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.
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.”
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.”