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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A devastating review of how human beings survive in an unbearable environment., 25 May 2009
This review is from: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
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.
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