Tadeusz Borowski Essay - Borowski, Tadeusz

Borowski, Tadeusz

Introduction

Tadeusz Borowski 1922–-1951

(First name also transliterated as Theodore) Polish short story writer, poet, essayist, historian, and journalist.

Borowski was one of the most lauded Polish fiction writers of the post-World War II era. He is best known for the English translations of his short stories, collected in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories (1967), based on his experiences as an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Borowski's Auschwitz stories are unique to the body of Holocaust literature because they focus as much on the persecutions and betrayals among prisoners as on the cruelties and inhumanity of the guards. Borowski's narrator in many of these tales is a prisoner who has survived by securing a position of relative privilege within the camp system, aiding in the functioning of the Nazi death machine. Borowski's tone is one of detachment as he relates the horrors of concentration camp life. Often, Borowski's prose was extolled by critics for its profound sense of dissolution in relating the ineffable barbarism that characterized life and death at Auschwitz. Borowski's uncompromising realism banishes heroic acts or redemptive lessons—his stories are bitter testimonies of human atrocity and baseness, effectively conveying the narrator's responsibility to “bear witness” for those who did not survive the Holocaust.

Biographical Information

Borowski was born November 12, 1922, in Żytomierz, Poland, then part of the U.S.S.R. When he was four years old, his father was accused of political dissidence and sent to a labor camp in the Arctic. When Borowski was eight, his mother was sentenced to prison in Siberia, and he was put in the care of an aunt. In the late 1930s, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Borowski was united with his parents, and the family moved to Warsaw. After Nazi forces invaded Poland during World War II, Poles were forbidden from obtaining any education; Borowski, of college age, began to attend clandestine courses at Warsaw University. During this time, his first volume of poetry was illegally published and distributed by an underground press. Shortly after, Borowski and his fiancée were arrested by the Gestapo for political dissidence. They were placed at various prison camps until finally they were sent to Auschwitz. Their lives were spared only because three weeks before their arrival the SS had changed its policy to exempt non-Jews from execution. Borowski became a hospital orderly at the camp, thus earning various minor privileges. Other duties took him into the women's area of the camp, where Borowski was able to see his fiancée. Toward the end of the war, Borowski and his fiancée were moved to another camp, Dachau, from which they were liberated by Allied forces in 1945. In 1946, now married, they returned to Warsaw, where Borowski began to publish volumes of short prose pieces based on his experiences during and after the war. In 1948, he became a Stalinist and staunch supporter of the Communist Party in Poland. He worked for the Secret Police and wrote pro-Communist propaganda pieces. The details of Borowski's death are ironic: having survived Auschwitz, Borowski, in July of 1951, committed suicide by turning on the gas oven in his apartment and asphyxiating himself.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Borowski's most widely celebrated short fiction is the volume This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories, which includes translations of his stories originally published in the late 1940s. This collection of short stories is based on Borowski's experiences in Auschwitz during World War II. His other major story collection is Pozegnanie z Maria (1948). Borowski's fiction is frequently categorized as literature of atrocity—works inspired by mass crimes against humanity committed during the twentieth century. More specifically, his stories are often discussed as Holocaust literature. Borowski's fiction is unique among works of Holocaust literature in its focus on daily life in the concentration camp, particularly through portrayal of the betrayals and persecutions the prisoners themselves employed to survive. Jan Kott, in an introduction to This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, quoted Borowski's charge to those survivors of Nazi concentration camps who would write of their experiences: “The first duty of Auschwitzers is to make clear just what a camp is. … But let them not forget that the reader will unfailingly ask: But how did it happen that you survived? … Tell, then, how you bought places in the hospital, easy posts, how you shoved the ‘Moslems’ [prisoners who had lost the will to live] into the oven, how you bought women, men, what you did in the barracks, unloading the transports … tell about the daily life of the camp. … But write that you, you were the ones who did this. That a portion of the sad fame of Auschwitz belongs to you as well.” Unlike other works of fiction to emerge from survivors of Nazi concentration camps, Borowski's stories lack any heroic martyrdom or redemptive morality, offering only a stark realism. Irving Howe, in the New Republic (1986), commented that in these stories, “Borowski writes in a cold, harsh, even coarse style, heavy with flaunted cynicism, and offering no reliefs of the heroic.” Howe added that Borowski's stand-in and central character throughout these stories, Kapo Taduesz, “works not only with but on behalf of the death system.” Andrzej Wirth, in Polish Review (1967), noted, “In the Auschwitz cycle [of Borowski's fiction] the narrators have certain features in common. In each case he is a victim collaborating in crime. Within the system of extermination he has found a comparatively comfortable position of a mediator between victims and their tormentors and plays this role with relish.” Borowski focused on the ways in which extremes of persecution can result in the corruption of the victims as much as the perpetrators. In one story, a Jewish woman at Auschwitz refuses to acknowledge her own child, as it walks behind her yelling, “Mama! Mama! … don't leave me!,” because she is afraid she will be killed if the SS guards see that she is a mother. While Borowski conveys the inhumanity of those who run the concentration camp, he is no less harsh in his depiction of the cruelty and betrayal that the inmates perpetrate upon each other. The protagonist in many of these stories is, much like Borowski himself, one of the camp inmates who manages to survive by securing for himself a post with which he assists in the functioning of the death camp, leaving the narrator passive in the face of mass murder. Borowski's prose details an inability of the individual to challenge the bloody reality of the camp, allowing a surreal mixture of normative leisure activities with grim slaughter. In “The People Who Walked On,” for example, the main character notes that, while he plays soccer in a field near the gas chambers, “right behind my back, 3,000 people had been put to death.”

