceremony the child was given the name of Gecel, aka Gustaw.2

Herling himself, however, always insisted that he was born in Kielce. This is also the version given in 1991 by his sister Łucja in a conversation with Furnal, who ← 9 | 10 → considers the “family legend” more likely to be true than the official version from the public records office.

The latter, however, also tallies with local legend. By all accounts, Jakób-Josek Herling ran the farm while his wife Dorota lived in Kielce with the children; according to local lore, Mrs Herling and the children spent their summers in Skrzelczyce, and Gustaw was born there in the summer of 1919.

But the legend is dismissed as false by Herling’s sister Łucja Utnik, who says that her mother “never came to Skrzelczyce; she was very much a city person, she didn’t like the country”.3 Herling’s father put down Skrzelczyce as Gustaw’s birthplace because that was officially his temporary place of residence (which the birth certificate confirms). His mother was at this time busy raising the children and “sending them off to school one by one” (Eugenia finished school in 1920 and Maurice in 1921, while Łucja started high school in 1923).

We have very little choice but to accept this “family legend”, but there is much that remains unclear. Mrs Herling may not have run the farm in Skrzelczyce with her husband, but it is surely not inconceivable that she sometimes came down with the children from Kielce, especially in the summer. Moreover – as Furnal points out in her article – the Herlings’ eldest son, Maurice, often came down to Skrzelczyce to help his father on the farm, so his elder sister Eugenia must surely also have visited from time to time. And it is hard to believe that Łucja, who was four when Gustaw was born, was never taken there.

The farm in Skrzelczyce was known in the family as “the land of plenty”; Gustaw’s father cannot have been the sole source of such tales – the farm must have been familiar to the whole family. According to various accounts, the Herlings did indeed spend their summers together there.4 This does not mean that they lived or stayed there at other times of the year, but Gustaw’s birth in Skrzelczyce in May 1919 cannot be ruled out.

Apart from the fact that the official “Daleszyn” version is the local legend, the explanation it provides seems simple and coherent. The village of Skrzelczyce is about 15 km away from the hamlet of Daleszyce (today a town). And in 1919, it was the closest Jewish community for the inhabitants of Skrzelczyce.5

If Gustaw had been born in Kielce, why would his father have travelled to the registry in Daleszyce (about 20 km away from Kielce) to register his birth? The Jewish community’s registry in Kielce would have been the natural place to ← 10 | 11 → register the birth of a child born in Kielce – a child whose father, according to the birth certificate, was a “permanent resident” there.

On the other hand, if we accept the “Daleszyn” version, we must also accept that in 1919 the family’s departure from Kielce to Skrzelczyce “for the summer” took place rather early for a summer holiday: in the middle of spring. The lapse of time between the two dates given in the birth certificate – May 20th, when Gustaw was born, and July 17th, when his birth was registered in Daleszyce – is puzzling. Why did Jakób-Josek Herling aka Grudziński wait two whole months before registering the birth of his child? We do not know.

This fact may, of course, incline us towards the “family legend”, which holds that Gustaw was born in Kielce, the family left to “spend the summer” at the farm in Skrzelczyce a few weeks afterwards, and it was only then, on July 17th, that Gustaw’s father got around to registering his birth. And since the Jewish community of Daleszyce included Skrzelczyce and was closest to it, he went to Daleszyce.

In any event, we have two possible birthplaces for Gustaw Herling and two different accounts: the “official version”, according to which he was born in Daleszyn, and the “family legend”, which claims it was Kielce. We shall probably never know which of these is the truth.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Konzentrationslager Gulag Monte Cassino Sklavenarbeit
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 268 pp., 44 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Wlodzimierz Bolecki (Author)

Włodzimierz Bolecki is professor at the Institute of Literary Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. An expert in literary criticism and history, he focuses primarily on modern fiction and the poetics and methodology of literary studies. He is the chief editor of Gustaw Herling’s collected works and the author of publications on Miłosz, Witkacy, Gombrowicz and other Polish writers.


Title: «A World Apart»  by Gustaw Herling
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