This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Tadeusz Borowski 1946
In his introduction to the English translation of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, Jan Kott writes of Tadeusz Borowski’s decision to render his Auschwitz stories in the first person: “The identification of the author with the narrator was the moral decision of a prisoner who had lived through Auschwitz—an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp.” Indeed, in a review for another author’s book about the concentration camps, Borowski stated, “It is impossible to write about Auschwitz impersonally.” He defined as the “first duty of Auschwitzers . . . to make clear just what camp is.” It is where survival depended on a prisoner’s taking part in the murder and degradation of their fellow victims. “But write that you, you were the ones who did this,” Borowski intoned. “That a portion of the sad fame of Auschwitz belongs to you as well.”
In the collection’s title story, Borowski squarely fulfills his obligation. Seen through the eyes of a Polish gentile prisoner, as Borowski himself was, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman” describes a typical day at Auschwitz. The narrator joins in the task of unloading thousands of Jews from the cattle cars and sending them to their death in the gas chamber, all to acquire food and maybe a pair of shoes. Subject matter aside, Borowski’s story is chilling and unforgettable in the success with which the narrator distances himself from his actions. As readers grow to understand that the narrator is forced to this extreme in order to continue to perform the work that guarantees his own existence, they become implicated themselves— they become part of the community of the concentration camp.
Borowski was born in 1922 to a poor Polish family in what was then part of the Soviet Ukraine. In 1926, Borowski’s father, accused of political dissidence, was sent to a labor camp, and when Borowski was eight years old, his mother was sent to Siberia. An aunt then took over the boy’s care. In 1932, Borowski’s father was freed in a prisoner exchange program between Poland and the Soviet Union, and the two were reunited. Two years later, Borowski’s mother rejoined the family in Warsaw.
The young Borowski was educated at a Franciscan boarding school. Borowski was 17 when Poland fell under German occupation at the start of World War II. Schools were closed down, so Borowski studied in underground classes and managed to graduate from secondary school. He then attended the underground Warsaw University, majoring in Polish language and literature. Already a budding writer, Borowski also worked as a stockboy and a night watchman.
In 1942, Borowski printed and distributed his first book of poetry, Gdziekolwiek ziemia (translated as Wherever the Earth). Borowski anonymously published this collection of metaphoric verse that centered on the death of civilized man in the German labor camps and then distributed it secretly. However, the Gestapo discovered his actions, and within weeks of the volume’s release, Borowski and his fiancee, Maria, were arrested. He was sent to several prison camps before arriving at Auschwitz. To ensure his survival, Borowski got a job as an orderly in the camp hospital. As the Allied liberation forces drew close to Auschwitz, Borowski and other prisoners were moved to Dachau. The U.S. Army liberated the camp in May 1945.
Borowski was then transferred to a camp for displaced persons. He left the camp in September to search for his fiancee, whom he had last seen at Birkenau, the women’s barracks near Auschwitz. He learned that she was living in Sweden, but he was unable to cross international borders to reach her. Borowski spent a short time in Munich and Paris before returning to Communist Poland in May 1946. His fiancee joined him in November, and they were married the following year.
Following his release, Borowski continued to write stories, including “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” which he produced at the displaced persons camp. Some of these stories as well as his poetry had been published in Poland before his return. Along with two other Polish Gentile writers, Borowski compiled We Were in Auschwitz, stories of life in the concentration camp. The Polish readership, though shocked at the amoral world Borowski depicted, recognized his talent. Pozegnanie z Maria (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny swiat (World of Stone) were both published toward the end of the 1940s. These volumes contained Borowski’s Auschwitz stories, as well as stories about the displaced person camps in Germany and his return home.
Borowski was wooed by and joined the Communist party in 1948. He turned to writing political propaganda—pro-communist journalistic pieces for Warsaw newspapers. These writings had little literary merit; however, he received a government prize for them. In the summer of 1949, he was sent to Berlin for a year to work in the press section at the Polish Military Mission. He was also given a secret intelligence assignment by the secret police. Less than fifteen months after his return to Poland, in July 1951, Borowski committed suicide.
His five-volume Utwory zebrane (Collected Works) was published in Warsaw in 1954. Translations of his works have been published in other countries as well.
In the barracks of Auschwitz, the unnamed narrator eats his breakfast with Henri, his friend and fellow prisoner. Henri is a member of the so-called Canada squad, members of the Kommando labor gang whose job is to unload the Jewish prisoners from the cattle cars and send them either to the work camp or to the gas chambers. In the midst of their meal, a messenger comes with the news that a transport is arriving. It is the first transport that the camp has seen in several days, and Henri invites the narrator to come work on the ramp. This is how prisoners get food and items of clothing. In the past, the narrator had to depend on Henri for these items, and he accepts the offer.
The narrator and the other workers go to the railroad station. They are joined by SS officers and guards, all of whom wait for the first train to arrive. As the train rounds the bend, the workers all jump to their feet. The train stops on the tracks, alongside the ramp. Anguished cries for water and air can be heard coming from inside. Heads push out through the windows, and bodies pound against the inside of the train. To silence the prisoners, a soldier shoots a volley of rounds into the side of the cattle car. The SS officer warns the workers not to take anything from the Jews beside food.
Then the train doors open. People rush forth from inside. They are ordered to make a pile of their possessions—luggage, blankets, coats, food, money. Some people ask the workers what will happen to them, but the workers, following “camp law,” refuse to answer. The Jews are made to go either to the left or the right. Those on the left side board the waiting trucks that will take them to the gas chamber. Those on the right will go to Auschwitz to work. The men carry out the selection quickly, shoving prisoners into the trucks. One SS officer keeps track of how many people have gone to the gas chambers with hash marks.
After the train has been emptied, the prisoner-workers must clean it up. Inside, the narrator finds babies among the filth and squalor. The narrator gives them to an old woman to take to the gas chamber, and she shows her sympathy for him. The narrator suddenly feels very tired. He asks Henri if they are good people; he is concerned because he feels no pity for the Jews.
Once all the people and trucks have gone, the workers collect the Jews’ food, as well as the material objects that will go into Germany’s coffers. Just as the workers have completed this task, another train rolls in.
Unloading this train, the workers react more brutally and more impatiently. A woman attempts to leave behind her small child, hoping that she will be selected as a laborer. A guard curses her, throwing her on the trucks, and tossing the child in after her. The narrator sees an attractive young woman. She asks the narrator where they are being taken, and when he doesn’t answer, she tells him that she knows. She walks off to the truck, though she is young and strong, and her life would have been spared.
After unloading the two transports, the narrator declares to Henri that he is done with this work.
Henri tells him to sit quietly and not let an SS soldier see him. By the light of the stars and the overhead bulbs, the narrator watches the work begin again. He sees a little girl crawl out the window of a train that has just pulled onto the tracks. She walks in circles, stunned and terrified. An SS man kicks her down and then shoots her with his revolver. The narrator goes back to the ramp to work, but when he touches yet another corpse, he vomits.
