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…
Exactly, blue, and the trees smell wonderful. The forest ̶ you want to take it in your hand. (p. 126)
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)
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)
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.
Borowski, T. (1976). This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (B. Vedder, Trans.). New York: Penguin.