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A valuable testimony from an unusual perspective
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.