Tadeusz Borowski

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(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 28,172 words.)