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A World Apart: Imprisonment in a Soviet Labor Camp During World War II Paperback – June 1, 1996
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"Should be published and read in every country." -Albert Camus
"In psychological and moral penetration and artistic power A World Apart equals Fyodor Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz." -Louse Begley, New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Gustaw Herling was born in 1919 in Kielce, Poland. After the war, he lived in London and Munich, finally settling in Naples. He was one of the founding editors of Kultura, a magazine conceived as "a forum for independent thought and imagination."
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Read it if you are interested in history.
Read it if you are interested in politics.
Read it if you are interested in psychology.
Read if it you are simply interested in exquisite form of great literature.
The 5th star is missing because the cheap paper this specific edition is printed on doesn't pay respect to this literally masterpiece.
In A World Apart Herling describes his imprisonment in a Soviet gulag and his excruciating experience in a forced labor camp between the years 1940-1941. This book goes far beyond a personal account, however. It also describes the dire situation in Poland, a country caught as in a vice between two brutal totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, each of which sought to conquer and exploit its people and pillage its land. In an unforgettable passage, the author vividly captures Poland’s plight:
“I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (A World Apart, 175-176).
On September 1st, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland after staging a pretext. German soldiers torched houses along the German-Polish border and blamed the Poles for it. Germany attacked Poland with full force, launching 85 percent of its military might into the country, including 1.6 million soldiers. The Polish army fought valiantly, but it was vastly outnumbered, having only 800,000 troops and a fraction of the weapons that Germany had at its disposal. Poland received some verbal support from its allies, Great Britain and France, but no effective backing on the military front. The occupation of Poland was part and parcel of the Nazi plan for ethnic cleansing of the Eastern Territory, enslavement of the Slavs, exploitation of their labor and natural resources, and creation of more Lebensraum (living space) for the Aryan race.
As if the German attack from the West weren’t bad enough, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (signed on August 23, 1939), the Soviet Union also attacked Poland to occupy its Eastern side on September 17, 1939. Poland was torn apart between two evil empires. As Marshall Edward Rydz-Smigly, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish army stated, “With the Germans we run the risk of losing our liberty. With the Russians we will lose our soul.”
In the end Herling, along with many other Polish soldiers incarcerated by the Soviets, was saved by the two totalitarian superpowers turning against one another, once Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Sirkorski-Maiski pact gave Polish prisoners of war amnesty and, as Herling puts it, “when the pact was signed, we suddenly became fighters for freedom and allies” (178).
Despite suffering from starvation, exhaustion from overwork, lack of sufficient sleep and extreme cold, Herling was one of the relatively lucky ones. The plight of Poland can be only loosely captured by the dire statistics of its double invasion and occupation. About 5.8 million Poles, a large percentage of which were Polish Jews, died due to the Nazi occupation and extermination.
The Soviets occupied about half of Poland, annexing that territory to the Soviet Union. Characteristically, Stalin enforced “Sovietization” through terror, by setting up a Communist police state, taking over the industry and sending to prisons or labor camps about 250,000 Polish prisoners of war. A large part of Polish soldiers were executed. The most infamous of these massacres, which the Soviets blamed on the Nazis, was the Katyn Massacre. Most Polish soldiers, however, were sent, like Gustaw Herling, to Gulags, from which few emerged alive. For instance, of the12, 000 Poles sent to Kolyma only about 600 survived. For most Polish prisoners of war, the Polish-Soviet alliance came too late. By the time the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was signed and Poland found itself, once again, allied with the Soviet Union against Germany, most of them had perished.
A worthy comparison with Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov.
Great moving reading!
In spite of this testimony from one of the greatest intellectuals of the XX Century, the book did not enjoy much recognition for many years. Even today, more than half a century after its publication, this masterpiece still remains in relative obscurity, save the Herling's native Poland. It is an example of a thing done by "a wrong guy at the wrong time in the wrong place". Czeslaw Milosz explained that condition somewhat like this: After the war Gustaw Herling was known more for his service in the Polish Army of Wladyslaw Anders considered at the time, especially in France and Italy, as Fascist and the book was clearly anti-Soviet. At the same time the prevailing mood, especially among the left-leaning intellectuals was decisively pro-Soviet. After all the Soviet Union was an Ally who played decisive role in the defeat of the Nazi Germany.
The true nature of the Soviet system was not fully revealed and acknowledged until the publication of Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1963) and, more importantly, "The Gulag Archipelago" (1974). Important as these works are, however, the testimony of Herling preceded them by more than a decade and it is the first, as far as I can tell, in depth account of the reality of Soviet system. Unfortunately the works by Solzhenitsyn did not do much good to redeeming this book's value. Perhaps, they even overshadowed it.
The "World Apart" is an account of the real events that happened during Herling's "tenure" in the camps of Kargopole in the deep North of the Soviet Union. And the real were the people he wrote about. But this book is not merely an account of these unspeakable events. Herling goes much further. He offers his analysis of "what happened how and why". And he offers the portraits of people describing what can happen to a man under the conditions of extreme terror, cold, hunger and overwork. It is a warning to all those "homegrown moralists" who in the comforts of their secure existence in freedom feel in their rights to pass judgments on others regardless of circumstances they really know nothing about.
However horrific were the events described and however terrible was what happened to and with the people in the camps the overall "climate", if you will, of this book is not altogether gloomy. While not concealing what happened with the inmates in terms of their own behavior, Gustaw Herling refrains very consistently from passing judgments on them. The inmates were ordinary people and their misery, including sometimes complete moral disintegration and loss of dignity, was inflicted upon them and they were the victims. One cannot demand impossible from others and cannot expect something he had not proven capable of delivering himself.
But his judgment of the nature of the Soviet system itself is unmistakable and uncompromising. It is astonishing that even today while there is hardly any confusion as to the nature of the Nazism, there is still much ignorance, misunderstanding and under-appreciation for the evils of Communism, including it's most degraded Stalinist brand. "World Apart" by Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski fully deserves to be recognized as one of the most in-depth, original analysis of the nature of the Soviet system (and beyond) and is a genuine masterpiece of the literature of the XX Century. If there is a work that this book should be compared to it is Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground".
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