Tadeusz Borowski: Auschwitz Serial Number 119 198

Image courtesy of PAP/CAF via http://dzieje.pl

Image courtesy of PAP/CAF via http://dzieje.pl

I first heard the name Tadeusz Borowski as an undergraduate student in Amherst. At that time, I had rather sophomoric ideas of the horrors authored by the Third Reich and of its henchmen, and was scarcely aware of the songs of its survivors. Of course, I’d heard of Levi, Spiegelman and Wiesel. And I’d read Plath’s “Daddy” as a teenager. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the words I would read that semester. Nothing.

Our syllabus consisted of many required readings: Maus, The Destruction of the European Jews, Night, and selections from Chaim Kaplan’s diary. It also included poetry from Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan, Yitzchak Katzenelson and Dan Pagis. But the reading that haunted me most was Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. His words, his deceptively simple words and oftentimes frigidly detached account of the unimaginable, proved to lyrically amputate a chamber of my beating heart. Forever.

After falling into a Nazi trap at a friend’s apartment, Borowski was sent to Auschwitz in late April 1943. It is Auschwitz, then, that serves as the main backdrop for the fictionalized stories found in his brutally gripping book and about which the novelist William Styron wrote in his acclaimed novel Sophie’s Choice: “Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”

Borowski’s words anchor deep into the most sacred of places. He shows what one will do for an extra bowl of soup or a proper pair of shoes. And challenges the more traditional roles of perpetrator and victim. He also weaves a thread of normalcy through the most abnormal and ghastly of circumstances.

In this selection, he writes about arrival at Auschwitz:

You have no idea how tremendous the world looks when you fall out of a closed, packed freight car! The sky is so high…
…and blue…
Exactly, blue, and the trees smell wonderful. The forest ̶ you want to take it in your hand. (p. 126)

The entrance to the main gate at Auschwitz I.  It reads "work makes you free".  Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via http://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust

The entrance to the main gate at Auschwitz I. It reads “work makes you free”. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via http://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust

 

One of the most chilling features of Borowski’s prose is its icy delivery. It proves to recreate such intensity that the reader is often left breathless:

The lights on the ramp flicker with a spectral glow, the wave of people ̶ feverish, agitated, stupefied people ̶ flows on and on, endlessly. They think that now they will have to face a new life in the camp, and they prepare themselves emotionally for the hard struggle ahead. They do not know that in just a few moments they will die, that the gold, money, and diamonds which they have so prudently hidden in their clothing and on their bodies are now useless to them. Experienced professionals will probe into every recess of their flesh, will pull the gold from under the tongue and the diamonds from the uterus and the colon. They will rip out gold teeth. In tightly sealed crates they will ship them to Berlin. (p. 48-49)

Female hair found in Auschwitz warehouses after liberation.  Image courtesy of Polish National Archives via fcit.usf.edu

Female hair found in Auschwitz warehouses after liberation. Image courtesy of Polish National Archives via fcit.usf.edu

Here, he recounts the terrors of the crematoria:

Often, in the middle of the night, I walked outside; the lamps glowed in the darkness above the barbed-wire fences. The roads were completely black, but I could distinctly hear the far-away hum of a thousand voices ̶ the procession moved on and on. And then the entire sky would light up; there would be a burst of flame above the wood…and terrible human screams. (p. 84-85)

A door to a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The note reads: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via http://history1900s.about.com/library/holocaust

A door to a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The note reads: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via http://history1900s.about.com/library/holocaust

An Auschwitz  warehouse filled with shoes and clothing from those who were gassed upon arrival.  Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via http://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust

An Auschwitz warehouse filled with shoes and clothing from those who were gassed upon arrival. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via http://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust

Omnipresent in Borowski’s stories is the theme of deception: deception by the Nazis, deception by both friend and foe and deception by strangers. That theme is magnified in the following: “It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. This is the only permissible form of charity” (p. 37).

 

After being liberated in Dachau, Borowski lived in Bavaria, Paris and Berlin; finally returning to Warsaw in 1950. It was there, nearly 63 years ago, on July 1, 1951, that he gassed himself. He died two days later on July 3.  He was 28 years old.