Leaning against the stack of rails, the narrator dreams of being back at his bunk. He longs to return to the camp, which is a place of peace compared to the hell he is now in. Then, finally, the last transport has been unloaded. The dead are cleared off the ramp. The prisoners line up to go back to camp, weighted down with the food belonging to the Jews.
Andrei is a Russian sailor who is a member of the labor gang that unloads the Jews from the cattle cars. He attacks a woman who is trying to deny her child to keep from being sent to the gas chambers. Through his act of attacking the woman, he wins the approval of the SS officers.
The narrator notices an attractive, confident Jewish girl. She calmly asks him what will happen to them. Though he will not answer her, she tells him that she already knows the truth. Instead of allowing herself to be among the women chosen to go to the labor camp, she puts herself on the trucks headed for the gas chambers.
Henri, a Communist from France, is a friend of the narrator’s. A member of the Canada labor gang, Henri regularly smuggles back food and clothing for his friends. He has a cynical attitude toward the camp, his fellow prisoners, and the Jewish victims, as well as a clear understanding that the welfare of the prisoner-workers depends on the continuing destruction of the Jews.
The little girl pushes herself out of the train window. Her mind has been unhinged by the experience, and she walks in circles until an SS man knocks her down with a kick and then shoots her dead.
The unnamed narrator is a Polish gentile imprisoned in Auschwitz. He is better off than most prisoners, receiving food packages from his family. His trip to the ramp is the first time he has worked such duty. On his way to the train station, he considers himself lucky to get this work detail because he knows he will be rewarded with food. However, he does not anticipate the horror of the work: forcing the Jews from the cattle cars, fending off their questions of what will happen to them, cleaning out the cars of the human detriment and dead babies. After unloading his first transport, the narrator feels tired and nauseous, yet completely disassociated from himself. Instead of feeling pity for the Jews, he is furious with them because, as he rationalizes it, if the Nazis were not determined to murder them, he would not be forced to carry out this disturbing and dehumanizing work. As a response to his malaise, he loses control, unloading the second train with barely restrained brutality; he wants the Jews to be gone so he is not reminded of what he is doing. After working on two transports, he is unable to continue. Instead, he longs only to return to the peace that the concentration camp provides where at least he remains among the living and not in continual contact with those who are like the waking dead.
The Holocaust and Its Literature
The term Holocaust refers to the genocide of European Jews and others by the Nazis during World War II. The narrator of “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is a prisoner at the infamous Auschwitz, one of the death camps where the brutal killings were carried out. Around six million Jews died in the Holocaust, along with at least three million prisoners of other backgrounds. The Nazis organized this mass extermination with extreme efficiency; for example, by the end of the day that the story takes place, 15,000 people have been sent almost effortlessly to their deaths.
“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is one of several of Borowski’s Auschwitz stories and part of a larger genre of Holocaust literature. Writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel have produced some of the most famous accounts of survivor testimony. Holocaust literature focuses on how people survived amidst the horror of the concentration camps. Different Holocaust survivors have posited different explanations. One leading view, proposed by Viktor Frankl, states that in spite of terrible circumstances, the prisoners still found life to be unconditionally meaningful, even in its suffering. Other survivors support the idea that there was no real meaning to the death camps, that to survive people had to leave behind all their notions of the “normal world” and normal human behavior; Borowski’s work falls into the latter category.
Death and Survival
Death and survival are inextricably linked in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” For the narrator (and the other prisoners in his situation) to stay alive, he must take part in the business of the camp, which primarily revolves around the murder of the Jews and other “undesirables.” The narrator must carry out jobs that facilitate the destruction of the “cremo” transports, be it actually unloading the Jews—as in the story—or some other camp-related job (as Borowski performed in real life). The physical welfare of the prisoners also depends on the destruction of the Jews. Prisoner-workers get necessary items, from clothing to food, from the prisoners who are sent to their death. As the story opens, the prisoners are feeling the effects of the recent lack of transports arriving at the camp. As Henri notes, if the camp “runs out of people” to kill, he and his fellow prisoners will starve to death. “All of us live on what they bring,” he says, underscoring the connection between death and survival. Indeed, when the narrator leaves the barracks to attend to the transport—his first time doing so—he considers himself lucky. In aiding in the deaths of others, he will facilitate his own survival.
In the world of the camp, traditional notions of morality have no meaning. The narrator and his fellow prisoners rely on the deaths of others for their survival, so they are thus implicated in the murder of the Jews. What is more troubling, the prisoners are forced to take part in carrying out this crime; if they were to refuse to do their jobs, they would be killed themselves. To exist under such circumstances, the narrator is forced to detach himself mentally and emotionally from his actions. The narrator refers to the arrival of the cattle cars as the camp’s “usual diversion,” thereby equating the death of thousands of innocent people with entertainment. He speaks casually of letting a praying rabbi continue “raving” because the Nazis would “take him to the oven that much sooner.” The only kindness the prisoners show those who are doomed to the gas chambers is deceiving them about their impending fate; the prisoners tell the Jews they don’t know where they are being taken.
The narrator raises moral issues at the ramp when he asks Henri if they are good people. Instead of feeling pity for the doomed Jews, he is furious with them—because of these people, he thinks, he is forced to be at the ramp at Auschwitz, experiencing this horror. Despite his rhetoric, however, the narrator demonstrates physical signs of his moral turmoil. He feels nauseous, until eventually, after unloading several transports, he loses control and vomits. As he sits down, he suddenly “see[s] the camp as a haven of peace,” which shows how far from the mainstream he has traveled; in the abnormal world of Auschwitz, the death camp has become a refuge.
Topics for Further Study
- Imagine that you are a journalist writing about life in Auschwitz. Write an article using Borowski’s story as your reference source.
- Read other survivor accounts and compare these former prisoners’ stories and experiences to Borowski’s. What similarities do you find? What differences do you note?
- Write a monologue that one of the Jewish characters in the story might have given at the ramp. What aspects would you focus on? How would you portray his feelings?
- Who do you think has a more realistic way of looking at camp life, the narrator or his friend Andrei? Explain your answer.
- Imagine that you are a Jew who had survived the Holocaust. Write your response to Borowski’s story.
- Do you think Borowski’s story implies his own feelings about what took place in Auschwitz? Explain your answer.
Although the story is written from the first-person point-of-view, the unnamed narrator maintains a tone of extreme detachment from the horrific events that surround him and in which he participates. He reports the goings-on in a casual, unin-volved manner, so that his observations—both those made to himself and to others—resemble nothing as much as those of an impartial journalist. For example, although Henri complains about a Jewish man’s wailing prayers, the narrator points out in a practical, unconcerned manner that the unpleasant noise will only lead the Nazis to gas the rabbi that much sooner. Despite the narrator’s distant attitude, he is touched by the horror of the ramp. His nausea and his eventual refusal to take part in further unloading show that his distance stems not from a lack of feeling; instead, it emerges as a coping mechanism.
