on 7 November 2001
Borowski's terrifying and occasionally brilliant short stories differ from many high-profile holocaust memoirs in some important ways. The astonishment and outrage at the perpetration of genocide experienced by Jewish survivors and memoir-writers is shared by the author and his narrator, but mediated by the urbane, non-Jewish Borowksi's tight control of his material, and his narrator's pragmatic view of life in the camps, as one of the small group of people who could "look forward" to ongoing existence, and, possibly, ultimate survival. Spared from routine extermination by a change in policy on "Aryan" executions, Borowksi's "fresh" viewpoint on Auschwitz is further enhanced by the fact that the stories were published immediately after the war, before the Holocaust attained its current cultural and historical status.
This slight yet multi-layered shift in perspective with respect to other Holocaust literature lends an unpleasant feeling to some of the early stories. We, as readers, are conditioned in our responses, and are unsettled by the detailed and ongoing narrative of camp life, in which the inmates themselves, including the narrator, cheat and commit acts of violence as a matter of routine. For the narrator and many of his companions, the immediate threat of death is kept at bay by a mixture of luck, resourcefulness and complicity. The guilt that arose out of this complicity (sometimes referred to as "survivor guilt", but in this case much more complicated and deep-rooted than that) is discusssed somewhat obliquely in Jan Kott's introduction to the Penguin edition (re-read the introduction after finishing the first few stories - it will make much more sense).
Perhaps the ultimate achievement of the Nazis' program of debasement and dehumanization was to ensure that the victims themselves participated in the atrocities. An acture awareness of this will have remained with Borowski until his untimely death by his own hand in post-war, communist-era Poland. We can only guess at the role his own feelings of guilt may have played in his suicide.
These stories are his legacy: his detachment and cool description, and seemingly effortless control of the form in the very shortest of the stories, overcome the limitations of an occasionally clunking translation to leave a priceless testimony that should be read by anybody with an interest in the Holocaust, and all those with a concern for how differences in historical and literary perspective can produce valuable insights and worthwhile literature.
Imre Kertesz, a concentration camp survivor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature often asks in his work: is there life after Auschwitz? Can one live with the ineffable guilt that accompanies survival against all odds? For Borowski the answer appears to be no. On July 1, 1951, at age 29, Tadeusz Borowski opened a gas valve, put his head in an oven and took his life. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that after escaping the gas of Auschwitz and Dachau Borowski would end his life in this manner.
Borowski was born in Soviet occupied Ukraine to Polish parents. His father was sent to a Soviet work camp, building the White Sea Canal, but was released in an exchange of prisoners with Poland. Upon his father's release, the family settled in Warsaw. Although not Jewish, Borowski was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 for subversive activities when he was caught surreptitiously printing his own poetry. He spent the rest of the war in Auschwitz and Dachau. The first piece of luck or fate that saved his life was the decision by the Nazis to stop exterminating non-Jewish prisoners two weeks before Borowski's arrival.
The series of stories contained in This Way for the Gas are all written in the voice of one prisoner, Tadeusz. Not unexpectedly the stories appear to be loosely autobiographical. Borowski's writing is not overloaded with emotion. It is descriptive and matter of fact. The day-to-day tone of the writing, writing that describes death and deprivation as normal events adds an emotional impact to the stories.
For example, in one scene the prisoner Tadeusz describes a football match played by the prisoners. He served as goalkeeper and described his walk to retrieve a ball that was kicked way over the net. As he walks to the ball he sees through the barbed wire fence truckloads of prisoners being herded through the gas chambers. Later in the match he has to retrieve another ball. As he returns to the goal he matter-of-factly estimates that 5,000 prisoners have been gassed between his retrieving the two balls. It is powerful story.
Equally compelling are stories that describe that numerous decisions Tadeusz and his fellow prisoners made every day in order to survive. Taking clothes from the luggage of prisoners destined for the gas in order to trade the clothes for bread. People fight for survival and despite a certain ethical code amongst prisoners (there are some things even the dying won't do) they all know that the steps they take to survive often means that someone else will perish. Borowski does not flinch from subjecting his alter ego and his fellow prisoners to a critical self-examination of these choices. Both Borowski and his narrator survived Auschwitz. But as you can see from these flawlessly executed stories the question of how much of one's humanity remains is a difficult question. The emaciated bodies of the survivors could often be repaired. But the sense of a moral inner flame extinguished by the acts required for survival is not so easily relit. The reader cannot help but wonder whether the lingering impact of those choices in Auschwitz somehow invariably led to the choice he made in July 1951.
