'And in the city, on the other side of the river, as in a deep jungle, people were being hunted.' – Tadeusz Borowski
In 1959, Maria Borowski published a collection of short stories known as 'This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen', written by her late husband Tadeusz Borowski. The name was taken from the title of one of the stories, although the collection numbers twelve in total, in a relatively slim volume. These stories revolve around the author's experiences of the Holocaust and more precisely the concentration camps. Borowski and his works are not particularly famous, at least in comparison to other Holocaust writers such as William Styron (author of Sophie's Choice) or Primo Levi. His uncompromising and at times controversial perspective could be a major cause for this. But to understand and to better analyse the stories, some background is necessary.
Tadeusz Borowski was not Jewish. He was a Pole who was interned at Auschwitz in 1943. The exact reasons for this are unclear, but certainly contributory factors were his involvement in underground literature and poetry meetings during the Nazi occupation in Poland, his occupation as a poet, and his clinical depression. He sat in prison for two months prior to being moved to Auschwitz and from his cell window he watched the destruction of the Warsaw getto as the Nazis killed off the remnants of Jewish resistance. As a non-Jew though, Borowski's perspective was different to the majority of those imprisoned and this comes through in his writing. However, one should not infer from this that his time in the concentration camps was any less disturbing. He had several jobs during his time there, including collecting infant corpses from the women's camp, and was moved to other camps towards the end of the War.
Afterwards, Borowski eventually managed to return to Poland which was then under Communist control. As a writer of some reputation in Poland at that time, it was expected that he would write articles and pieces that would support the Communist ideologies and their clear-cut ideas of right and wrong. Despite these pressures, he managed to write in a way that ignored such simplistic reductions and instead produced stories that offered an uncompromising realism, devoid of sentimentality, but that are all the more affecting because of it. On July 1st, 1951, at the third attempt and three days after his wife had given birth to his daughter, he killed himself by placing his head in an oven with the gas valve on. It has been noted that it could be considered ironic that he died from gas, but it is certainly not a humorous irony.
As has been stated, Borowski was not a Jew and this was reflected in his writings. The Holocaust is often thought of from the Anne Frank type of perspective, in that the Jews were victims, but have a certain dignity and courage connected with them and the events they endured. For instance, the soft focus moment of Meryl Streep having to make an impossible decision in the film version of Sophie’s Choice, that tugs on the emotional heartstrings. In sharp contrast with this, Borowski does away with any ideas even approaching nobility, portraying as bleak a picture of humanity as it would seem possible to paint. In his stories, everyone is debased, whether they be Nazi or Jew, for within the concentration camps the outside world modesty has been stripped away leaving only a human nature that is completely corrupt. It is no wonder that his writings have not enjoyed the same success as his fellow Holocaust writers because in his stories, no-one is virtuous and everyone has a degree of complicity, including himself, for his own sense of guilt shows through.
The title story follows a work-group called Canada whose job it is to strip the incoming trains of valuables and goods whilst herding the new arrivals to the trucks that will take them to their deaths. Anyone working for Canada is meant to be thankful, for it means that they will be able to steal food and various other goods from the new victims. As a result of this however, the workers become the victims of a type of blackmail whereby they are dependent on the continuation of the camp and its processes; 'They can't run out of people, or we'll starve to death in this blasted camp. All of us live on what they bring' (Borowski 1976, p.31). This contradiction is at the heart of Borowski's writing; how can circumstances and situations make people become monstrous and carry out acts of barbarity on such a scale? In particular, how is it that the victims themselves become as hideous and inhumane. Yet, the individual we follow in the Canada group demonstrates how total the erosion of typical feelings of humanity is in Auschwitz in his description of his feelings about the new arrivals; showing how the prisoners become as, if not more, morally bankrupt than the Nazis:
I don't know why, but 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. (p.40).
From the modern reader's perspective this attitude is difficult to take or understand. The intensity of the situation and context is one that cannot be easily or readily imagined or related too. But Borowski manages to convey the horror of the place at the same time so that the feelings demonstrated do become, to an extent, understandable. Certainly he pulls no punches with the most harrowing images, but avoids any explicit judgmental language. This simplicity adds to the power.
Several other men are carrying a small girl with only one leg. They hold her by the arms and the one leg. Tears are running down her face and she whispers faintly: 'Sir, it hurts, it hurts...'. They throw her on the truck on top of the corpses. She will burn alive along with them. (p.46).