Still, the narrator’s understatement of the events of Auschwitz is disconcerting and continually keeps the reader off-balance. The second line of the story is a good example of the power of Borowski’s technique: “The delousing is finally over, and our striped suits are back from the tanks of Cyclone B solution, an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.”
Symbolism and Metaphor
“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is rich with symbolism and metaphor. In this base world, where survival is all that matters, people become animals—Nazi captors and prisoners alike. The Nazis have “beefy” faces. A female SS officer with a “rat-like” smile “sniffs around” the ramp. Another officer complains that the prisoner-workers, stunned by the events, are “standing about like sheep,” and he whips them like the beasts of burden they have become. The starving Greek prisoners on transport duty, who are desperate enough to eat rotted, mildewed food, are looked upon as pigs, schweinedreck, and “huge human insects” with jaws pumping greedily. Even the trucks that participate in the slaughter transform into “mad dogs.”
The Jewish victims are not spared such degrading comparisons either. A couple locked in a frantic last embrace are “dragged like cattle” to the waiting truck; children run wildly around the ramp “howling like dogs.” The dead babies retrieved from the cattle cars are bloated monsters, which the prisoners carry out “like chickens, holding several in each hand.” A corpse is referred to simply as a “mound of meat.”
The oppressive heat, which the narrator describes as “unbearable,” is also important symbolically. It is a constant physical reminder of the crematoria where the bodies of the dead are burned. The breeze in the air brings no relief, but instead, “feels like a sizzling blast from a furnace.” The heat is also trapped in the cattle cars, which the narrator describes as “an inferno.” Auschwitz is a very real hell, both for those who work there and those who are sent there to die.
The story takes place at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp where the largest number of European Jews were killed. Auschwitz was both a labor camp where thousands of prisoners lived (Auschwitz I) and a death camp with gas chambers and crematoria where more than a million people were sent to their deaths (Auschwitz II). The two camps were located about a mile and a half apart, and each was heavily guarded, surrounded by gates and watchtowers. At the ramp, as the prisoners disembark from the cattle cars, they are immediately sent either to the right—to labor in the camps— or to the left—to death in the gas chambers.
The area around the ramp resembles a smalltown railway station, with a square surrounded by chestnut trees that provide a bit of shade in the heat. Although the narrator initially describes it as “cheerful” looking, the guards posted all along the rails— and their violent actions—allow little opportunity for him to maintain this facade of normalcy. Soon the ramp transforms into what it really is: a hellish place of murder and madness.
Poland Under Attack
Despite being a dominant power in Eastern Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, in the eighteenth century, Poland was divided up by its neighbors. With the end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, however, an independent Polish state was formed. Poland also received a large area of German territory, including the Polish Corridor. This strip of territory separated Germany from East Prussia, which gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea. The seaport Danzig, to which Germany retained usage rights, became a free city administered by the League of Nations. Poland’s post-World War I government was precarious, however, and its leaders were unable to conclude defensive security agreements with other European powers.
As German expansion in Europe grew, Poland’s government vainly attempted to protect itself. Danzig had a large German population, and Adolf Hitler eventually claimed it for Germany. A strong Nazi Party developed in Danzig, and by 1937, it controlled the city government. These officials made relations with Poland increasingly difficult.
In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union announced a pact of non-aggression in which each nation pledged it would never attack the other. Also
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: The avant-garde is influential among leading writers. Witold Gombrowicz, who moved to Argentina in 1939, gains an international reputation.
Today: With the ending of censorship in 1989, the works of Polish writers like Jerzy Kosinski are available to Polish readers for the first time. In 1996, Wislawa Szymborska becomes the second Polish poet to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
- 1940s: In 1939, the Polish population is 35 million, including sizable Jewish, German, Ukrainian, and Belorussian minorities. During World War II, more than 6 million Poles lose their lives. Polish Jewry is largely destroyed. Most of the Germans in western Poland are expelled, and the Ukrainian and Belorussian populations are transferred to the Soviet Union.
Today: Poland’s population stands at just over 38.5 million. Of this, 98 percent are ethnic Poles.
- 1940s: On the eve of World War II, Poland is ruled by a “Government of Generals.” During the war, the Polish government goes into exile, and Poland comes under foreign rule. After World War II, Poland is re-established as a Soviet satellite state and adopts a Communist government.
Today: Poland has been a parliamentary democracy since 1989 and practices a market economy.
- 1940s: Anywhere from 1 to 3 million are put to death by the Nazis at the concentration camp Auschwitz.
Today: The remains of Auschwitz are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A museum and memorial, first created in 1947, are on the site of the former Nazi concentration camp.
- 1940s: The Nazis murder at least 9 million people during the Holocaust.
Today: In Rwanda, in 1994, the Hutu-led government systematically kills between 750,000 to 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu.
called the Hitler-Stalin Pact, this pact included a secret agreement to divide Eastern Europe between the two nations; Germany would take western Poland and the Soviet Union would take eastern Poland in addition to other nearby territory. Within a week of signing this pact, Hitler demanded that Danzig be returned to Germany and that the Germans be allowed to occupy a strip running through the Polish Corridor.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler declared the annexation of Danzig to the Third Reich. At the same time and without warning, the German air force and ground armies launched a massive attack on Poland from three directions: the north, south, and west. Poland’s military was unprepared for this blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” Then, on September 17, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east. Within a month, Poland had surrendered.
An Occupied Poland
As had happened many times in its history, Poland disappeared from the maps of Europe. The nation was divided between the victors. The western half of Poland, occupied by the Nazis, was declared a new territory, the “General Government,” while the eastern half was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Both the German and Soviet governments committed mass executions of civilians, political leaders, and military officers; arrested thousands of political prisoners; initiated police screening and registration; and segregated the population according to categories of undesirability.
Hitler had the goal of obliterating all traces of Polish history and culture. By October 1939, many Poles had been stripped of all rights. The use of the Polish language was forbidden; secondary schools were closed; and young men were drafted into the German army. The Gestapo forced about two million Jews to relocate to ghettos. The Soviets also carried out atrocities. All Poles living within Soviet territory were declared Soviet citizens. The Soviets deported some two million Poles to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Soviet Far East, took over Polish businesses and factories, destroyed churches, and closed savings accounts.
In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and captured eastern Poland. The Germans’ New Order in Poland included plans to Germanize suitable Poles and relocate the rest beyond the Ural Mountains; enslave the Slavs; and exterminate inferior or useless human beings. The Soviets began to organize Polish armies for their own defense, joined forces with the Allies, and began its advance on the Eastern Front, or eastern Poland, in 1943. In August 1944, Polish resistance fighters in Warsaw rose up against German occupation forces. Stalin ordered his troops that were approaching the city to halt, giving the Nazis time to smash the Polish forces and eliminated any potential competitors to Stalin’s hand-picked communist government.