Tadeusz Borowski's "This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen" is a wonderful example of how fiction can portray the horrors of genocide with an emotional clarity that non-fiction sometimes lacks. It ranks with Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales (the Gulag) as a monumental piece of remembrance presented in the form of sort stories, vignettes of life in a place with little mercy and less humanity. They each stand as stark testimony, even though they are works of literature and not history, to the "evil that men do."
Upon finishing "This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentleman" I found myself wanting to repeat the words "never again" as a refrain. Yet upon reflection one looks at subsequent world events: Bosnia, Cambodia, Chechnya, Sudan, and Rwanda (among others) and asks whether humanity makes the phrase "never again" a futile gesture. It has been said that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Anyone who reads Borowski testament will long remember the prose that keeps us from forgetting.
You will not regret picking this book up and reading it.
In the annals of holocaust literature, this is one of the more unflinching collection of death camp stories, as it depicts the stark reality of the desperate situation of those ensconced in concentration camps, where the final solution was frantically put into play. The stories are of the unimaginable and the nearly unendurable, replete with the inherent pathos of the situation of the truly desperate. It is shows the desensitization that takes place in order for one to survive the horrors of a death camp. It is an unapologetic dissertation of what camp life was truly like for those for whom surviving was the bottom line. It also shows how the Jewish people were clearly singled out for mass extermination.
The author himself survived two death camps, Auschwitz and Dachau, where he had been imprisoned from 1943 to 1945, as a young man in his early twenties. Born in the Ukraine in 1922 to Polish parents who spent time in Siberian labor camps, the author was no stranger to hardship. Yet, he was little prepared for man's inhumanity to man. His time in the death camps was to form an indelible impression on him, resulting in this collection of stories, which chronicle man's inhumanity to man. It shows how camp culture made all those within its sphere participants in its reign of terror and in the final solution. In the end, having survived the unimaginable, the author committed suicide in 1951, choosing to gas himself to death. The irony inherent in his choice of death is not lost upon the discerning reader.
on 5 December 2001
Anyone who has more than a passing interest in Holocaust history should read this slender volume of stories; described as some of the finest ever written about Auschwitz. Seen through the eyes of Kapo Tadek, a Polish functionary prisoner, the tales engage the reader and challenge them to understand the concentration camp world on its terms. The stories are often cinematic in their scope and depiction and Borowski uses irony, pastoral descriptions and powerful characterisations suchs as Abbie and Moise (who finds family pictures after he sends his father to the gas chamber) to evoke the realities of Auschwitz. The narrative Borowski creates never allows the reader to sit in judgement on his characters and he reveals the inversion of morality and ethics necessary to survive. He also makes explicit the connection between Auschwitz and the world that fostered and allowed. it. A book that will change the way you think about the world and will challenge everything you think you know about the Holocaust.
on 25 May 2009
The experience of Auschwitz told in terms of everyday normality sitting side by side with systemactic slaughter.
This is only 180 pages long, but is so remarkable and shocking that it took me nearly a week to read it. Borowski was an Aryan prisoner at both Birkenau and it's neighbour, Auschwitz. A few weeks before his arrival Nazi policy changed so that Aryans were not normally sent to the gas chamber. In this book he recounts his experiences in the camps - and after his liberation - in the form of a series of short stories effectively told in the first person. This is a world where, in Borowski's words, "..the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity had slid off man like a rotten rag....There is no crime that man will not commit in order to save himself. And having saved himself he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons; he will commit them firstly out of duty, then from habit, and finally - for pleasure."
Borowski and the other Aryan prisoners receive red cross parcels, letters and presents from home, have a soccer pitch, concert hall, hospital and even a brothel. At the same time they are assigned work that includes dispatching the trainloads of Jews to the gas chamber and the beating or killing to order of fellow prisoners. He describes a system established by the Nazis where the prisoners are complicit in the running of the extermination programme but spend their time working the system to get better jobs and more food, or trading and bartering items plundered from the gas chamber victims.
It is is fantastically well written account, using simple images and language to describe the camp set up, the relationships between the inmates and how they cope with and react to the awfulness of the system they are in. A kind of normal human life exists side by side with the holocaust. In one story he describes a train arriving with 3,000 Jews aboard during a football match. Everyone on board is sent directly to the gas chamber in the interval between two throw-ins.
He is a tremendously sympathetic writer and is able to show the point of view of even the vilest inmates and set their actions in context. He doesn't ask for forgiveness of anyone, including himself, but simply sets out the circumstances he found himself in.
It's a completely different take on the camps than a straight historical narrative and all the more terrifying as a result and it has given me actual nightmares.
