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We Were in Auschwitz (Bylismy W Oswiecimiu)

WE WERE IN AUSCHWITZ (Bylismy w Oswiecimiu)

Memoir by Janusz Nel Siedlecki, Krystyn Olszewski, and Tadeusz Borowski, 1946

We Were in Auschwitz (2000) was one of the first publications about Auschwitz. The book was originally published under the title Bylismy w Oswiecimiu in Munich in 1946 by the publishing house of Anatol Girs, a Polish prewar publisher, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. The book consists of a foreword, a short informative text about Auschwitz, 14 short stories, and a glossary of Auschwitz terms. In front of the names of each of the three authors their Auschwitz numbers are given: 6643 Janusz Nel Siedlecki, 75817 Krystyn Olszewski, and 119198 Tadeusz Borowski. The idea for the book came from its publisher, Girs, who signed the foreword with his camp number, 191250. But in its final shape the book stemmed from discussions in which the friends shared their experiences of the concentration camp. The collection is a joint work, and the stories are not signed with their authors' names.

Out of the three writers only Borowski continued his literary activity. Nel Siedlecki chose an immigrant's life and worked in London as an engineer. Olszewski returned to communist Poland and became an architect. The publisher, Girs, emigrated to the United States. Since he did not have enough money to pay for storing the book he had to destroy most of its edition.

The Munich collection includes four famous short stories by Borowski, later published many times. They are "A Day at Harmenz," "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen," "Auschwitz, Our Home," and "The People Who Walked On." According to Tadeusz Drewnowski, Borowski's contribution to the Munich book was by far the largest. Olszewski was the actual author of two stories, "I Fear the Night" and "The Fifth Hundred" while Nel Siedlecki wrote "Between the Sola and the Vistula Rivers," "You'd Better Not Get Ill," and "The Story of a Certain Table." The remaining stories not mentioned here came into being with Borowski's considerable share as a writer. He either wrote down his friends' stories or was responsible for the language and artistic correction. It has to be remembered, however, that Olszewski and in particular Nel Siedlecki were Auschwitz prisoners for much longer than Borowski. Thus Olszewski and Nel Siedlecki to some extent contributed to Borowski's artistic vision of Auschwitz.

The publication of the book corresponded to the demand of readership who expected some authentic reports from concentration camps. This authenticity was confirmed not only by the camp numbers of the editor and authors of the book but also by the entire publication character. The authors intended to say the truth about Auschwitz, and that truth is presented in encyclopedic, personal, and literary dimensions at the same time. Borowski's stories included in this volume later became classic works of the world literature pertaining to the camp life.

The documentary character of the reports is apparent in the book's foreword, which features a short history of the camp in Auschwitz, as well as in the forewords to each story and in the glossary. Borowski's comments on 64 entries in the glossary of the camp jargon not only help with reading the stories but also constitute a separate sociolinguistic study describing and interpreting the phenomenon that the camp was. This lexical analysis of the "Auschwitz language" becomes the last story in the collection. We Were in Auschwitz is therefore a carefully composed book, dealing with the history and topography of the camp and also revealing numerous aspects of the camp life and many forms of death.

The reports of the three men who were prisoners of Auschwitz at different phases of its existence allow the audience to observe the changing rules of the camp life in Auschwitz I. Thus the collection illustrates the essential difference between the first camp established in Auschwitz and the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, built for exterminating the Jews.

The authors, who had just been liberated from camps, were aware that literature required a new language for describing Auschwitz. Borowski's talent and personality became crucial here. The collection is polemic toward the hypothetical and soon materialized, dominating way of writing about Auschwitz in terms of martyrdom, which involved psychological introspection and defined unequivocally the slaughterers and the victims. The book as a whole rejects and opposes such a model employing a grotesque and an ironic distance, which can also be perceived as the need to regain psychical balance after the shock.

The stories written by Olszewski and Nel Siedlecki do not attain the level of literary masterpieces, as is the case of the ones written by Borowski. In spite of some elements of irony, the former present a rather traditional language of literature. They may be classified as memoirs and personal literary documents addressed not so much to a reader but rather to a listener. Their characteristic features include expressions addressed directly to the reader, psychological introspection, naturalistic descriptions of the martyred body, and factographical approach to names and places. Their dominant feature is the concern with the facts, while Borowski's ultimate aim consists in finding a philosophic formula for the camp.

Yet in spite of their lesser literary value, Olszewski's and Nel Siedlecki's stories are a distinct voice within We Were in Auschwitz, since beside the encyclopedic and literary discourse, they build up the third dimension of the book, which is that of a personal document.

—Kazimierz Adamczyk

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