Along with Jews, leaders (religious, educational, and political) and many others were imprisoned and put to death at the concentration camps. Other Poles were executed in public. The first mass execution of World War II took place on December 27, 1939, and was a strategy of war, aimed at terrorizing Poles into subservience.
Auschwitz, located in southern Poland outside of Cracow, remains perhaps the most infamous concentration camp. For the first 21 months of its existence, Auschwitz was primarily inhabited by Polish non-Jews; by the time of the camp’s liberation, more than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles had died at Auschwitz. However, soon it became a final destination point for Jews from throughout Europe, who were sent there in cattle cars and gassed. In 1945, as the Allies were approaching, the Nazis exterminated more than 400,000 Jews. That summer the Nazis began to evacuate the inmates of Auschwitz into Germany.
During the war, a free Polish government-in-exile had been based in London. However, after the war, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin refused to recognize this government. The United States and Great Britain wanted a democratic government in Poland. Stalin agreed that an unspecified number of pro-Western Poles would be granted a place in the new government and reluctantly agreed to hold free elections in Poland, but he did not say when. Over the protests of the Western Allies, Stalin installed a pro-Soviet Communist government in Poland. Stalin also insisted that the Soviet Union would retain the Polish territories it had seized in September 1939, but was not willing to risk war over this demand. The Soviets were able to crush all opposition. In 1956, however, Polish protestors began insisting on greater rights and threatened to revolt. The Soviets allowed Wladyslaw Gomulka, a former Polish leader deposed by Stalin for wanting to bring Poland more independence, to return to the country. Under Gomulka, who remained in power for fourteen years, Poland gained a small amount of independence in domestic policy-making.
Borowski’s story “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” first appeared in Poland the spring of 1946, little more than a year after the Nazis began evacuating Auschwitz’s more than 50,000 prisoners (including Borowski). The story was included in the 1947 volume, We Were in Auschwitz, which collected short pieces by Borowski along with the works of fellow Poles Janusz Nel Siedlecki and Krystyn Olszewski. In their collective Preface, the authors explained that they hoped to talk “without subterfuge, openly” about the horrors they saw in Auschwitz. Their publication was an early attempt to diminish the already developing legend of the concentration camp: that in this place of horror, heroism supplanted cowardice, and prisoners worked together for the good of their fellow sufferers.
Two years later, Borowski’s first collection, also titled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, was published in Poland, making Borowski one of the first writers to depict the harshness of the concentration camps. Borowski’s earliest readers noticed what became one of the most unique features of his stories: that no one was the “victim” and no one was the “criminal.” Rather, the narrator in his stories is part of the concentration camp community, which shares in the collective guilt over the deaths of millions of Europeans. Immediately, Borowski drew criticism; the Catholic Church denounced his nihilism while the Polish Communist
party condemned his work as decadent, Americanized, and amoral.
In 1967, an English translation of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was published, and American critics in numerous publications immediately responded favorably to Borowski’s courageous message. George Eckstein of Dissent noted that the stories were “remarkable in the unsentimental, unflinching frankness with which they face the universal brutality.” Rather than eliding over the prisoners’ role in the deaths of millions of people, Borowski emphasizes their brutality and implied guilt because this was the “bitter essence of life in the Nazi concentration camp.”
Daniel Stern of the New York Times Book Review reserved the highest of praise for Borowski, whom he compared to noted Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel. “Do not let the title of this short-story collection mislead you,” he admonished readers, cautioning them from believing the book to be “merely another of the reports from hell” that reached readers in the decades after the Holocaust. “It is a true work of art, full of brutality and pain. . . . [Borowski] paints a picture of the horror and madness that ruled the concentration camps, so brilliantly that the immediacy of the experience is almost too much to bear.” Stern further singled out the title story as a “bitterly perfect portrayal of the ‘politics’ of camp life,” which requires prisoners to be pitted against other prisoners. Borowski’s skill, wrote Stern, causes the reader to momentarily lose all “normal moral control” and root for the narrator. He also lauded the scenes of Jews arriving at the camp as “impossible to forget.”
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was reissued in 1976, as part of a series of literature from Eastern Europe. Again, it drew overwhelmingly favorable criticism. Even thirty years later, wrote A. Alvarez in The New York Times Book Review, Borowski’s prose still had an “impact and power [that is] as unsettling now as it must have been then.”
In addition to responding to Borowski’s message, literary critics have responded to his style. Stern praised Borowski’s “irony tempered with lyricism.” Alvarez compared Borowski’s prose, the “purity of style and language” to that of Ernest Hemingway’s, “which remained even while expressing the fiercest corruption.” He continued, “There is no melodrama, no moral gesturing. He [Borowski] simply records the facts, lucidly, in a style as stripped and deprived as the fact themselves.”
Because of this style, some critics have found Borowski’s work more akin to documentary or nonfiction than short fiction. Mark Shechner wrote for the Nation that Borowski’s stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen are “barely transformed autobiographical sketches. . . They are fiction only in a formal sense.” He praised Borowski’s detached style ofwriting as doing “what is morally required,” which is allowing the depravity of the Holocaust “to speak for itself.” Indeed, Irving Howe wrote in a lengthy New Republic piece on Holocaust literature that while Borowski’s detached tone “in a naturalistic novel would signal moral revulsion from represented ugliness, it has here become a condition of survival.” Unlike many previous critics, however, Howe only responded to Borowski’s “testimony.” For Howe, the stories’ very authenticity rendered him “all but indifferent to their status as art.”
Literary critics have continued to explicate Borowski’s work. In a 1982 essay, Lawrence Langer asked “[W]hat are we to make of Borowski’s narrator, who helps drive victims from the cattle cars, unloads their belongings, watches them being led off to the gas chambers?” The narrator, answered Langer, lived in a world of “choiceless choice,” for he “is left only a choice between evils, between extermination and continued existence in Auschwitz.”
In 2000, We Were in Auschwitz was published for the first time in English, and Borowski’s work has continued to elicit strong reactions. Despite the fact that more than half a century has elapsed since Borowski first wrote about Auschwitz, the reviewer for Publishers Weekly experienced the book’s “chilling immediacy.” In keeping with earlier critics, this reviewer found the volume to be “an important addition to Holocaust studies, but not for those who choose to see survival in Auschwitz as a triumph of the human spirit.”
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the moral climate of Auschwitz. On the heels of the end of World War II, Borowski and two other Polish survivors brought out the simply titled We Were in Auschwitz.
The three authors composed a collective Preface to their book. “Confinement in the camp, destitution, torture, and death in the gas chamber,” they wrote, “are not heroism, are not even anything positive.” They described life in the camp as “defeat, the almost immediate abandonment of ideological principles” and themselves as “evil, hard, and cruel.” Borowski’s Auschwitz stories demonstrate the sad truth, that “we often renounced our humanity because we wanted to survive.”