In my view this is a masterpiece.
on 8 March 1999
Borowski was a Polish 21 year old whose parents had been in and out of the Soviet Gulag since he was 4 - when he was arrested, tortured and sent to Auschwitz. 23 when released, he wrote these astounding stories and then committed suicide when he was 29, 3 days after the birth of his child. His stories are dispassionate, acutely observed explorations of the moral universe that was warped and perverted by the concentration camp system. He confronts his own corruption. He creates an unavoidable connection between the world outside the KZ and the attempts at survival within. He shows us clearly how for some people, there was no healing. His stories have been beautifully translated into a simple, straightforward English. I would urge anyone interested in the Holocaust to read these extraordinary stories.
Other reviewers have said it all; but this is an immensely shocking and powerful work.
In the stories, Borowski focusses on the vast numbers of prisoners being shipped into the killing factory of Birkenau for a speedy despatch. The true horror comes from the way all these individuals are treated as a commodity, carriages unsealed, the 'transport' despoiled of their luggage by guards and other prisoners walked off to their fate.
"What's new with you?
"Not much. Just gassed up a Czech transport."
"How many have gone by so far? It's been almost two months since mid-May. Counting twenty thousand per day...around one million!"
Horrific images remain with the reader: the women in the experimental block "(they push out their heads between the bars, just like the rabbits my father used to keep; do you remember? grey ones with one floppy ear.)
But the dreadful world he has experienced remains with the author after Liberation; in the final story, 'The World of Stone', thoughts of the past erupt into his everyday world. Walking among a crowd, he imagines "a gust of the cosmic gale has blown the crowd into the air, all the way up to the treetops, sucked the human bodies into a huge whirlpool...mingled the children's rosy cheeks with the hairy chests of the men, entwined the clenched fists with strips of women's dresses, thrown snow-white thighs on the top, like foam, with hats and fragments of heads tangled in hair-like seaweed peeping from below."
Back in the story "The People who walked on", he tells of a female inmate trying to hide her child from the SS and how it dawned on him that "I too would like to have a child with rose-coloured cheeks and light blond hair." Perhaps the saddest fact is that after coming through such horrific experiences, Borowski took his life just three days after his daughter was born.
on 18 July 2012
I thought this book was brilliant. It really brings the awful reality of the holocaust to life, and made me understand the extremes that circumstances can bring out in human behaviour, and how survival over rides all sentimentality and empathy. I also felt able to understand why the author had killed himself eventually, I think that the world could never look and feel the same after such an experience, when all of the veneer of humanity has been stripped away in this way.
The description of incoming trains to the camp is the most vivid and horrifying I have read - the shouts of 'young to the old' in a desperate attempt to help the young adults survive, the discovery of numerous dead babies on the train, a mother denying her own child in the hope that she will be sent on the path to work rather than death. The description of an officer throwing a disabled child on the truck to the 'ovens' is grotesque yet a compelling description that put real people to the massive numbers. The complete degredation is vivid, the dehumanisation is total, the behaviour described in the book by both victims and perpetrators is barely recognisable as human and yet shows the incredible adaptability of humans fighting for survival and leaves an understanding that people are capable of far more than ccomfortable society necessitates. By far the worst anecdoate for me was at the end of the book, after liberation, when some survivors are discussing their experience, almost casual in the desensitivity, and one describes sending his own father to the gas chamber, and lying to him that all would be well - that is what the will to survive can do to people, and I have never felt the true awfulness of this terrible genocide until I read this account.
on 4 February 2012
This book (180 pages) is 12 short stories about Auschwitz written by Tadeusz Borowski; it was originally published as "Farewell to Maria" (his wife) in 1948. The book's a work of literature and recollection, at moments almost philosophy, not a straightforward memoir. The stories distinguish themselves by thoughtfulness and at times wonderful style.
Borowski was a Polish writer - he studied Polish language and literature at the underground Warsaw University. Born in 1922, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz 1943-1945 and committed suicide in 1951. He arrived at Auschwitz after they stopped sending Aryan Poles to the crematorium, and managed to be a bit detached from - though deeply traumatised by - proceedings.
The complex aspects of morality brought out in the stories (individuals tossed hither and thither by morality or amorality?), but also in Borowski's life, are well discussed in the Introduction by Jan Kott. Borowski felt no-one has a monopoly on virtue. He learnt that people could get used to a daily routine next to the horrors of the crematorium, e.g., the Sonderkommando (all Jews) who were forced to assist with disposal of bodies.
on 21 June 2008
I found this book by chance. I think it is the most moving book I have read on this subject. Tadeusz comes across as a very strong person in the face of such horror. For someone so young he seemed to cope with it all in a heroic way. Sadly he fell apart in the end and could make no sense of it all even though he was free. He should be remembered more than he seems to be. I had not heard of him prior to reading this and I should have. He was in need of help just as much on his release as he had been in the camps. Maybe he needed more help outside as he was alone to ponder on the shock of all he had seen and realised that nothing had really changed in the outside world as a consequence of it.