“And this is the dearest thing that we can share: survival!” — Tadeusz Borowski.
Poverty, privation and suffering are not ennobling. The Nazi concentration camps had extensive and elaborate social pyramids and cliques in every way comparable to those in normal life, and the imprisoned and condemned in those camps were not at all immune from striving to improve their individual lives by rising to higher levels in those pyramids, by stepping on others of their kind as necessary and by working to speed along the conveyance of other unknowingly (or disbelievingly) condemned people to their deaths, and by asset-stripping the remains and leavings of those gassed and incinerated others, to seek promotional approval from the camp superiors they kept supplied with labor and with the scavenged treasures from the diverted inheritances of those ushered to the gas and crematoria.
After experiencing Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union prior to World War II, then being an inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II, and then suffering under Stalinist repression in Poland after World War II, the Polish poet, writer and journalist, Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951), came to realize that all survivors are guilty because securing personal survival as a morally principled innocent is impossible — then and now.
“Yes, but I think there’ll be a ghetto on the Aryan side, too” she said, casting a sideways glance at Maria. “Only there will be no way out of it.” — Tadeusz Borowski.
Borowski came to see the world as nested rings of concentration camps, like a Dante’s Inferno, with the smaller rings (of electrified barbed wire) further in and to which you might be outside of, being more and more depraved as they were more tightly concentrated; and the outer larger rings, all of which you are within, being increasingly livable as they receded from the ring of barbed and arbitrary injustices confining you.
So, how do you work for your survival? Not by selfless altruism to be sure, you work to speed along the programs of the higher powers, and you weasel, scheme with or against, steal and barter for what you need and want and to satisfy your appetites on occasion, or you fall away in a totally dispirited, catatonic depression and perish surrendered to whatever death first comes. Even when you bob and weave with the circumstances and accede to your labor being extracted for the purposes of the camp masters, you are more than likely to also be funneled into the trains to oblivion sooner of later.
That realization purges all sense of pity because pity comes out of a superior sense of security with an excess store of personal resources from which a fraction could painlessly be charitably dispensed to those being pitied. With pity purged, one easily dispatches the other condemned, in your place, without a thought and with barely even a look, whether it be directly as in pulling a tuft of bread out the feeble hand of a dying person you are stronger than, or deviously as in sabotaging a colleague’s project aimed at seeking approval from higher-ups, so you can steal their job or promotion to a more “livable” situation. Just look at the politics of your workplace, it’s all there. Survival in a demanding world is the trudging over the bodies of others thinking of them as already corpses.
In our Dante’s Inferno Concentration Camp World, or Borowski’s Inferno, that self-focussed trudging seems less and less depraved and more and more civilized the further out it occurs among the concentric concentration camp rings. But anyone can suddenly be deported inward to a deeper desperation by drawing the disfavor of the higher authorities or having the simple bad luck of sinking out of sight because of personal failures or tragedies to which society is indifferent.
“Man has a narrow range of reactions to great emotions and violent passions. He expresses them with the same ordinary, tiny responses. He uses the same simple words.” — Tadeusz Borowski.
In that way we are all prisoners forever, never to escape outside “the wire” and get past the machine gun towers, because those barriers of confinement are all projections of our attitudes, and will stand as long as human minds remain captivated by the obsessions enforcing Concentration Camp World. No one alive is innocent beyond childhood.
Dante’s Inferno was conceived of as a structure designed by an Almighty God as an organized system of punishments to be administered to the varieties of offenders against the will of the Christian God. Borowski’s Inferno is a world structured as an organized system of nested privations and punishments administered on very flawed humans (as they have always been) driven to desperation or fatalistic acceptance, by competing hierarchies of power. Borowski’s Inferno is a world distorted so the wealthy few can be further enriched by the sufferings and impoverishment of the precarious many.