“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” which reached American audiences in 1967 when it was first translated into English, has riveted readers for decades. Told from the point-of-view of a prisoner who participates in the Auschwitz killing machine, it shows a world in which long-accepted moral values do not exist. Prisoners at Auschwitz have no humanity because they can’t afford to be human. They are stripped of any real choice; they must either contribute to the murder of other innocent victims or be killed themselves. “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” represents an alternate, surreal reality, one which human beings cannot even conceive until visiting this alien realm themselves.
As the story opens, the schizophrenic world of the camp manifests itself immediately. The unnamed narrator sits on a top bunk, lunching on “crisp, crunchy bread,” bacon, onions, and tomatoes from his family’s garden, and evaporated milk, while beneath him crowd hollow-cheeked, “withered” men. Detached from his situation and any moral center, the narrator refers to the arrival of the trains filled with Jews to be murdered as the camp’s “usual diversion.” He worries that the Nazis will “run out of people” to kill, which would take away the reason for the existence of the special Canada labor gang. He ruminates on Cyclone B solution, which is utilized in the camp as “an efficient killer office in clothing and men in the gas chambers.”
The narrator does not long maintain his distance from the true business of the camp. He soon is offered the opportunity to participate in one of the most amoral activities at the camp: unloading the Jews from the cattle cars and sending the unfortunate ones to their death in the gas chambers. This is a monumental occasion. To go to the ramp is to win the opportunity to obtain food, clothing, liquor—it
What Do I Read Next?
- Bread for the Deported (translated into English in 1997) by Bogdan Wojdowski is a novel about World War II Poland, describing the terrible difficulties of life in the Warsaw ghetto and culminating in deportation to the Treblinka concentration camp.
- Auschwitz survivor Ilona Karmel wrote the novel An Estate of Memory (1969) comparing the experiences of three women in the camp.
- Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1980, wrote the political poem, “On the Death of Tadeusz Borowski.”
- Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (1947) is one of the classic accounts of life in Nazi concentration camps.
- Night (1958) by Elie Wiesel is a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy’s spiritual reaction to Auschwitz.
is to be lucky. It is also to enter a world even more unreal than the world of the barracks.
The narrator’s very journey to the ramp visually implies the schizophrenia that surrounds him. He marches past “guards all around, young men with automatics,” past “a clump of unfamiliar green—apple and pear trees,” past “the circle of watchtowers,” only to arrive at a “cheerful little station” that is shaded by small chestnut trees. “This is where they load freight for Birkenau: supplies for the construction of the camp, and people for the gas chambers.” The narrator’s note— “[t]rucks drive around, load up lumber, cement, people”—reinforces the equation on the part of the Nazis of people and mere objects. Unlike the construction materials, however, the people are considered useless. The Red Cross truck transforms into a similarly disturbing symbol; instead of acting in its typical role as a vehicle bringing aid, it carries the deadly gas from the train to the gas chambers.
Once the cattle cars arrive, the true horror of Auschwitz reveals itself. At the ramp, the only people who act with even a modicum of humanity and respect are the Jews, despite the brutality with which they are met. An old woman being sent to the gas chambers is forced to carry the bodies of the dead babies retrieved from the train cars. However, she shows the narrator pity for the work he must do; ‘“My poor boy,’ she whispers and smiles at me.” A beautiful young woman catches the narrator’s attention, and she asks him where they are going. When the narrator doesn’t answer, “I know,’ she says with a shade of proud contempt in her voice, tossing her head.” Then she chooses to join the other doomed Jews by “boldly” walking to the trucks. A one-legged girl who is being taken to the truck politely addresses the men who carry her. “Tears are running down her face” and she tells the men they are hurting her, but she still address them as “Sir.” Such instances of sympathy, dignity, and courtesy are seen nowhere else this day except at the ramp and except from the Jews.
Only in one instance does a Jew show a real lack of humanity. A woman denies that a little boy is her own, even as the child “runs after her, wailing loudly: ‘Mama, mama, don’t leave me!’” By contrast, the Nazis and the camp inmates display such savagery almost constantly throughout the day. In a rage, a burly prisoner-worker physically attacks this woman. He verbally castigates her as well for abandoning her child, accusing her of immoral behavior at the same time that he tosses her into the truck and consigns her to death. In a moment of bitter irony, an SS officer applauds the prisoner’s actions and calls the woman a “degenerate.”
Some of the brutality committed by the officers, guards, or prisoners is rendered even more heinous because of the casual manner in which it is dispensed. As the cattle cars roll into the station, an SS officer hears the cries and moans of Jews inside.
“This brief exchange shows the process by which prisoners in Auschwitz change from normal humans who experience and act upon a social conscience to humans who are cut off from any moral core.”
The officer “jerks his head impatiently, his lips twist in annoyance,” before signaling a guard to riddle the train car with shots from an automatic rifle. As the Jews are sent to their death, another officer stands with a notebook in hand. “For each departing truck he enters a mark; sixteen gone means one thousand people, more or less. The gentleman is calm, precise.” The SS man who orders the narrator to give the dead babies to one of the women does so while examining his cigarette lighter “carefully.”
A little girl comes to metaphorically represent the madness teeming on the ramp. She has pushed herself out through the train’s window and fallen out to the gravel before regaining her feet and “walking around in a circle, faster and faster, waving her rigid arms around in the air.” As the narrator realizes that “[h]er mind has given way,” an SS officer “calmly” kicks her down and then shoots her dead.
Language is yet another example of the schizophrenic nature of the camp. The “multilingual throng” can hardly understand each other and must manufacture new modes of communication, which are generally unreliable and ineffective. The prisoners speak in a medley of languages, sometimes mimicking the German of their captors, sometimes relying on “crematorium Esperanto.” The prisoners also are unable to forge real communication with the Jews, who are really their partners in victimization and abuse. “Sir, what’s going to happen to us?” the Jews coming off the train ask the workers. “I don’t know, I don’t understand,” is the only answer they will receive. Explains the narrator, “It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end.” One old man keeps repeating a German phrase, “I wish to speak with the commandant,” drawing the derisive laughter of an SS officer. Though this man speaks the language of the Nazis, the two parties will never be able to communicate. In reality, no one at the camp can have hopes of understanding one another— Auschwitz is beyond true human comprehension.
In the midst of this manifestation of hell, the narrator is forced to confront his reaction to the situation—the anger he has for the Jews. He explains to Henri, “I am furious, simply furious with these people—furious because I must be here because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber. Damn them all!” He recognizes that his feelings “must be pathological,” but is assured by Henri that actually, such feelings are “natural, predictable . . . The ramp exhausts you, you rebel—and the easiest way to relieve your hate is to turn against someone weaker.” This brief exchange shows the process by which prisoners in Auschwitz change from normal humans who experience and act upon a social conscience to humans who are cut off from any moral core. Henri may be correct that the narrator’s reaction is natural, but that does not make the narrator’s confession any less shocking.