The guilt of having been involved in the events runs throughout almost all the stories and is constantly waiting, ready to undercut any ideas or feelings of courage or dignity. For at bottom, Borowski acknowledges that at every moment, he and every other occupant, had the option to attempt to resist the Nazis and the power apparatus' of the camp. However, not only did they choose not to resist, many of their actions actually supported and furthered the ends of the camp. Of course, one can posit the argument that in a sense the occupants had no choice; had they resisted or not followed the orders they were given then they would have been killed. Therefore, the moral responsibility for what happened lies solely with the Nazis. Logically, this may be so, but such an argument clearly does little to alleviate the consciousness of those prisoners who had to endure and carry out such acts. The mental and emotional damage that these experiences inflicted cannot be wiped out by the repetition of a simple logical argument. The guilt and bewilderment of the situation is never far away;
Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats. We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and - we do nothing. We starve, we are drenched by rain, we are torn from our families. What is the mystery? This strange power of one man over another? This insane passivity that cannot be overcome? (p.112-113).
As a truck of women are driven to their death through the male camp, they shout out:
'Save us! We are going to the gas chambers! Save us!'
And they rode slowly past us - the ten thousand silent men -and then disappeared from sight. Not one of us made a move, not one of us lifted a hand. (p.116)
Borowski looks at the situation from an existentialist point-of-view. If one is always free, at every moment, and is responsible, absolutely, for the person they are, then how can one reconcile the inaction and passivity of ones self in the face of death and injustice? Borowski does attempt to answer this question, but the glimmer of optimism that is contained within this answer is offset by a life that is completely devoid of any reason to hope;
Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. (p.121)
Justice is a related theme that is explored repeatedly in the stories. The world of the concentration camp is portrayed as utterly meaningless, in terms of any higher meaning at least. The only meaning is the most basic of commodities - food, water, even sex - each of which is governed by pure violence and death. The inmates are the pathetic subjects of these interplaying forces and almost like automatons react with predictability to the forces as they are applied. The population is regularly trimmed of those whose 'useful' lives have ended, through selections;
They already knew about the selection. Secretly, they dressed their wounds, trying to make them cleaner and fewer; they tore off their bandages, massaged their muscles, splashed themselves with water so as it be fresher and more agile for the evening. They fought for their existence fiercely and heroically. But some no longer cared. They moved only to avoid being whipped, devoured grass and sticky clay to keep from feeling too much hunger; they walked around in a daze, like living corpses. (p.58)
then, in the grander scale, becomes an abstract concept. Staying alive is the first objective. Even then, Borowski questions how justice in the traditional sense would be an adequate concept within this exceptional context;
'But do you think that they', she pointed with her chin in an indefinite direction, 'can go unpunished?'
'I think that for those who have suffered unjustly, justice alone is not enough. They want the guilty to suffer unjustly too. Only this will be understood as justice' (p.90)
This idea is reinforced later as a character who talks of the hope of things returning to a civilised and just world states:
'And yet, first of all, I should like to slaughter one or two men, just to throw off the concentration camp mentality' (p.122).
One of the stories, entitled 'Silence' describes how, just after a camps liberation, inmates manage to get a Nazi officer back to their hut and, once the Americans have visited to tell them that they will ensure justice will be done and leave, they beat the Nazi officer to death. Disturbing stuff, indeed, and further questioning ideas of morality. This artificially created mini-society is either amoral, or else is governed by such a warped morality
that it is unrecognisable as one. In the camps, concepts such as justice are inadequate and absurd, as they are the luxury of the civilised, who have food in their bellies.
Often it seems that people's ideas of the Holocaust are relatively abstract. They know more or less what happened in terms of the gas chambers and the genocide. But of the actual living experience of what it was like to be in one of the concentration camps, few (perhaps fortunately) can say they really know what it was like. Through reading Borowski's short stories, one comes perhaps as close as one can to gaining an idea of what these Hells were composed of, and how dehumanised people can become, regardless of race or religion. Borowski makes no wide sweeping assumptions or generalisations about human nature and it would not be wise to infer any. But the conclusion one draws from reading these stories is far from positive in this regard, for it seems to show that given the right circumstances, anyone is capable of extreme cruelty.
Incidentally, the cover of my edition of the book has what I can only call a very apt picture for what is contained within. It is a painting called 'Bird's Hell' by Max Beckmann, a copy of which can be seen at: http://www.legacy-project.org/arts/display.html?ID=591
-Borowski 1976, This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Penguin.
1. This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
2. A Day at Harmenz
3. The People Who Walked On
4. Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter)
5. The Death of Schillinger
6. The Man With the Package
7. The Supper
8. A True Story
10. The January Offensive
11. A Visit
12. The World of Stone