#language & literature
A World Apart is a comprehensive account of a prisoner who managed to survive a year and a half of imprisonment in a brutal labour camp in Yercevo. The harrowing memories of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, written in 1949-1950, were first published in English in 1951. Two years later, the first Polish edition of the book was released in London.
Prisoner Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was accused of being a "Polish officer in the pay of the enemy ". In the NKVD investigators’ opinion, it was demonstrated by the fact that he wore high leather boots (which had been given to him by his younger sister after the defeat of the Polish army in 1939) and that the first part of his surname (in Russian transcription: Gerling) reminded them of… the German field-marshal of aviation.
According to the indictment, Herling attempted to "cross the Soviet-Lithuanian frontier in order to fight against the Soviet Union" . After his suggestion to substitute "against Germany" for the last words, the investigating judge replied that "it comes to the same thing, anyway ". In fact, the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – at that time still in force in the USSR – seemed to confirm this point of view.
The young Herling-Grudziński was sentenced to five years in a labour camp. This sentence by no means determined the end of the punishment, as the sentences were subject to revision and usually extended.
Although the character of the author’s remarks was undoubtedly personal, he avoided emotional opinions in his prose. He tried to be true to the facts as much as possible. He turned towards objectivity and often confessed that some of his deeds were not laudable.
The investigations and hearings of my case had been completed some months ago, in the prison at Grodno. I did not behave heroically during those hearings, and I still admire those of my prison friends who had the courage to engage their interrogators in subtle verbal duels and dialectic colloquies. My answers were short and direct, and it was not until I was outside in the corridor, being let back to my cell, that glorious-sounding phrases from the catechism of Polish political martyrdom suggested themselves to my fevered imagination.
These few sentences allow the reader to notice the narrative mastery of the beginner writer. Not only the content, but also the sophisticated form of expression is important here; the incomparable style of a wordsmith. Years later, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński admitted that – as a writer – he was born in the labour camp.
Death and Survival in WWII: A Writers' Perspective
"A man can be human only under human conditions" The prisoners of Yercevo were devastated by low temperatures and backbreaking labour, but above all by the plagues of diseases caused by malnutrition. Due to scurvy (lack of vitamin C), the teeth and hair of the prisoners fell out, and pellagra (vitamin B3 deficiency) caused acute dermatitis, diarrhoea, dementia, and ataxia (reduced coordination of movements).
But this was not all. Night blindness was common. More and more prisoners started to self-mutilate, as, as it gave a few days of rest in a hospital bed. With time, due to the massive character of such injuries, they started being considered sabotage. And avoiding work was, obviously, one of the greatest crimes against the state.
In the barbaric reality of a concentration camp the prisoners had to be either practical or, quite often, cunning, to survive. The author recalled that they handled vitamin deficiency by drinking an infusion of conifer needles called hvoya which, however, did not reduce their permanent hunger: "We were always hungry, but real hunger we called that condition when one looks upon everything around as something to eat". Therefore, there were situations in which such abstract concepts as respecting the dignity of the dead yielded to demands of everyday life.
During the first few months, when the high mortality rate and the primitive conditions of the camp made it difficult for the guards to keep a careful check on prisoners, frozen bodies were sometimes concealed in the shacks while their rations of bread and soup were collected by other prisoners.
It got even worse, when the prisoners themselves were harmed. Ruthless criminal offenders, called the urkas, were a kind of elite among them. Their privileges included hunting female prisoners. The camp guards tolerated the gang rapes they committed. One of their victims, Marusia, became the favourite and exclusive property of Koval, a pockmarked Ukrainian who was the leader of Yercevo’s urkas.
This exemption from the bandit customs annoyed his thugs, who did not hide their irritation. Finally, fear of losing his authority as leader forced Koval to make the so-called only right decision. He said to Marusia "in a voice which chilled blood": " Lie down, you bitch, and off with your clothes, or I’ll choke the life out of you". Then he ordered: "She’s yours, brothers" – and once again eight urkas returned to their former brotherhood, "never again disturbed by the slightest symptoms of human feeling".
The Return of Polish Émigré Literature
world war ii
20th century polish literature
In the Soviet Union, the labour camp system was perfect in an atrocious way: it was self-regulating and self-sufficient. Hungry men rarely plotted, preoccupied with thoughts about obtaining an additional bit of food. "If God exists, let him punish mercilessly those who break others with hunger" The dysregulated human body produced impulses that revised moral principles established over the centuries. Weaker individuals were even ready to denunciate their companions in misfortune, hoping to ease their suffering. The author himself experienced that from a man he considered a friend.
On the other hand, a prisoner with resilient character and clearly defined moral principles would fall into the trap of self-accusation. For example, he was troubled by every sign of better treatment, which he perceived as a kind of betrayal of the other inmates. He felt remorse when he left his companions who carried out backbreaking, slavish work – they were cutting down forest, and the labour standards were calculated in accordance with intentionally high quantities.
During my whole stay in Yercevo only once – on May 1st, 1941 – did a camp pay officer come to our barrack with statements of our earnings. I signed an enormous form, from which I gathered that my earnings over the past six months were barely sufficient to cover the costs of my stay in the camp ("repairs" to barracks, clothing, food, administrative expenses), leaving me ten roubles – the equivalent of sixpence – in cash. I was glad to be paying my way in the camp, and justifying the expense of maintaining guards to escort me to work and N.K.V.D. officers to watch carefully whether my remarks in the camp could not be punished with an additional sentence.
It is well known that "the theory of Soviet law is based on the principle that no one is innocent". Meanwhile, as a consequence of the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, which guaranteed an amnesty for all Poles within the then borders of the USSR (after 17th September 1939), Gustaw Herling-Grudziński decided to demand his rights. Together with several other Polish prisoners he started a hunger strike. At first it only intensified the repression against them, but finally three of them obtained the relevant permission, allowing them to leave the camp and travel along a strictly defined route across the Soviet Union.
The amnesty opened the long journey to the Polish Armed Forces, forming under General Władysław Anders’ command, but other wretches remained in Yercevo. They were mostly Russians, but also Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Finns, and Armenians – representatives of all the national and ethnic groups constituting the USSR. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The House of the Dead, given to Herling-Grudziński in confidence by a certain Russian woman, Natalia Lvovna, became his spiritual guide: "It sounds strange – to draw hope from Dostoevsky!" she added sarcastically with sudden amazement.
Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s A World Apart was the world’s first publication revealing the existence of atrocious labour camps in the "homeland of the world proletariat". In the country where – according to the lyrics of a famous Soviet song – "a man can breathe so freely". Indeed – like nowhere else.
Originally written in Polish by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, Aug. 2018; Translated by Marcin Gozdanek, Oct. 2018.
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