Despite his words, the narrator is strongly affected by the events that he is helping to bring about. Even if his mind maintains its distance from what is going on around him, his body does respond as if in physical pain. He vomits, a metaphorical representation of his attempt to rid himself of his guilt and his responsibility in the death of 15,000 Jews from Sosnoweic-Bedzin. Like that little girl, his mind gives way in his sudden longing for the camp “as a haven of peace.”
In stories such as “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Borowski, writes Laurence Langer in “Auschwitz: The Death of Choice,” “mercilessly confronts us with moments of dehu-manization.. .the terror of extermination generated consequences that leave us morally speechless.” Readers may be tempted to evaluate, even judge, the narrator’s actions at the ramp. The circumstances that Borowski and others like him faced, however, clearly show that Auschwitz was another world, one which the average person could never understand.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Sanderson holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, she looks at the techniques Borowski uses in his short story to develop a narrator who, while appearing to be detached from the atrocities he witnesses and participates in at Auschwitz, still presents evidence of his humanity.
After reading the cycle of Auschwitz stories in Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, many critics understandably focus on the author’s apparently amazing detachment from the gruesome subject matter, as well as on his extreme pessimism about human nature. Borowski’s thinly veiled autobiographical stories about life as a non-Jew sentenced to a Nazi concentration camp are breathtaking in their horror; Borowski propels the reader into a world so foreign from his or her own that the first-person view of the atrocities committed by both prisoners and perpetrators can be described only as relentless.
But in the world of the labor camp, where there are no heroes, or at least no characters who die by choice for a righteous cause, Borowski’s view of human nature might not be quite as bleak as could be interpreted from a cursory reading of the text. There is no denying that Borowski’s picture of what men will do to each other to survive is far from inspiring, and he does view the stories’ events through his narrator with a sometimes impassive tone.
Nevertheless, a close examination of the first story (with the same title as the collection) shows that Borowski draws on a variety of techniques to offer some, if scant, relief from the unblinking detachment of his narrator, and to expose, however briefly, the narrator’s humanness in the most inhumane of conditions. For if he did not, on the rare occasion, show some human feeling amid the horror he witnesses, no one would blame the overwhelmed reader for crying out, as the narrator does, “My God, man, I am finished, absolutely finished!” And when a man decides he is finished at Auschwitz, there is no honorable way to die; survival is the only way of honor. The narrator makes a conscious decision, through his anger as well as by his holding tight to small pieces of his own humanity, not to become a “Muslim,” the camp name for a prisoner who has been physically and spiritually destroyed.
Borowski makes clear in his description of Auschwitz that the setting is, if not actually hell,
“In the black-is-white and white-is-black world of the death camps, where beauty looks so out of place, mothers cannot safely claim their children’s bodies, and a Red Cross truck carries the gas to the crematoriums, mental health is measured in a way that would seem insane outside the barbed wire.”
a good representation of it. The temperature is blisteringly hot, and “[t]he sun . . . illuminates the ramp with a reddish glow; the shadows of the trees have become elongated, ghostlike. . . . the human cries seem to rise all the way to the sky.” In fact, Borowski even creates a hierarchy in this Inferno, and places his narrator (who is never called by name in the first story but is known to be a Polish non-Jew) in a position somewhat removed from the squalor and deprivation of many of his fellow prisoners.
In an early scene, the narrator surveys from his top bunk bed the swarming men below him, almost insect-like in their anonymity. “All of us walk around naked. The delousing is finally over, and our striped suits are back from the tanks of Cyclone B solution, an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.” Lawrence L. Langer writes in his article “Auschwitz: The Death of Choice” that the narrator’s apparent cynicism “is not merely a literary device; it represents an honest attempt to suggest how Auschwitz ‘denatured’ human character.”
According to Langer, Borowski has created “an unrecognizable Eden” where the occupants, instead of naming the animals they see, “become confused with them.” While he and his friend Henri enjoy their bread, tomatoes, and bacon—treasures acquired in exchange for helping move the Jews from the boxcars to their ultimate deaths—he looks out over those below, the “naked, sweat-drenched men [who] crowd in the narrow barracks aisle.” Borowski immediately identifies the narrator and his friend as part of the prisoner elite.
Relief from the nightmarish setting of the concentration camp appears in small glimpses of nature that have not been corrupted by man. When the narrator becomes part of the work detail assigned to unloading new Jewish prisoners from the boxcars, he passes “a small square framed by tall chestnuts and paved with yellow gravel.” In fact, the narrator tries to inject a bit of ironic levity into the situation, calling the building where the Jews will be unloaded prior to their march to the ovens, “a cheerful little station, very much like any other provincial railway stop.”
Later in that scene, the narrator sees a similar grove of trees and describes them in an almost bucolic manner, as “the green shade of the Silesian chestnuts.” At the end of the day, “[t]he evening has come, cool and clear,” an appreciated contrast to the hellish temperatures of daytime. “The stars are out. . . . It is incredibly quiet.” But if the contrast between human depravity and nature isn’t strong enough, Borowski adds a political analogy; he uses the word “Canada” throughout the story to refer to the labor gang members who unload the trains and to any sign of wealth and well-being at the camps. This Canada, however, “smells not of maple forests but of French perfume, [and] has amassed great fortunes in diamonds and currency from all over Europe.”
Just as “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” presents no heroes, it also contains no villains. To include them, according to Andrzej Wirth in his essay “A Discovery of Tragedy,” would have resulted in “a pale and pretentious sentimentality” and “a demonization of the criminal. . . . [which would be] an inadequate solution.” The Nazi system of extermination and governance becomes the distant villain, and all who participate in it—whether desperate inmate laborers like the narrator and Henri, newly arrived Jewish prisoners, or brutal German guards—are victims in Borowski’s story. Nonetheless, Borowski includes a few people in the story whose presence breaks up the continuous parade of death and decay.
Henri is a fat Frenchman who has the morals of an alley cat but, importantly, he is the narrator’s only friend. While it could be argued that their relationship is strictly related to their survival, Henri is the person the narrator turns to when his sense of self begins to crack during the horrific work they are doing on the train ramp, asking, “Listen Henri, are we good people?” Granted, Henri’s response is a bit cold-hearted, but this exchange allows the narrator to make himself vulnerable, if even for a brief moment, while he ponders his part in the horrible play of evil around him. He questions why he hates so much and how he can have no pity for the people he prepares for the gas chambers. “It must be pathological, I just can’t understand.”
