Tadeusz Borowski - In spare, brutal prose he describes a world where where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup
Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Penguin, 1976.
Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories were based on his own experiences surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. In spare, brutal prose he describes a world where where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup, an extra blanket or the luxury of a pair of shoes with thick soles; and where the line between normality and abnormality vanishes. Published in Poland after the Second World War, these stories constitute a masterwork of world literature.
"I saw the death of a million people – literally, not metaphorically," wrote Polish poet and author Tadeusz Borowski in 1946, in a letter. Borowski was arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw in 1942, shortly after publishing his debut book of poetry. Following two years in Auschwitz, he had been liberated from the Dachau concentration camp by the US Seventh Army in the spring of 1945. He published another collection in 1945 before switching to short stories, which he abandoned after 1948 to write communist propaganda. He committed suicide in 1951, aged 28.
Relatively few in number, his stories occupy a unique position in Holocaust literature and in fiction generally. In Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust, Christopher Bigsby identifies him as a link between Kafka and Beckett. Borowski called his brutal stories "a voyage to the limit of a particular experience". That experience was daily life in Auschwitz as a kapo, a non-Jewish inmate who works, schemes and exploits to survive amid daily slaughter.
In "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen", Borowski's narrator Tadek describes a day working on the ramp, unloading transports of Jews and directing them on to trucks that take them to the nearby gas chambers. The work is hard – barely is one transport emptied before another arrives – but the job is a choice one: while money and other valuables are Reich property, food and clothing can be claimed by those working on the ramp. These are key items for survival.
This state of affairs makes Tadek and his fellow prisoners complicit in the camp's murderous purpose, a fact the stories repeatedly acknowledge. At the end of "This Way for the Gas", Tadek remarks: "Suddenly I see the camp as a haven of peace. It is true, others may be dying, but one is somehow still alive, one has enough food, enough strength to work." His readers' tendency to see Tadek as Borowski (Tadek is the diminutive of Tadeusz) annoyed the author, but the Polish critic Jan Kott asserts that the close identification of character with creator was a deliberate moral decision on Borowski's part, "an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp." In his book on artists under communism, The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz identifies one of the exceptional elements of Borowski's stories: "In the abundant literature of atrocity of the 20th century, one rarely finds an account written from the point of view of an accessory to the crime."
In Borowski's stories atrocity is piled upon atrocity, in frank, dispassionate prose: "They were undressed and Oberscharführer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into a flaming trench." Tadek clears "squashed, trampled infants" out of the emptied train carriages "like chickens, holding several in each hand". People are dehumanised: Jews flow between train carriage and gas
chamber "like water from an open tap"; "Around us sit the Greeks, their jaws working greedily like huge human insects"; "From afar the women were faceless and ageless. Nothing more than white blotches …"
Yet Tadek is repeatedly confronted with the humanity of these "insects", these "blotches". "These women," he later notes, "were not so much alike as it had seemed when we looked at them from another sector." But apprehensions like this, threatening the cynicism with which Tadek seems to defend himself, don't lead to any transformative epiphany. Having recognised the humanity of the victims he remains powerless, and possibly even unwilling, to prevent their deaths. Indeed, he continues to help operate the mechanism that murders them.
Certain errors are common to readings of Borowski; one, committed even by such attentive readers as Neal Ascherson and Tony Judt, is to describe his stories as memoirs. In her survey of Holocaust literature, A Thousand Darknesses, Ruth Franklin argues that "to consider any text 'pure testimony', completely free from aestheticizing influences and narrative conventions, is naïve." This is especially true in Borowski's case, and not only because the testimony of his fellow inmates suggests he was quite different from his conniving, often cruel narrators. His stripped back style, although not as extreme as that of Hemingway, whom he read avidly, is crafted just as sedulously. His metaphors reflect the reality of the camp, as with "the empty pavement that glistened like a wet leather strap", and equal care is applied to structure. "A Day at Harmenz" describes a "normal" day at the camp. Amid details of backbreaking labour, random violence and arbitrary executions, it can go almost unnoticed that Tadek faces death on three separate occasions, each threat arising suddenly and requiring a different tactic to evade it. This lethal picaresque ends with him giving food to a Jew who is going to the gas chamber later that day. The unexpected act of charity is complex – it even seems a perversion of some kind, so distorted is the environment in which it occurs – but Borowski withholds the commentary a memoirist would supply.
