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Irving Howe

Books in Review

Slave Laborer’s Story

(April 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 4, April 1948, p. 127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Tell the West
by Jerzy Gliksman
New York, Gresham Prell 1948, $3.00

Jerzy Gliksman was, until 1939, a leading member of the Jewish Socialist Bund of Poland. He was a brother of Viktor Alter, the famous Polish socialist who was subsequently to be murdered together with Heinrich Ehrlich, another leading Polish socialist, by the Stalinist regime.

When the war broke out in 1939, Gliksman remained in Warsaw until the Nazi armies were virtually at its gates, participating in the attempt to organize labor resistance to the Nazis after the Polish government had collapsed. He fled eastward when resistance seemed quite hopeless. Like many other socialists, he rather naively expected to receive, if not an enthusiastic, then at least a decent welcome from the Russians.

The welcome he did receive was arrest by the Stalinist secret police, incarceration for months without charges presented against him, and finally a five-year sentence to a Siberian labor camp as a socially suspect individual. The warden of the prison in which he was held slapped Gliksman on the back and told him he’d be reconstructed into a good Soviet citizen in Siberia.

Gliksman’s book (a strangely impassive and therefore in some ways particularly impressive work) records his experiences in jail, on a cattle car riding across Russia to Siberia, and during a year in a Siberian lager. It would be useless here to repeat the incredibly bestial details of the suffering he underwent and of the life of slave laborers in Siberia. Suffice it to say that anyone interested in this question will wish to read the book: it is an absolutely honest, painfully restrained, completely apolitical record of human suffering, distorted neither by passion nor bias. Gliksman is not a skillful writer, but under the circumstances his very lack of skill is something of an advantage. For the mere dreary recital of the facts – of the inhuman labor conditions, the constant hunger, the degradation of prisoners in the camps – is eloquent enough.

By and large Gliksman’s book supports the theoretical conclusions about forced labor in Russia that were discussed in this magazine several months back in connection with David Dallin’s study of that subject. The object of Stalinism was, unlike Hitler’s, not primarily to terrorize oppositionists, its object was primarily to find large supplies of cheap and expendable labor. In practice, the horror of one was duplicated by the other.

Add Gliksman’s book to the gruesome list of books that describe the life of men under modern totalitarianism.

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