After trying to brush him off, Henri assures the narrator that his reactions are “natural, predictable, calculated. . . . Why, I’d even call it healthy.” Henri understands the narrator’s emotional fragility at this point; he has not developed quite the tough veneer that Henri possesses. Henri goes beyond telling the narrator that his worries are useless and attempts to make his friend feel better—a tiny moment of tenderness, however perverse. Later in the conversation the narrator becomes even too bitter for Henri, and Henri gently reminds his friend that he has suffered hunger and has frantically stuffed himself with found food, much like the Greeks he condemns.
Three women, like shadows from a life the narrator feels is completely lost, also provide a few moments of solace for the narrator, as well as brief respites for readers from the story’s dark, unrelenting progression. After the beginning scene recounting the use of the Cyclone B to kill both lice and men, the narrator cuts a piece of bread sent to him sent by his mother. (He is one of the elite prisoners allowed packages in the camp.) He is angered by a rabbi’s loud chanting and praying in the bunk below his, but pauses to reminisce, “only a week ago my mother held this white loaf in her hands . . . dear Lord, dear Lord.” His reverie is broken by Henri plotting how they will acquire real French champagne the next time a train load of Jews comes from France.
The other two women appear among the people unloaded from the boxcars later that day. The narrator is ordered to clean up the human remains left on one of the trains after everyone alive has disembarked. This horrific scene has the prisoners picking up dead infants, unsure of what to do with them. “We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand,” he says. The prisoners are instructed to hand them over to the women who have just come off the train, but the women are frightened and refuse to take the bodies.
An SS officer threatens to shoot the women if they don’t take the dead babies, but an older woman steps in to diffuse the situation. “A tall, gray-haired woman takes the little corpses out of my hands and for an instant gazes straight into my eyes. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers and smiles at me.” Her calm wisdom is a welcome contrast to the hysterical scene unfolding on the ramp.
The narrator has experienced a moment of genuine connection with another human being, someone that has sympathy for him, but the result is almost too much for him to grasp. Immediately after this incident, the narrator turns to Henri for the conversation about whether they are good people. And even though the narrator rants about how much he hates the people he unloads from the trains, his anger is a clear signal that his soul is not completely hardened; at least he is able to have an emotional response, indicating there is still something human left inside him.
The third woman who creates a pause in the narration appears suddenly, as if in a dream, and “descends lightly from the train.” She acts as if she has just disembarked at a regular train station, looking around at the huge crowd for her friends, whom she expects to be there any minute. “With a natural gesture she runs her hands down her blouse, casually straightens her skirt,” the narrator notices, and then she looks directly at him and asks where they will be taken. He is speechless and cannot answer. All he can think of is her beauty contrasted with the ugliness of the gas chambers and the foul-smelling concentration camp. In a flash, he notices a gold watch on her wrist and sadly thinks “Why did she bring it? . . . They’ll take it from her anyway.” When she realizes her fate, she confidently walks to the trucks taking people directly to the gas chambers. Her actions are of some creature from another planet, a planet the narrator feels he has left long ago and can only remember in snippets. But her appearance softens him for a moment, as he appreciates her normalcy and animation amid the concentration camp’s decay.
Borowski writes with a tone of “apparent cynicism, moral indifference, and an uncontrollable moral insanity,” according to Wirth. And Mark Shechner in his review of the collection in The Nation observes “how cool Borowski is, how ironic!” But this tough facade is developed for good reason; if the narrator (and Borowski, during his time at Auschwitz) ever lets his guard down, allows anyone at the camp to see his humanity and his tenderness, his survival will be in jeopardy. “Yet this cool is not at all dispassionate but rather guarded and mature. It is a manner forged under extreme vigilance,” according to Shechner.
However, Shechner goes on to argue that anger, sympathy, and guilt are “the most useless emotions of all to the totally dominated.” Only part of this statement is accurate, though, as the narrator shows time and time again that, while sympathy and guilt are certainly ineffective, his anger saves him from becoming a “Muslim.” Henri stokes the narrator’s anger toward the Jews he unloads from the trains, because he knows that any sensible man who stops, even for a moment, to think of the atrocities he is abetting to support his existence will be utterly destroyed. In a perverse sense, Henri is right, and the narrator’s well-developed hatred is nothing if not “healthy.” In the black-is-white and white-is-black world of the death camps, where beauty looks so out of place, mothers cannot safely claim their children’s bodies, and a Red Cross truck carries the gas to the crematoriums, mental health is measured in a way that would seem insane outside the barbed wire.
Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following essay excerpt, Bosmajian analyzes “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, “commenting on Borowski’s “climactic but ironic use of parallelisms.”
[Borowski’s] stories, while they can be arranged to give the illusion of beginning, middle, and end, are really memory shards in which he retraces his guilt, reacts aggressively against it, and mocks himself profoundly as an artist in a world of stone.
[In “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” we see] how a young man, the narrator Tadek, incorporated Auschwitz . . . Tadek, who works at the ramp, actively participates in sending thousands to their deaths. Yet the nonmetaphysically inclined Tadek also arrives at metaphysical intimations; for the magnitude of decreation around him evokes such resonances in “This Way for the Gas,” internalizes them in “A Visit,” and disgorges them in aggressive apocalyptic visions in “The World of Stone.”
The uncreating world of the concentrationary universe is a world of lies and deceit, as is already evident in the title of “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” and is confirmed as the reader
“The uncreating world of the concentrationary universe is a world of lies and deceit, as is already evident in the title of ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ and is confirmed as the reader becomes conscious of the fact that within the twenty pages of this short story 15,000 people have been gassed.”
becomes conscious of the fact that within the twenty pages of this short story 15,000 people have been gassed. Speed intensifies throughout the narrative as Tadek races through the account of his participation in preparing the victims of three transports for their deaths. In the beginning he and his composers seem to eagerly await the first transport, for also at the ramp is “Canada,” the land of plenty, where the inmates get supplies for survival. The narrator’s tone is objective, casual, and cynical. . . Typical of Borowski’s style is the climactic but ironic use of parallelisms. [A distant] church steeple obviously points to something that transcends this world. But whatever that might be, it has no contact with the two groups of men who conspire within this confined, narrow ground of evil.
After the wagons have been emptied, the inmates must clean up the “Schweinerei” (pig’s mess); the physical and moral stain must appear to have been removed. Among the human refuse in the wagon, Tadek finds “squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters, with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand.” . . . Pity is consistently undercut as the narrator moves from infants to monsters, to chickens, and to the seemingly unaffected diversionary attitude of the SS man who sees but does not choose to see. Shocked, the women refuse to take the little bodies; but a tall, grey-haired woman accepts them and addresses Tadek as “my poor boy,” a personalized phrase that over-whelms him, not with tears, but with intense, physical fatigue and with the refusal to look at people individually.