Another error concerns morality. Al Alvarez describes the atmosphere of Borowski's stories as "a kind of moral silence, like the pause which follows a scream". It's a memorable description, but misrepresentative. Borowski's despair itself is moral. As Miłosz writes, he is "a nihilist in his stories, but by that I do not mean that he is amoral. On the contrary, his nihilism results from an ethical position, from disappointed love of the world and of humanity." If his cold prose belies this it's because, as his narrator muses in "The People Who Walked On", a "man has only a limited number of ways in which he can express strong emotions or violent passions. He uses the same gestures as when what he feels is only petty and unimportant. He utters the same ordinary words."
Borowski's distrust of his stories' ability to convey what he wanted, coupled with his inability to escape Auschwitz as a subject, left him in an impossible artistic position. His work had already been denounced in Poland, and when the Polish Writers' Association officially espoused socialist realism in 1949 there remained no place in fiction for his astringency. He produced reams of boilerplate propaganda, but private comments suggest his faith in Stalinism had eroded completely by the time of his suicide. The precise reasons for his death are uncertain, as are many other details regarding this troubling witness to the Holocaust, but the dreadful power of his stories remains undiminished. - Chris Power
'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman" is the title piece of a short story collection by the late Polish Holocaust survivor Tadeusz Borowski. Borowski was not a Jew, but a poet who suffered from clinical depression. This was sufficient reason for him to be detained at Auschwitz and Dachau as a political prisoner. Because of his non-Jewish background, however, his views toward both his captors and his fellow prisoners are somewhat different than those normally reported by concentration camp survivors.
It's not that he views his incarceration in any more sanguine terms than the Jews with whom he was imprisoned. It's simply that Borowski does not seem able to separate the prisoners and the captors into villains and victims. He views the entire situation as evil, not evil perpetrated upon the innocent by the guilty, but a situation in which the Jews buy into their own fate because they are too foolish to suspect the totality of the corruption of human nature.
This is a view of the Holocaust which is even darker and bleaker than the our usual interpretation of it. At least in the Anne Frank view of those terrible years, we are able to see the survivors as noble and courageous people who, despite the loss of seven million Annes, came out of their experience determined to make sure that such a terrible thing never happens again..
Borowski, on the other hand, sees precious little noblity or courage anywhere. In the title story, the narrator, Tadek, is a member of a force responsible for going through the Jewish victims' personal possessions in search of any valuables they can salvage for the coffers of the Third Reich. Tadek knows that most if not all these people are under a death sentence, and yet he does not tell them this; although he feels deep shame about his job, he justifies it on the grounds that he believes the Jews to be responsible for their own imprisonment.
He even feels that it is these same miserable Jews who have condemned him to feeling badly about himself. He says, "...I am furious, simply furious with these people -- furious because I must be here because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry they're going to the gas chamber. Damn them all! I could throw myself at them, beat them with my fists."
Tadek's skewed argument is that even the concentration camp prisoners who worked for the Nazis suffered, and the fact that they were allowed to survive but forced to work for their captors is even more dehumanizing than being allowed to die. Captive workers were forced to carry dead Jews to the crematorium, as well as witness a myriad of other sickening and despicable acts. Borowski argues that whatever the captive laborers did in the camps they had to do, or else their insubordination would have signed their own death warrants. Through Tadek, he argues that he is not guilty, but he is nonetheless overcome with shame.
Clearly Borowski's feelings toward his Holocaust experience are very conflicted, as evidenced in the wide range of emotions exhibited in his story. At the beginning of the story, he is anxious for the next wave of affluent Jews to come in so he will be able to loot their belongings. When they actually come, however, he has to watch, and to some degree participate in, the barbaric treatment shown these people.
