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A harrowing and thought provoking story of courage and hope27 septembre 1999
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Herling maintains a sombre note throughout the book, but he rarely judges or seeks revenge. Very similar to Primo Levi, Herling decides to portray the horror of a place where very few accounts survive in an almost detached account. He compliments matter-of-fact observation with more metaphysical psycholoically challenging idealism, a style that works well without ever confusing either the reader or the issue. Despite the overall tone, he even manages to inject some scattered humour, illustrating that the human animal is a very accepting species. As long as one has hope, almost anything can be survived. This book is perhaps one of the most valuable insights to an almost ignored horror.
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A masterpiece yet to be discovered2 février 2005
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Perhaps the best summary of this book comes from Bertrand Russell himself who wrote an introduction to its first English edition in 1951: "Among the many books that I have read about experiences of the victims of the Soviet prisons and camps, the `World Apart' by Gustaw Herling impressed me the most and is best written. This book possesses very rarely seen power of simple and lively narrative and it is completely impossible to question anywhere his truthfulness."
In spite of this testimony from one of the greatest intellectuals of the XX Century, the book did not enjoy much positive recognition for many years. 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. It is a well-known fact that Jean Paul Sartre was a downright aggressive pro-Stalinist even thought he was well aware of the existence of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. After all the Soviet Union was an Ally who played decisive role in the defeat of the Nazi Germany. Today things are considerably better. In her recent book "Gulag, A History", Anne Applebaum acknowledges Herling's work as one of the main bibliographical sources and quotes it extensively. Still, for the public in general it remains a rather obscure work.
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.
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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Insights into the Psychology of the GULAG System27 février 2009
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This book, originally published in 1951, is one of the first, if not the first, English-language account by a Polish inmate from the early-WWII (1939-1941) period. In the Preface (pp. ix-x), eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell condemns the Communist apologists for their denials of the Soviet concentration camp system.
Herling had been caught trying to flee Poland during her 1939 dismemberment by the Soviets and Germans. Since Nazi Germany was than an ally of the USSR, his desire to continue fighting the Germans was treated as an anti-Soviet act. He ended up at Yercevo, the Kargopol camp, located at Archangel, on the White Sea. He summarized his experiences (pp. 254-256) in refutation of Gulag-deniers.
One prominent feature of this book is its insight into the psychology of both the tormentors and the tormented. We learn, for example, that Communist tortures were designed not merely to make the victims sign a confession of guilt, but to destroy their very personality. (p. 65). Previous inmates of the Gulags who now served as overseers were often extremely harsh to current inmates. (p. 108). (This is reminiscent of Bruno Bettelheim's testimony about the conduct of long-term inmates of Nazi concentration camps towards newer prisoners.). Those inmates who planned escapes and stored food for them did not actually try to escape--which they knew was almost impossible. Their efforts were simply to build hope for the future. (pp. 124-125). Some Communists who now were incarcerated continued to cling to Communism because otherwise they would have nothing else to live for. (p. 185).
It has fallaciously been argued that there was no Soviet equivalent to the Nazi death camps--no camp to which admission absolutely guaranteed death. In fact, there were. Herling himself was directly aware of the 100% mortality in certain logging camps: "I never came across a prisoner who had worked in the forest for more than two years. As a rule they left after a year, with incurable disease of the heart, and were transferred to brigades engaged in lighter work; from these they soon `retired'-to the mortuary." (p. 41).
Recently, some revisionists have cited Soviet documents that allege that the number of Gulag victims was quite small. In actuality, even official Soviet documents commonly omit or greatly downgrade things according to personal preference or ideology. Referring to a Mr. Sadovsky, a Communist official who fell out of favor and was incarcerated with him, Herling comments: "I suppose that before his arrest he did indeed hold a high position in the party hierarchy, for he once told me of the faked official statistics which had wiped out of existence several national minorities in Russia, including the Polish." (p. 186).