Poland’s Plight: Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart
by Claudia Moscovici
In his Preface to the first edition of Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart, the philosopher Bertrand Russell offers high praise for the book: “Of the many books that I have read relating the experiences of victims in Soviet prisons and labor camps, Mr. Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart is the most impressive and the best written.” (New York, Penguin Books, 1996). Indeed, this courageous and eloquent memoir of the author’s experience of Soviet gulags can be compared with Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1958-1968).
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.