The tragically short life of Tadeusz Borowski was intertwined with the totalitarian systems that ruled Eastern Europe for much of the twentieth century. He was born in hitomir, a city that had been part of Poland (and known as ytomierz) until 1793, but that remained within the Ukrainian Republic when the boundaries of a new Poland were drawn after World War I. First Borowski’s father and then his mother were arrested and sent off to distant parts of Russia while he was still a child; for some time, he was reared by an aunt. In 1932, as part of a prisoner exchange, the father was released to Poland; he arranged to have Tadeusz and his older brother brought out, and the mother rejoined the family in 1934.
Tadeusz then attended a Franciscan boarding school and completed his secondary education in Warsaw. By then, it was already May of 1940; the Nazis had occupied the city, and Poles had been forbidden to continue their education beyond elementary school. Borowski was graduated from one of the secret schools that had sprung up around the city, a period that he described in his memoir Matura na Targowej (1947; Exams on Targowa, 1960). He then entered the underground Warsaw University, where he studied Polish language and literature while supporting himself by working as a night watchman at a building firm. He became associated with other promising young writers, many of whom, like Borowski, made their literary debuts with illegal mimeographed publications; unlike most of the others, he was to survive the war. His first volume of poetry, Gdziekolwiek ziemia (wherever the earth), appeared in 1942, in an edition of 165 mimeographed copies. Meanwhile, he had also fallen in love with a young woman named Maria Rundo, who was subsequently arrested by the Gestapo. In February, 1943, while searching for her, Borowski fell into a trap set by the authorities and was himself arrested.
Borowski was sent to prison and from there to Auschwitz, where he learned that Rundo was being held in the women’s zone. He survived illness and a variety of jobs at the camp; during one interval, he had the relatively good fortune to work as a hospital orderly and assisted Rundo by having medicine sent to her. When Auschwitz was being evacuated by the Germans in August of 1944 as Soviet troops advanced through Poland, he was sent to camps within Germany proper and was finally liberated from Dachau by American forces in May, 1945. He remained in Germany about a year, looking for his lost Maria, who had ended up in Sweden. As an unknown Polish writer, Borowski had no prospects in Germany, and that consideration, as much as any other, may have inspired his decision to return to Poland, where he was reunited with Maria Rundo.
While in Munich, Borowski had published a second volume of verse, Imiona nurtu (1945; the names of the current), and had written his most powerful stories about Auschwitz; these appeared in a book, Bylimy w Owicimiu (1946; we were in Auschwitz), written jointly with two other survivors, and later formed the core of his first collection, Poegnanie z Mari (farewell to Maria), published in 1948. That same year witnessed the publication of his second collection, Kamienny wiat (world of stone). His reputation as a prose writer rests largely on only these two collections, parts of which were combined to form the one English collection of his stories, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories. His other collections consist largely of feuilletons and memoirs, which in form and manner resemble his short fiction but are perhaps best categorized as journalism.
Borowski’s activities during the final years of his life are not easy to comprehend. He gradually abandoned his promising literary career in order to write increasingly strident and barbed attacks on Western culture; from literature, he passed into political journalism. The change apparently did not occur only from external pressure but from some inner need as well: He had come to believe that...
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