Peter Byrne’s review of a new collection of newly translated stories by Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951) is presented below. The book reviewed is ‘Here in Our Auschwitz, and Other Stories’, translated from Polish to English by Madeline G. Levine, given a historical context in an extensive Forward written by Timothy Snyder, and is published by Yale University Press.
This Way to Death
by PETER BYRNE
‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’ is a story by Tadeusz Borowski of 60 pages. It’s published followed by 80 pages that deal in long or short form with the same subject, life in concentration camps, but from a different angle. At the very last are several short pieces written from a post-war viewpoint. One of these is ‘The January Offensive’. Borowski thinks he is through with the camps and is working out what his position will be now. He and Polish friends discuss an anecdote of a tenacious Russian woman soldier who gives birth on the way to liberating Berlin.
“Then, after we had several glasses of Polish vodka to toast the Russian girl, we all agreed that the story was obviously made up”.
‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’, is also made up, but with more art. That’s why it’s so enlightening, giving us a new perspective on the concentration camps of WWII. We already have a library of testimony on the camps, some of it unforgettable. But Tadek, Borowski’s double in his story, isn’t a witness, he’s a participant. For him, the camps aren’t merely a prison. They are a whole functioning society of which he’s a hyper-active member. We see how things work in the only world Tadek has had a chance to know. Power rules, of course, as in what we think of as our world. The lines are more direct, with less clutter between life and death. Arbitrary demonstrations of power and riffs of sadism are taken for granted whereas we in our space close our eyes to them. To hold on to your own life at all costs is the goal even if, as in ‘The Supper’, it means eating the brains spilled on the pavement after an execution by bullets to the head.
That particular glimpse of horror, we feel, is made-up but, all the same, distilled from what Borowski has known. By making his experience a story, fiction, he sketches camp life’s mechanisms for us. People interact. They differ amongst themselves even though consumed by the same overriding drive for survival.
“It meant staying alive. In a concentration camp, true, but alive.”
They are never simply examples of King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal”. Tadek’s society is full of hierarchy and exceptions to hierarchy. Some people are cunning, some stupid, he himself, on one level, is, as it were, ‘a self-made man’ in the making.
The master storyteller, Borowski, knew better than to have Tadek wear his ideals on his sleeve. Indeed, at times we wonder where they have gone. We sense hints of them in a sarcastic aside or in his bruised silence in the face of brutality.
Tadek is asked, “And you, would you do good if you were able to?”
To his relief, it’s a rhetorical question. Balance is impossible. In the competition to survive how far can he go in helping others without spoiling his own chances? Given conditions, he can hardly take a step. The camps, among much else, are a machine to create remorse. Tadek, like a sparkling youth in a picaresque novel, skips and dances above camp life. Borowski’s poetry is instructive here. It wants to take wing, yearns for the far horizon and the measureless sky, talks of a love lived in the camps but ignoring them like insignificant flaws in the landscape. Borowski is straining all the time to keep Tadek up high, out of the blood and muck, fixed on his goal. And all the time, Tadek is adding to his unspoken remorse.
“I have kept my spirit […]”, writes Borowski to his lover while still at Auschwitz. But he was speaking for his character Tadek. No one should be surprised that Borowski, the creator of Tadek, killed himself in 1951, settling his survivor’s debt.
What did his mockery cost him in spirit to describe the camps as summer resorts? To tell us of Tadek’s game as goalkeeper when behind his back a file of arrivals trudged to the crematoria? Borowski’s story has moments of farce. Did he laugh or weep at the two bumpkins who couldn’t march in step? Someone had tied staves to their ankles to mark right from left. A dyspeptic S.S. guard sees them stumbling about. It offends his sense of decorum and he has them removed from his sight and from life. ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman’ is a sacred text suitably downgraded from the spiritual heights to suit humanity as it has proven itself to be.
Borowski’s personal experiences in German-occupied Warsaw during 1939-1942, in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps in Poland during 1942-1945, and in an American-run Displaced Persons camp near Munich in 1945, inspired his haunting, terrifying and illuminating stories, but could only capture into human memory a small part of the massive regime of evil that existed in “the bloodlands” between Berlin and Moscow, where Hitler and Stalin between them saw to the intentional murder (by shooting, gas, starvation, and worked to death) of 14 million people — all civilians or war prisoners — during the years of 1933 to 1945 (combat fatalities are a different category, but also of large numbers). The scholarly grand perspective on that regime of evil is historian Timothy Snyder’s book: ‘Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,’ (2010), published by Basic Books.
My own reflections on the Borowski book that Peter Byrne reviewed, above, are given as
28 January 2022
Tadeusz Borowski was a student of literature and a dedicated poet who was driven to prose in order to process his concentration camp experiences, and express them as literature between 1946 and 1951. While in the camps he wrote love poems to his also incarcerated fiancee. A number of Borowski’s poems, translated to English, are posted at
Poetry of Tadeusz Borowski