The opposite of Borowski’s Inferno is a world in which governments are designed entirely for the relief of human suffering, and the elimination of poverty and desperation. Such governments would also be a nested set of units of increasing scale, from the neighborhood to the national, and then integrated internationally. The function of such governments would be to administer an equitable socialism, both as to the benefits and services provided, and to the wide distribution and popular dilution of the maintenance costs for the entire system. This would be a world of convivial equity, and without either the garishly wealthy or the desperately poor. Let’s call it Illich’s World, or Pala, or simply “Home.”
Personal survival in this world would be assured by the very structure and purposes of government, and “making a living” would be engaging in work and art that gives one personal fulfillment and whose social impact makes a contribution to interpersonal mutual support locally, and to the overall cooperative continuation of the world society.
I was brought to these thoughts by reading a new collection of Borowski stories newly translated by Madeline G. Levine, and given a historical context in an extensive Forward written by Timothy Snyder. This new book (‘Here in Our Auschwitz, and Other Stories’) is published by Yale University Press.
Borowski’s tales are the most terrifying on concentration camp life because instead of just recounting the odd incidents of uplifting honor, rebellion and self-sacrifice, or of focusing dramatically on the horrible details of tortures and abuses, so as to elicit condemnation of perpetrators and sympathy for victims, he very casually and sardonically factually describes the typical attitudes and behaviors of the inmates, and the routine incidents of camp life.
Such incidents might include a work detail (a kommando) of prisoners putting on roofing tar over unfinished women’s barracks while other men on break played soccer on the field below, and some men prisoners and some outside masons and carpenters were in those barracks having hidden trysts bought from the women with gifts of smuggled (and stolen) blankets, coffee, cigarettes, eggs or honey, and none of all these people giving much of a look beyond the inner wire confining them, to the railroad stop just beyond with trains unloading thousands of people who were marched down a road from the railroad, and past a hill and forest over which a little while later smoke rose from unseen crematoria and pyres, and then back down that road came troops of sonderkommandos (kommandos manned exclusively by Jews, but the kommando supervisor was always an SS man), with their clothes coated in soot and dripping with fat, hauling carts of clothes and other treasures (the gold jewelry and teeth being the most desirable for stealing by the kommando workers, but also what the SS masters most wanted).
In describing the routines of “normal” camp life in a matter-of-fact, nonchalant, sardonic and even at times blasé way (like de Maupassant, perhaps), Borowski illustrated the depravity of the whole system as being in its entirety an expression of universal human nature when stripped of its veneer of civilization: moral restraints and all the supports — physical, psychological, emotional — to human experience for survival, normally provided by culture, custom and civil society.
Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951) a Polish poet and participant in Warsaw’s underground resistance to German occupation, was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in 1942. He emerged after the war as a writer of short stories that portray the concentration camp social order and, later, stories about the postwar world he reentered through a Displaced Persons camp near Munich. Borowski’s Auschwitz stories, translated from Polish into many languages, have long been recognized as literary classics.
Madeline G. Levine is Professor Emerita of Slavic Literatures at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University.
Sophie Scholl, then and now:
In the summer of 1940, Sophie Scholl, a young German woman living in the throes of Hitler’s insanity, wrote:
“People should not be ambivalent themselves just because everything else is, yet one constantly meets the view that, because we’ve been born into a world of contradictions, we must defer to it. Oddly enough, this thoroughly un-Christian attitude is especially common among self-styled Christians. If it were so, how could one expect fate to make a just cause prevail when so few people unwaveringly sacrifice themselves for a just cause?” — Sophie Scholl.
Sophie Scholl and her brother, Hans, were two of the three principles in the anti-nazi White Rose Movement, and were subsequently executed by guillotines in 1943, at ages 21 and 24, respectively.