Critical Reception

Mark Shechner, in the Nation (1976), described Borowski's prose as “some of the most lucid and powerful testimony we have about life in the house of death.” As John Thompson, in Commentary (1967), asserted, Borowski, in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, “tells the most horrible tales the human race has ever had to hear about itself since time began.” Neal Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books (1976), described Borowski as “the most astonishing young writer in Poland to emerge after the war.” Borowski's first short stories about his concentration camp experiences, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” and “A Day at Harmenz,” were published in Poland before he returned from Europe after being liberated. Kott asserted that these stories “produced quite a shock” to a Polish public that expected to read “martyrologies”; Borowski was thus “accused of amorality, decadence, and nihilism.” Kott added, however, that “at the same time it was clear to everyone that Polish literature had gained a dazzling new talent.”

Critics have often commented on the unique tone of Borowski's Auschwitz stories, noting that they convey the unspeakable horror and hopelessness of the concentration camp through a narrative voice which, on the surface, seems isolated and unmoved by the daily machinations of the Nazi death machine. As Kott commented, “The most terrifying thing in Borowski's stories is the icy detachment of the author.” Howe attributed the impact of these stories to Borowski's narrative voice, which conveys “his absolute refusal to strike any note of redemptive nobility.” Many commentators have observed that Borowski's unique narrative tone relays the burden of a survivor's responsibility to “bear witness” or “give testimony” in speaking for the many who did not survive the camps. Kott described the significance of Borowski's fiction as related to literature of atrocity as such: “Among the tens of thousands of pages written about the holocaust and the death camps, Borowski's slender book continues to occupy, for more than a quarter century now, a place apart. The book is one of the cruelest testimonies to what men did to men, and a pitiless verdict that anything can be done to a human being.”

Principal Works

Kamienny świat 1948

Pozegnanie z Maria 1948

*This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories 1967

Gdziekolwiek ziemia (poetry) 1942

Imiona nurtu (poetry) 1945

Poszukiwania [with K. Olszewski] (poetry) 1945

Byliśmy w Oświecimiu [with K. Olszewski and J. Nel Siedlecki] (history) 1946

Utwory zebrane 5 vols. (short stories, poetry, essays, and journalism) 1954

Selected Poems (poetry) 1990

*This collection contains translations of works from Kamienny świat and Pozegnanie z...

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Criticism

Andrzej Wirth (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “A Discovery of Tragedy: (The Incomplete Account of Tadeusz Borowski),” in Polish Review, Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 43-52.

[In the following essay, Wirth argues that Borowski's short stories of the Holocaust represent the invention of a new conception of tragedy in literature that is suitable for expressing the horrors of twentieth-century crimes against humanity.]

I

Wherever earth is a dream, There must we dream to the end.

