Saturday, June 28, 2008

This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski

I picked this book up at the library because A) I am always interested in holocaust literature and B) it was written originally in Polish, by a Polish (not Jewish) survivor of Auschwitz.

This is a series of short stories about life in a concentration camp, but they capture a side of camp life that is very rarely portrayed.

Borowski was a Polish "political" prisoner in Auschwitz first, then later in other camps. His short stories focus on impossible situations that forced people who wanted to survive to behave in unnatural, and ultimately soul-destroying ways. I was reminded of Night by Elie Wiesel, because one of the things that struck me from that book was the unnatural relief Wiesel felt when his father died, because he would no longer have to exert energy toward helping him. At 17, the guilt and grief over his own feelings, mixed with his natural grief at losing his father, were overwhelming.

Similarly, Borowski dramatically shows how "survivors" had to shut their eyes to the suffering of others and even contribute to it in some ways, in order to stay alive. One story tells of a game being played by some of the prisoners on a field. During the course of the game, hundreds of people walk past them on a nearby lane, headed for the gas chambers. Apart from an occasional glance at them, they generate no interest or pity, only mild curiosity about how many people will die during the game. That kind of detachment was necessary to continue to exist from day to day under such dreadful circumstances.

Borowski's stories show some of the usual holocaust horrors--the gas chambers, the trains, the selections, the cruelty of the Nazis--but they also shed light on the less-often-seen brutality of the prisoners themselves, as they bargain, cajole, cheat, lie, and betray in order to survive. After reading these stories, I felt that Borowski despised the camp survivors, including himself. Ultimately, he did not truly survive the camps, but committed suicide about five years after the end of the war.

You can read a bit more about him if you'd like. These stories, though fiction, are based on Borowski's real camp experience, and they are not for the faint of heart.

Here's a link to wikipedia if you're interested in learning more about Borowski, who was fairly well known in Europe at one time, although I think less so in America (I never heard of him).


At 4:59 AM , Blogger Poiema said...

I recently listened to a lecture by a holocaust survivor and was surprised when she said that she observed few or no friendships between fellow prisoners. Your brief review here explains plausible reasons for that. As people unacquainted with great suffering, it is sometimes hard for us to imagine how we might behave under such duress. It is sad but true that in our weak humanity we tend to withdraw into ourselves at such times rather than to reach out to relieve the sufferings of others. Corrie Ten Boom was an exception, I think.


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