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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 VII. The “Apartness” of the World Apart


Polish memoirs about the Gulag were above all, as commentators have often pointed out, “testimony of what happened to Poles in Soviet Russia”. In Polish literature their collective epigram, so to speak, was a quote from Part III of Mickewicz’s The Forefathers’ Eve, where Jan Sobolewski, a prisoner in a tsarist prison, speaking of Poles deported to Siberia, exclaims: “If I forget them, may You, God in Heaven, forget me!” For those Poles who survived and managed to leave the Soviet Union, this pledge expressed a deeply felt duty. All Polish accounts from the Gulag attest to this.

But here, too, the difference between these accounts and Herling’s book becomes immediately apparent. The Gulag was not a national experience; the prisoners in Soviet concentration camps represented all the nationalities within the Soviet Union, as well as others from various parts of the world, and most were Russian. The victims of the communist ideology of the Gulag archipelago were not nations but people.

When the guard of Herling’s haymaking brigade says to him, “Well, my boy, now we’ll fight the Germans together,” Herling comments:

This sudden reconciliation did not please me for two reasons: first, a prisoner can never forgive his warder, and second, it turned against me my fellow-prisoners, both Russian and foreign, who were not fortunate enough to have been born Poles, and to many of whom I had become attached more deeply than to any of my own compatriots. After the amnesty...

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