Sadly, he was followed by others. Others who had peered into the soulless recesses of human eyes and lived to tell about it. Others like: Paul Celan in 1970, Piotr Rawicz in 1982, Primo Levi in 1987, and Jerzy Kosinsky in 1991. Surely there are others, many others. But these are those who survived to share their stories through a written medium. Those who left us with “Death Fugue”, Blood from the Sky, Survival in Auschwitz, and The Painted Bird. Those who live on in elegant typeface in books throughout the world. And through such, are immortalized.

After all these years, Borowski’s suicide still perplexes me. I wonder what went through his mind as he entered his kitchen, opened the gas valve and repeatedly inhaled. I wonder if he thought of his wife, who had bore him a daughter, Małgorzata, just three days before. Or of his friend’s arrest by Polish Security, the same friend at whose home Borowski himself was arrested 8 years prior. Or of the freight cars and the high, blue sky.

And I wonder what justice there was in such a death. And then realize it was not about justice but rather about hope:

Much of what I once said was naïve, immature. And it seems to me now that perhaps we are not really wasting time. Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyzes them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers. (p. 121-122)

Tadeusz Borowski hoped for a better life. For peace and rest and flameless dreams. And perhaps, as much as he tried, it wasn’t possible. Perhaps Auschwitz and Dachau weren’t just horrendous experiences, set apart. Perhaps they became a part of him, like a song, and the only way to silence that song was by stepping on his own throat (20). Perhaps that was his peace.

Perhaps it was enough that he lived, survived and, above all else, loved.  He wrote: “I smile and think that one human being must always be discovering one another ̶ through love. And that this is the most important thing on earth, and the most lasting” (p. 110).

Perhaps there is hope in that.

 

WORKS CITED:

Borowski, T. (1976).  This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (B. Vedder, Trans.).  New York: Penguin.

 

  One thought on “Tadeusz Borowski: Auschwitz Serial Number 119 198

  1. June 29, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    We must never forget. What an eloquent writer he was and how tragic that he survived the horrors of the camps but could not live with his aftermath. I am very puzzled by his passage on hope. I will have to study that for awhile. I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s Book Man’s Search for Meaning.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      Sammy, I will have to look into Frankl’s book. And you’re right about Borowski; tragic doesn’t even begin to describe it. His words and death have haunted me for years, as I’m sure they’ve done to others.

  2. StephanieJane
    June 29, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    I have no sufficient words. So powerful, just straight to my heart.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      And to mine, Stephanie Jane.
      I pray he’s at peace.
      Finally.

  3. June 29, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Wow. Humbling, sad, powerful, poignant.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:22 pm

      Thank you, Ginny, love. I’ve been wanting to write about him for quite a while.

      Be blessed, friend.

  4. Elaine Maurer
    June 29, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    I’ll never forget visiting Dachau during our high school trip to Germany. Never has a group of high schoolers been so quite, so respectful. You could still feel everything that had happened there. That feeling still comes time when ever I remember that day.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:25 pm

      Oh, Elaine, I can’t even imagine. I have wanted to go to Auschwitz for years, but I’m too scared. Everything is already so real: the literature, pictures and other documentation. I think actually standing where something so diabolical took place might prove too much for me and my heart.

  5. June 29, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    A haunting recollection, Dani, and a needed reminder with the growing tide all around the world proclaiming that The Holocaust never happened.
    Having witnessed the pain of close friends who’ve been deeply wounded by a loved one’s suicide, I felt it in the gut when you said his daughter had just been born. He did to her what the Nazi’s hadn’t done to him. Or maybe, they did, and it just took longer.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:36 pm

      I can’t even believe there are those who doubt. As if an entire people could make up such horrendous happenings.

      I do understand what you said about suicide, Jane. My husband’s uncle took his own life not too long before we left Brasil. It was horrible and something many family members still haven’t forgiven.

      And I, too, feel for his daughter, and for all those who loved him and love him still.

  6. June 29, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Oh what words…powerful powerful words…thank you for sharing

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:38 pm

      He had quite a gift.
      That is for sure.

      Thank you for reading.

      And blessings to you.

  7. June 29, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    It is chilling to me that there are people who don’t believe the holocaust happened. That some schools in the United States are teaching that doubt makes me sick for our future, which is bound to repeat itself as it has happened historically when we forgot times such as these.

    Thank you for the book recommendation. I have a good friend whose father was interned at Auschwitz for speaking out against Hitler’s regime. He was not Jewish, but was doing the right thing in questioning the rise and acceptance of evil human behavior towards others. It is horrific that finding a voice of reason and compassion, or simply believing in God and worshipping Him as you see fit, would lead to such tragedy.