When we are young and childless we can be so incandescently idealistic, committed and even self-sacrificing (like Japan’s teenage Kamikaze pilots). But once with family: wife/husband and children, you live with fear for their safety, and you are so much more easily manipulated by that fear. Deep down in our innate psychology this is so because it is DNA programmed behavior for the propagation of the species, and we human are first and foremost primate animals, and our base programming will easily overpower abstract learned ideas about ourselves, that is to say “morals”, stored in our frontal lobes of our cerebral cortexes.
Innate altruism does exist but it is felt for those we “instinctively” feel connected to, and family comes first there, then “monkey troop” or “tribal” members next. “Society” beyond those close networks is a pure abstraction, and abstraction is easily sacrificed when “blood” is threatened and needs defending.
That “we” can feel for unknown others in “society”, as so many people throughout history have done (and many famously so), does show the emotional power that our abstract thinking can accrue, but overall I think it remains weaker — in our species as a whole — against the emotional power of fear for “family” safety.
I see the need for a growth of the emotional power of extra-familiar altruism in our species as a whole, as being essential for ever coming to grips with Climate Change (a global problem inequitably caused) and “ending war”, both of which mean actually achieving world socialism. We can only get there consciously (via John Lennon’s “Imagine” mode) because time is short and Darwinian (DNA) evolution is too slow a process to transform “us” (the human primate species) with an adaptation giving us socially-integrated instincts for the long term survival of our species (and collaterally many others).
We “all” need to wake up and realize to “live for the cause” instead of hoping to be saved by a few selfless heroes “dying for the cause.” Until then most of us fearful family people will compromise with our learned abstract “principles” when threading the needle of life with our families in mind and heart. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Other Books on the 20th Century
Viktor Frankl (‘Man’s Search for Meaning’) and Primo Levi (’The Periodic Table’, and ’The Drowned and the Saved’) were concentration camp survivors who also wrote great books on their experiences, and thus about the realities of human nature and societal death.
For the chemical scientist, Levi, survival involved the chance workings of “the grey zone,” where individuals in evil positions might behave ambiguously at times, even bordering on sympathetically helpful, to a prisoner’s survival advantage.
For the psychiatrist, Frankl, the key personal force for survival was in having some great goal — a meaning (logos) — beyond oneself, perhaps a love for someone far off, or as in his case a deep desire to write out his psychological theory (logotherapy) and see it published and used to help psychiatric patients (which he did do after the war). But Frankl also noted that regardless, the chances against surviving the camps were over 90%.
Tony Judt’s book, ‘Postwar: a History of Europe Since 1945’ is the definitive history text with which to understand how that exhausted postwar Europe of 1945 evolved over the next 60 years: through the enormous and high fatality refugee flows of the late 1940s, the emergence of Democratic Socialism in Western Europe, the descent of the Iron Curtain confining Eastern Europe within the control of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Cold War and American “superpower” internationalism, the East German Uprising of 1952 (suppressed), the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (suppressed), the Prague Spring of 1968 (suppressed), the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions of 1989 and the fall of Soviet Communism by 1991, and the reunification of Germany and the subsequent realignments of the former East Bloc nations.
Tony Judt’s book, ‘Reappraisals, Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century’, is another classic on 20th century history. It is a series of essays on people and ideas of significance, in terms of society and of survival through 20th century fascism and Soviet-supervised communism. Among the people (intellectuals) discussed are: Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Manès Sperber, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Eric Hobsbawm, Leszek Kołakowski, and Edward Said. The individual essays on these people are only eight of the twenty-four chapters in the book.
Tony Judt (1948-2010) was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University and director of NYU’s Erich Maria Remarque Institute. In September 2008, Judt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. From October 2009, he was paralyzed from the neck down. With Timothy Snyder as both interviewer and transcriber, Tony Judt completed three more books before he died.
Among Judt’s many other books, which I have read, are: ‘The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century’ (1998), ‘Ill Fares the Land’ (2010), and ‘Thinking the Twentieth Century’ (2012, with co-author Timothy Snyder). All are excellent.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Alexander Pademelon Johnson and Jerry Steele for pointers.