—Borowski, “Dream Images”

Borowski was the son of a laborer and a seamstress. He was born in 1922 in Żytomierz in Soviet Ukraine. He and his family came to Poland...

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John Thompson (review date 1967)

SOURCE: “Stories about Terrible Things,” in Commentary, Vol. 44, No. 6, December, 1967, pp. 77-8.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson offers a favorable assessment of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.]

The Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski was twenty-one years old and had just published his first poems when the Germans put him in a concentration camp, in 1943. He survived Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote a series of stories about the German death camps which were widely acclaimed in Poland, and elsewhere in translation, and in 1951 he gassed himself. It is a marvel that a mind so delicately sensitive could be at the same time strong enough to refrain for eight...

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Elizabeth Pochoda (review date 1976)

SOURCE: A review of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, in New Republic, Vol. 174, No. 15, April 10, 1976, p. 31.

[In the following review, Pochoda discusses Borowski's narrative voice in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.]

Penguin has followed its publication of the Czech writers Vaculik and Kundera with two more volumes in its series, “Writers from the other Europe.” This time the writers are Poles who in their vast dissimilarities indicate the impressive reach of postwar Polish literature. Borowski's stories set in the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are direct enough to be mislabelled documentary while [Tadeusz] Konwicki's novel is...

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Neal Ascherson (review date 1976)

SOURCE: “Graves Everywhere,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 23, May 27, 1976, pp. 14-15.

[In the following excerpt, Ascherson offers a favorable assessment of Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.]

Tadeusz Borowski killed himself before he was thirty, the most astonishing young writer in Poland to emerge after the war. He seems to have killed himself for several possible reasons—a love affair and its guilt, political doubts perhaps, anxiety about his writing—but, like Konwicki's anonymous narrator, he also found it hard to live. Borowski had been in Auschwitz. His stories about the world of the death camps, published shortly after the war,...

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Mark Shechner (review date 1976)

SOURCE: “Survival Declined,” in Nation, Vol. 222, No. 24, June 19, 1976, pp. 760-61.

[In the following review, Shechner applauds Borowski's emotionally restrained narrative style and detached voice as appropriate to the author's task of “bearing witness” for those who did not survive the Holocaust.]

The most persistant activity of American Jews since the war has been their inexorable thrust into the heart of the American middle class and the adoption of such attitudes and habits as characterize a proper bourgeoisie. But the increased comforts they enjoy have not been proof against the recurrence of old nightmares or assurance that they might not awake one...

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Jan Kott (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Introduction to This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Penguin, 1976, pp. 11-26.

[In the following introductory essay, Kott discusses This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen in terms of Borowski's experiences in Poland and in Auschwitz.]

Tadeusz Borowski opened a gas valve on July 1, 1951. He was not yet thirty. Borowski's suicide was a shock that one can compare only to the suicide, twenty-one years before, of Vladimir Mayakowski. Borowski was the greatest hope of Polish literature among the generation of his contemporaries decimated by the war. He was also the greatest hope of the Communist party, as well as its apostle and inquisitor; many...

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Ivan Sanders (review date 1977)

SOURCE: “Human Dialogues Are Born,” in Nation, Vol. 224, No. 16, April 23, 1977, pp. 504-05.

[In the following excerpt, Sanders discusses This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen in the context of twentieth-century Eastern European “literature of atrocity.”]

The plight of the survivor has become a familiar theme in the literature of the holocaust. According to Terrence des Pres, the survivor “is the first of civilized men to live beyond the compulsions of culture; beyond a fear of death which can only be assuaged by insisting that life itself is worthless.” Much of what has come to be known as the “literature of atrocity” has been written by...

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Irving Howe (review date 1986)

SOURCE: “Writing and the Holocaust: How Literature Has (and Has Not) Met Its Greatest Challenge,” in New Republic, Vol. 195, No. 3745, October 27, 1986, pp. 27-39.

[In the following essay on Holocaust literature, Howe comments on the narration in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.]

Our subject resists the usual capacities of mind. We may read the Holocaust as the central event of this century; we may register the pain of its unhealed wounds; but finally we must acknowledge that it leaves us intellectually disarmed, staring helplessly at the reality or, if you prefer, the mystery of mass extermination. There is little likelihood of finding a rational...

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