He writes, "I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back. Out of the corner of my eye I see an S.S. man, swearing profusely. I stagger forward and run, lose myself in the Canada group. Now, at last, I can once more rest against the stack of rails."
Tadek is unquestionably sickened by his situation, but his conflicted feelings coalesce into a kind of extreme existentialism. He feels there is no point to anything, literally no point at all, and this lack of meaning in his life became unendurable; it is scarcely surprising that six years after the end of the war, Tadeusz Borowski committed suicide.
Yet saddest of all is the fact Tadek's suggestion that his point of view was not an uncommon one among the non-Jewish survivors of the concentration camps. Tadek's reactions to the Jews range from indifference to intolerance to hostility. Under the extreme pressure of existence in the concentration camp, these feelings harden into a kind of numbness, because this is the only way he can get from one day to the next. As his friend Henri says "[It] exhausts you, you rebel -- and the easiest way to relieve your hate is to turn against someone weaker. Why, I'd even call it healthy." Understandable, possibly -- but healthy, never. - Karen Bernardo
Tadeusz Borowski was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1922, in a Polish community that would, under Stalin’s rule, become the first national minority targeted during the Great Terror, ultimately resulting in the death of 600-700 thousand Poles. When Borowski was four years old, his father was arrested and sent to the Gulag; four years later, his mother was arrested and sent to Siberia. Borowski and his brother were placed in an orphanage until 1932 when the Polish Red Cross succeeded in getting them resettled in Poland. His parents were eventually released and repatriated to Poland where, in poor health and in poverty, they strived to establish a family life again.
History did not give them much time. Tadeusz was only 17 when Germany invaded Poland. He continued his studies in underground schools and began writing poetry published in the underground press. At 21, he was arrested by the Gestapo, stepping into a trap when looking for his fiancée, Maria, who had just been arrested as well, along with a friend, another student.
After the war, he returned to Poland and began writing again, but this time in prose because his experiences made poetry impossible. His stories about Auschwitz were published under the title, Pożegnanie z Marią (A Farewell to Maria), later published in English under the title, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Borowski joined the Communist party in 1948, thinking that this could be the only hope for humanity. A year later, his friend, the same one who had been arrested with him by the Gestapo, was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried, but failed, to help him. In 1951, he committed suicide.
Borowski’s book is agonizing to read. He spares the reader nothing, nor, for that matter, does he spare himself or anyone else at Auschwitz. It is a record of searing, terrifying brutality, made all the more so by the helplessness of the prisoners enclosed in a sealed environment.
For many people, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen… is considered an essential record of the horrors of Auschwitz; but for others, it is too unsettling. It is not “lyrical” enough, not sympathetic enough. He offers us no theories, and not a single redeeming possibility. Unembellished, because, as he wrote, “there can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice, nor moral virtue that condones it.” Surely there was no need to ask for sympathy?
Perhaps that is why this book is less well known than others that followed. We do not like what we read; it is very disturbing. Borowski wrote this book when the memories were fresh; he was still a young man and still desperately trying to find something to believe in. But he lived with his nightmares, and he wrote them down. Nothing ever relieved his pain.
Borowski gave up poetry. What about other art forms? Can there be music? A German professor of music, an admirer of the difficult modern music composed by Poles after the war explained to me that this harsh music was historically imperative: Poles could not, in those years, compose a pretty melody. After a few notes, the music would collapse with an angry, agonizing crash.
Can there be art? This Way…, the book under discussion, was inspired by a design competition for the cover of a new edition of Borowski’s book. The winning cover was designed by Anna Zyśko of Poland. In all, 241 entries from 44 countries were received and evaluated by a jury comprising John Guzlowski, J. Marek Haltof, Alicia Nitecki, Jae Jennifer Rossman and Marco Sonzogni. The images included in the book were selected from the competition entries as well as from designers specifically commissioned for this book. Some of the cover art is quite conventional, fairly straightforward representations of the book title. Some, however, show an extraordinary depth, blending horror, pain, despair, death and some, even a glimpse of beauty beyond the camp. - Irene Tomaszewski