Tadeusz Borowski

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Tadeusz Borowski’s best short fiction was written within a period of only two to three years, and therefore it may seem futile to speak of his “development.” Virtually all the works in his two major collections reflect either directly or indirectly his experiences in Auschwitz and other camps; they are alike in expressing despair, a sense of being caught up in a world that has lost meaning, and a concern with what it means to continue living in such a world. Yet there are noteworthy differences between the earliest stories, which appeared in Bylimy w Owicimiu (we were in Auschwitz) and then along with others, in Poegnanie z Mari (farewell to Maria), as opposed to those in Kamienny wiat (world of stone). The first works are among his longest and tend to be episodic, relying for their effect on chronicling the events of a night, a day, or a few weeks. The latter works are shorter, more concentrated; they describe a single incident or situation, and they sometimes deal with later experiences: the liberation from the camps, or the immediate postwar period.

“Auschwitz, Our Home [A Letter]”

“U nas, w Auschwitzu” (“Auschwitz, Our Home [A Letter]”), which tellingly employs the German rather than the Polish (Owicim) spelling for the camp, is perhaps the most clearly autobiographical of the early stories. It takes the form of a letter, or perhaps a series of letters, about his training as a medical orderly, and includes, particularly toward the end, details about his arrest and his being sent to Auschwitz, which is often used as the single name for what was actually a complex of camps: Auschwitz, Birkenau; Harmenz. The crematoriums were at Birkenau; when the narrator is transferred from there to Auschwitz, life improves for him. The title hints at the bitter irony that underlies the story, for to those who know Birkenau, Auschwitz is indeed a home, a kind of idyll. Here, those in training are relatively well dressed; there are many smiles and even a wedding.

Typically for Borowski, the story contains events but no plot as such; it relies for its effect on the accumulation of observations and incidents. The narrator frequently uses his precamp experiences and values in his effort to analyze the camps, but more effective are his glimpses into the everyday reality that he witnesses. Early in the story, he describes what passes for a cultural center at the Auschwitz camp: It contains a music room, a library, and a museum. The piano, however, cannot be played during work hours, the library is always locked, and the museum contains only photographs confiscated from prisoners’ letters. Upstairs in this cultural center is a bordello, where female prisoners are kept for the pleasure of those in authority. The narrator then notes that women can also be found in the experimental section, where they may be operated on or are purposely infected. He later describes an incident in which several trucks pass by full of naked women; they scream to the men that they are being taken to the gas chambers and plead to be saved, but not a single person among the ten thousand or so looking on tries to help. The almost visceral effect of the story arises from the unexpected and almost casual intrusion of the horrors, the contrast between them and the ordinary life that seems only a step away, and perhaps worst of all the acceptance of this world on the part of all who are in it.

“Day at Harmenz”

In “Dzie na Hermenzach” (“Day at Harmenz”), Borowski takes his readers more directly into the brutality of camp life. At first glance the story simply seems to chronicle a day at a work site, with each incident providing another glimpse into the hunger, fear, and exhaustion that formed the lot of prisoners. The individual scenes are sufficiently memorable that it is easy to lose sight of Borowski’s artistry: He does not merely pile up a number of unrelated incidents but in fact creates a series of leitmotifs and gives the entire piece a sense of both...

(The entire section is 1,720 words.)