Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is the fictional story of a man living in WWII-era Russian labor camps. Gustav Herling’s 1951 A World Apart is the real thing. The parallels reciprocal, Herling’s book relates the details of working days in sub-zero temperatures while sharing drafty bunkrooms with weak and sick people at night in more personal and affecting fashion. By doing so, Herling tells a story that is both depressing for the disturbing treatment of humanity by the Soviets, yet uplifting for the manner in which he pressed on despite personal suffering and the death surrounding him.
Captured as a soldier, Herling spent two-and-a-half years living in Yertsevo, Siberia at a work camp (a gulag, or Russian concentration camp). Death slow and painful working 10-12 hours days in the cold (compared to fast and quick in gas chambers), the vast majority who entered the gulags never left, their bodies disposed of in the spring thaw each year. Soviet Russia establishing its political position ruthlessly, Herling’s fellow prisoners were not only POWs, but any suspected military men or member of intelligentsia captured in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, or other neighboring countries sought by Stalin. A means of cleansing the opposition, they were put to work, and died slowly for it.
And it is precisely these people, the fellow prisoners, that Herling spends the majority of his memoire describing. Characterization effective, the men and women come to life in affecting fashion that proves the quality of his prose. His depiction of the misery and disrespect doled out to the living and dead so vivid and damning, the Soviets attempted to keep the book under wraps for decades, all the while vehemently denying the content. With the Soviets soon to be evacuated politically from the country, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the book saw open publishing in Herling’s native Poland. Even places like France waited years to make the novel available to the public, despite that the first English version appeared in 1951.
In the end, Solzhenitsyn’s novel may be read by American high school English students everywhere, but it is Gustav Herling’s A World Apart which should be the real history taught. Life in the gulag harsh and deadly, Herling’s descriptions are related in engaging prose that never glosses over the defilement of the human spirit propagated by the Soviets. Umpteen volumes written of Nazi travesties, Herling’s book is an important and strong entry into the field declaiming the exponentially worse evils of Stalinism. With nearly four times the number of innocents killed during and after WWII, directly and indirectly by the dictator, A World Apart goes a long way toward exposing the reality of Soviet realpolitik. Thus, alongside being a great piece of insider journalism, the book is not to be missed by anyone interested in post-WWII Soviet history or life in the gulags.