With the arrival of the second transport brutality increases and deception diminishes. A woman, aware that she would go to the gas chamber if defined as a mother, denies her child but is killed by a Russian inmate. As Tadek once again struggles with nausea, there emerges from the train a girl that belongs to another time and world. She “descends lightly from the train, hops to the gravel, looks around inquiringly as if somewhat surprised. Her soft, blond hair has fallen on her shoulders in a torrent.” Her wise and mature look defines her as in the know as she insists on going to the gas chamber. She is a totally absurd but true appearance of personhood and dignity in this world of deceit; her knowledge, however, leads her to seek death .. . [Only] the human being can contain such knowledge, for there is no god who contains or refuses to contain so much suffering.
This is particularly evident after Tadek has cleaned up the wagons of the second transport and rests against the rails: “The sun has leaned low over the horizon and illuminates the ramp with a reddish glow: the shadows of the trees have become elongated, ghostlike. In the silence that settles over nature at this time of day, the human cries seem to rise all the way to the sky.” . . . No ear will receive the cries that rise from this constricted and seemingly eternal narrow ground. Tadek, who sees all this, describes it in a language resonant with religious connotations, a language similar to the images of Nelly Sachs in “Landscape of Screams”; for the precision of Borowski’s attempt to imitate reality and Sachs’s precise use of the literalness of the word approximate each other.
Nausea is a momentary and illusory relief for a man who has made such a world part of his being that his sense of ego has been lost. In the sketches “A Visit” and “The World of Stone,” Tadek describes the state of such a man after liberation. He admits in “A Visit” that’ T have never been able to look at myself.” . . . Self-knowledge is a myth for the former concentration camp inmate, for his self is constituted of what he saw. “A Visit” is a visit of the people who claimed his kinship, as is evident in the twice-repeated whisper of a dying man: “Brother, brother.” Tadek had to fail as his brother’s keeper, for he had thousands of brothers and sisters who claimed his kinship. As the repetition of “I saw, I saw, I saw” reveals, Tadek has only been able to fulfill the final request of the victims, namely, that he remember what happened. He is now housed in his memory but is unhoused in his present world as he sits “in someone else’s room,” where in a moment he will feel “homesick for the people I saw then.” He can visit them all, and they will be his visitation. Because he is defined through them alone, because there is no room for self-knowledge, his consciousness is nothing but a house for the memory of the victims. The world that once swallowed him is now contained within him.
In “The World of Stone” the alienated narrator reacts aggressively against the “intimate immensity” (Bachelard) of himself as the anagogic container of the world of Auschwitz. Growing within him “like a foetus inside a womb” is the terrible knowledge and foreboding that “the Infinite Universe is inflating at incredible speed.” He wants to retain it like “a miser,” afraid that solid matter will dissolve into emptiness like a “fleeting sound.” Demonic knowledge crowds and pressures the confines of his being, a knowledge that cannot be transformed into the logos of speech because it would not generate an individualized creation; rather, it would generate a chaos of emptiness, reminiscent of smoke and air or the cries that rose all the way to the sky from the ground of Auschwitz.
[In “The World of Stone”] Tadek is left with the choice of chaos as void or a world of stone, the latter symbolized by the “massive cool building made of granite” where he works. But granite does not protect him; he knows it “cannot keep the world from swelling and bursting like an over-ripe pomegranate, leaving behind but a handful of contracted, grey, dry ashes,” an image which is a grotesque inversion of Mallarme’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” In Borowski’s world of stone there may be a volcanic eruption of aggression, there may be ashes, but no queen of love visits the day dreamer.
Tadek concludes that, because the world has not yet blown away, he intends to write and “grasp the true significance of the events and people I have seen.” His matter is great and worthy of “an immortal epic,” but the act of writing would mean a concession to the illusion of normality in which he does not want to participate. Tadek and the other victim/survivors of the concentrationary universe have not left us, who are still caught in the illusion of reprieve, the conclusive comfort of a great epic. They have left us partial visions, short stories, sketches, and fragments and retained “with a miser’s piercing anxiety”. . . the world which swallowed them and which they swallowed with open eyes.
Source: Hamida Bosmajian, “The Rage for Order: Autobiographical Accounts of the Self in the Nightmare of History,” in Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, University of Iowa Press, 1979.
In the following introduction, Kott stresses the cultural and historical importance of Borowski ‘s Auschwitz stories.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Source: Jan Kott, “Introduction,” in “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” and Other Stories, translated by Barbara Vedder, with the Introduction translated by Michael Kandel, Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 11-26.
Alvarez, A., “The Victim of a Full European Education,” in New York Times Book Review, February 29, 1976, pp. 3-4.
Eckstein, George, “The Festering Sore,” in Dissent, Vol. 247, No. 2, March-April, 1968, pp. 184-86.
Howe, Irving, “Writing and the Holocaust,” in New Republic, October 27, 1986, p. 27.
Kott, Jan, Introduction to This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski, translated by Barbara Vedder, Penguin Books, 1976.
Langer, Lawrence L., “Auschwitz: The Death of Choice,” in Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit, State University of New York Press, 1982, pp. 67-129.
Review in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 23, June 5,2000.
Shechner, Mark, “Survival Declined,” in Nation, Vol. 222, No. 24, June 19, 1976, pp. 760-62.
Siedlecki, Janusz, Krystyn Olszewski, Tadeusz Borowski, and Anatol Girs, Preface to We Were in Auschwitz, Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000.
Stern, Daniel, “Making Way for the Dead,” in New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1967, p. 81.
Wirth, Andrzej, “A Discovery of Tragedy,” in Polish Review, translated by Adam Czerniawski, Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 1967, pp. 42-52.
Aroneanu, Eugene, comp., Inside the Concentration Camps, translated by Thomas Whissen, Praeger, 1996.
This oral history presents 100 eyewitness testimonies, first recorded in 1945, of the concentration experience from the point of view of many different types of survivors.
Borowski, Tadeusz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, translated by Barbara Vedder, Penguin USA, 1992.
This is a recent edition of Borowski’s work.
Clendinnen, Inga, Reading the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Clendinnen explores the experience of the Holocaust from the point of view of both the victims and the perpetrators, and discusses survivor testimonies of writers.
Gutman, Yisrael, and Michael Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press, 1998.
The book compiles reports from 27 multinational contributors on the history, population, and operations of Auschwitz.
Hatley, James, Suffering Witness: The Quandary of Responsibility after the Irreparable, State University of New York Press, 2000.
Hatley uses survivor literature, including works of This book presents an overview of Polish life under Borowski, and philosophy to argue that bearing wit- the German occupation, focusing on such aspects as ness to the Holocaust is a serious responsibility. the government, the underground, and daily life.
Lukas, Richard C, and Norman Davies, The Forgotten Marrus, Michael R., The Holocaust in History, Penguin Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944, Books, 1987. 2d rev. ed., Hippocrene Books, 1997.
This book presents an overview of Polish life under the German occupation, focusing on such aspects as the government, the underground, and daily life.
Marrus, Michael R., The Holocaust in History, Penguin Books, 1987.
Marrus discusses the Holocaust.
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