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«A World Apart» by Gustaw Herling

Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska


Wlodzimierz Bolecki

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.
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Chapter II. Habent sua fata libelli…


Herling began considering possible literary approaches to his Gulag (or, more broadly, wartime) experiences from the moment he was released from the camp at Yertsevo. Ten days after his release, on January 30th, 1942, in Sverdlovsk, he spent his last kopeks on the purchase of a small notebook and pencil and began to make notes, which he would later call a “diary”.2 Years later, the Diary Written at Night would be its continuation. That day, January 30th, 1942, was also a symbolic date for him: it was the end of the time of “laying down his pen”. Two years later, in his reminiscences of Ludwik Koniński, Herling wrote:

“Time to lay down one’s pen”. This simplest of injunctions to obey the writer’s strict – or, in the idiom of Norwid, beautiful – moral code accompanied me (…) everywhere throughout all my years of wandering. It gave me strength in Russian prisons and joy from a sense of fulfilment when, by the grace of providence, I became a free soldier in a Polish army reborn on foreign soil. For I had always dreamt that one day, one sunny day like that one [August 31st, 1939 – W.B.], years on, another letter would come and find me among the rubble of our childhood homes, a letter beginning with the words, “time to pick up our pens again”, and our old conversation, so abruptly curtailed, would resume. As if nothing had happened; as if it was the tragic destiny of Poles, had been...

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