    Thank you for this post.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:44 pm

      I completely agree, Amelia. We often take our basic rights for granted only to look back into the annals of history to see person after person, race after race and community after community treated sub-humanly for their beliefs and ways of life.

      It’s unfathomable.
      And to think…
      it still happens.

      Heart,
      Dani

  8. AZVHV.wordpress.com
    June 29, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    “Like” seemed the wrong sentiment so I am commenting. Thanks for sharing this.

    • June 30, 2014 at 11:47 pm

      Thank you so much for reading.
      I appreciate it greatly.

      Best,
      Dani

  9. June 29, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Dani…I loved how you changed your voice for this piece. Very appropriate choices stylistically, and extremely deft…and yeah, it is a given that the subject matter and your final points were sizzlingly on point.

    • July 1, 2014 at 12:02 am

      Oh, sweetie, thank you so much for this.

      Although it’s not up to me how he’s memorialized, I hope he’ll be remembered for who he truly was and not for what he chose to do on that July day.

      Heart,
      Dani

  10. June 29, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. It is still such an unspeakable tragedy. I taught Night to my 10th graders…so hard for them – and us all- to grapple with a world where people can do these kinds if things to others. Thank you for a sobering and poignant reminder.

    • July 1, 2014 at 12:12 am

      Night was challenging for me, as well. And I agree with you, it’s unthinkable what one human being can do to another. It truly is.

      Blessings,
      Dani

  11. Danielle de Luca
    June 30, 2014 at 5:06 am

    I hope that this tragedy never be happen again, and i hope the love can change the world day by day, and i reallly hope that my life here can be different!!! Love you!!

    • July 1, 2014 at 12:13 am

      Such an unspeakable tragedy, Dani.

      And I hope your life will be different there, as well.

      Heart,
      Dani

  12. June 30, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Beautiful and sensitive tribute, Is this anoother instance of survivor’s guilt?

    • July 1, 2014 at 12:22 am

      You know, I’m not quite sure.Perhaps it was the thought of living in a world where such barbaric things could happen. And not just once, but again and again.

      I’m reminded of Hershl Sperling, who survived 7 concentration camps, among them Treblinka, only to take his own life after hearing of the millions of Cambodians slaughtered under Pol Pot’s regime. Perhaps it made him feel as if his suffering and losses were for naught. Perhaps he felt as if humanity hadn’t learned its lesson.

  13. July 1, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    Dani,
    Such a well-written reflection on the known atrocities of this man. Powerful words that chill the bone. Thank you for sharing this.

    • July 1, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      Thank you so much for reading, Courtney. I have wanted to write about him for some time. And while I’m unsure if doing so near the anniversary of his suicide was appropriate, I wanted to honor him. In my way. With words.

      Blessings.

      • July 1, 2014 at 5:29 pm

        Absolutely appropriate. He suffered through one of the hardest eras in our history and there is never a wrong time to share that experience. I wonder about people’s motives for suicide often and it’s interesting that it was what I chose to write about today (though in a different context) without having read yours yet. I do believe when someone takes their own life, it may partly be because they are hoping for better, they are hoping for different, they are hoping to leave pain behind. Hope is not a word that we often associate with death, especially suicide but sometimes it is fitting.

        • July 1, 2014 at 8:40 pm

          You are right, Courtney. Suicide is such a heartrending subject. I will visit and read what you have shared. Promise.

          Heart,
          Dani

  14. July 2, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Great read, Dani! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • July 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      I appreciate your stopping by, Char. Hope you’re well…

      Heart,
      Dani

  15. Jett
    July 3, 2014 at 1:38 am

    I think you just put a couple new titles on my ‘to read’ list. Good post.

  16. July 4, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Thank you! Let me know you’re thoughts once you read them.

    Best,
    Dani

  17. July 5, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    The thing that frightens me most about the holocaust is that it happened at all, and with that said, there is the potential for it to happen again. I see the kind of hatred, bigotry, racism, in the world today that could well end in such horror and it is indeed frightening. I have no clue how anyone who managed to survive the holocaust could ever be whole again. My heart goes out to all who have been harmed in such a way. As a writer I have come to know that art comes from experience and often suffering. Tadeusz’s words are hauntingly beautiful, and tragically horrific at the same time. I am glad he was able to express his experiences in the form of literary art and feel it should be required reading, lest we forget, and hopefully will not be doomed to repeat. 🙂

  18. July 5, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    I completely agree. There is danger when hatred and bigotry pair with ignorance and fear.

