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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 VIII. The Polemic with Tadeusz Borowski


Many literary critics of A World Apart devote considerable space to a comparison between the way Herling and Borowski (in his stories from Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen) view people and the world. The comparison seemed obvious, since both wrote about their experiences in concentration camps, respectively Soviet and Nazi. But it became possible only after the abolition of censorship in Poland, for until then any juxtaposition of Nazi and Soviet concentration camps had been considered unacceptable by the authorities and was strictly forbidden. For this reason the earliest studies of Borowski’s work did not contain any references to that other great Polish literary work on concentration camps, A World Apart.

But the comparisons not only confirm the need – historical and literary – to continue this process today; they also show how much still remains to be done in this domain and, above all, how inadequately, still today, Herling’s work is known – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that it remained practically unknown to the public and literary critics alike in Poland for almost half a century.

Literary critics have approached Herling and Borowski as if they were two writers who just happened to be focusing on the same, or a very similar, topic while being entirely unaware of each other’s existence. Although this has proved a very fruitful strategy, producing some acute commentary and useful insights, it fails to capture the essential differences which should emerge from such a comparison.

For the point...

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