At the time of the 1772 partition of Poland, Rousseau advised its victims that if they could not avoid being swallowed by Russia and Germany, they should at least make themselves "indigestible." This is exactly what the Poles have accomplished, through all vicissitudes, down to Solidarity . . . and beyond. The two books under review go far to telling us why.
"A World Apart" is a classic of the postwar emigration. Gustav Herling was a 20-year-old student when Hitler and Stalin jointly invaded and then partitioned Poland in September, 1939. He wound up in the Soviet zone and, along with 1.5 million compatriots, was deported to Siberia. There he labored in an arctic lumber camp, barely surviving until, following the 1941 German attack on the Soviet Union, Stalin released his Polish prisoners because he needed every potential soldier against Hitler.
Some, such as the future Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, fought alongside the Red Army and returned home in 1945 as the rulers of "people's" Poland. But the majority chose to exit the Soviet Union through Persia to fight in the West under the Polish government in London. Herling, a member of this Western army, ended the war in Italy where in 1945 he decided he could not return to a Poland, which was once again occupied by an alien, totalitarian power. One of the few Polish intellectuals of his generation not to become a "captive mind" (in Czeslaw Milosz's famous phrase) and a pawn of the New Order, he emerged in 1950 with "A World Apart" as a voice of conscience and integrity speaking from afar to the growing internal immigration. The book appeared in English the following year.
In it, Herling offers a meticulous account of his two years in the Soviet "House of the Dead," an account inspired by and prolonging Dostoevsky's own, which he read in Siberia. Indeed, it is the first great book to emerge from the Gulag, and the artistic equal of the later, better-known Russian camp literature, even that of Solzhenitsyn.
The great force of the book lies in its detailed recounting, with an almost sickeningly graphic realism, of the varieties of dehumanization among the camp population. But it also conveys a more general picture. Soviet camps had a punitive and an economic purpose: They liquidated the "enemies of the people" in their charge, and at the same time turned a profit, by a two- to three-year regimen of overwork, undernourishment, arctic climate, disease and random violence. As the author notes, Soviet technology was too primitive to permit the gas chambers and crematories of the Nazis.
The book's present republication in English thus offers a timely reminder of the 20 million dead of Stalin's Siberia. For, again in contrast to the Nazi camps, there are no films or memorial museums of the Gulag. It was all secretly bulldozed by Stalin's heirs; and the only monument to its victims is literature.
Adam Michnik's "Letters From Prison" is an altogether more cheerful and buoyant voice from the East. For it comes more than 30 years later, when Poland had returned to life. This process of rebirth began with the Poznan riots of 1956, continued through the student demonstrations of 1968 and the Gdansk workers' revolt of 1970, and culminated with Solidarity in 1980-81. A central episode in this development was the foundation, in 1976, by Michnik and others of the "Committee for Workers' Defence," called KOR from its initials.
To be sure, there is still a prison in the new picture, but it is Polish not Soviet; and the party-state has been so hollowed out that Michnik could write and smuggle from jail three entire books. And this former Wunderkind of KOR, now just 40, is at his liveliest and most penetrating in this selection of historical and political essays from the past decade.
The son of militant Communist parents, Michnik was impelled by the regime's anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic campaign of 1968 to break with Marxism and to seek in KOR a pragmatic, non-ideological alliance of workers and intellectuals against the party-state. In his quest for a program, he went back to the historic past of Poland's long liberation struggle: to Marshal Pilsudski's pre-1914 patriotic socialism; to the right-wing National Democrats' hard-headed tactics of political maneuver under czarist occupation; and above all to the patient and pacific creed of "organic work" that prevailed in Warsaw after the disastrous romantic insurrection of 1863.
In Poland's Sovietized present, Michnik turned to the Catholic Church of the late Cardinal Wyszynski and Pope John Paul II. For the church was the only autonomous social institution existing under the party-state, as well as the most authoritative voice for universal moral values and human rights against the "class" morality of Marxism, which in practice meant only the power of the party.