    It seems people will never stop hurting others: others they see as threats or as weak links in the chain of humanity. And THAT is frightening. Knowing that people kill others because they’re sad, or bored, or angry, or jilted, or “happy”.

    When did we turn into a society like this?? When did others start being a threat and cease being our brothers??

    It’s horrible.
    Just. horrible.

  19. July 6, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Oh my goodness! Dani, you have done it again! Each time I see anything about the Shoah, I say there is nothing more I have to read. Your essay proved me wrong. Dani, my wife and I will be working in Germany this fall for 10 weeks both with synagogues and on education and reconciliation. Our visit has been organized and financed by the German Lutheran church. The emotional high light of our visit will come on Kristallnacht when I have accepted an invitation to deliver the sermon at the annual commemoration in Leipzig at the famed Thomaskirche. My late father was arrested in Leipzig (where he grew up) on Kristallnacht. He was roughed up and sent to Dachau, but fortunately relatives got him out and brought him here. You write so magnificently that I am moved to ask. If you were in my place what might you say? My personal email is sl.fuchs@comcast.net if you prefer to respond there. Even if you pass on this request, many thanks for this magnificent essay! Stephen

    • July 12, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      Rabbi Stephen,

      I haven’t known how to respond, which is why I haven’t. But I’d like to thank you for your beautiful comment and for sharing a bit of your heart and history with me.

      I will reply with more to your personal email.

      Blessings,
      Dani

      • July 13, 2014 at 1:06 am

        Dani, I will look forward eagerly to reading your thoughts when your busy schedule allows. Thank you very much for considering my request!
        Stephen

  20. TheMomCafe.com
    March 30, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Oh gosh Dani… this is such an incredible piece. Horrific, literally causing me to feel sick to my stomach over the grief and anguish and sick evil in this world. i agree- his only peace would be to leave a world where trauma and inexplicable damage is done, and continuing on. How would you escape that?

    Humanity births cruel and evil beasts that make me wince in pain, in fear, no- in terror.

    It seems this book, and other ones you mentioned describe that so well.

    • December 13, 2020 at 2:00 am

      You’re so right. They do!! And how did I miss this comment from so many years back?!?! No words, friend.

  21. Karin Fischer
    May 26, 2015 at 11:20 pm

    Hi Dani, I teach the entire collection of short stories within “Auschwitz, Our Home” as part of a unit on text and context, to my Grade 11 students. As the granddaughter and grandniece of concentration camp survivors, the topic touches me deeply, and as many others, I find it hard to swallow when certain groups of people claim that ‘the Holocaust is a myth’. My great aunt never addressed the topic until a few days before her death, when she spoke to my mother (in Hungarian) about how she survived (by prostituting herself to the Nazis), and about the probable causes of her infertility (the gynecological “experiments” she was subdued to). She was, despite the latter, able to live a happy life, marrying a man who unfortunately left her a widow, yet marrying again to another man who proved to be even more wonderful than the first.However, I firmly believe what someone in one of the posts above has said- a human being can never be wholesome again after an experience of this sort. My grandfather, a resilient, hard-working man who faced adversity and difficult migrations more times than most, was never truly whole; he was bitter, angry, mad. He succeeded in life by cheating and deceiving others much like what had been done to him. He was not a caring husband or father and left many questions unanswered. I sometimes wonder if one can really cleanse oneself of evil. In the words of Primo Levi’s ‘Shema’…

    Consider that such horrors have been:
    I commend these words to you.
    Engrave them in your hearts
    when you lounge in your house,
    when you walk outside,
    when you go to bed,
    when you rise.
    Repeat them to your children,
    or may your house crumble
    and disease render you helpless
    so that even your offspring avert their faces from you.

    • December 13, 2020 at 2:07 am

      Thank you for this heartfelt and heartrending comment, Karin. I cannot begin to imagine a life after the camps; suffering the unimaginable and carrying the weight of both death and life until one’s last breath. I have read “Shema”, but not “Auschwitz, Our Home”. I’ll look into the latter and do thank you again for both visiting and sharing.

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