This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen Summary

Tadeusz Borowski


In his introduction to the English translation of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Jan Kott writes of Tadeusz Borowski's decision to render his Auschwitz stories in the first person: "The identification of the author with the narrator was the moral decision of a prisoner who had lived through Auschwitz—an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp." Indeed, in a review for another author's book about the concentration camps, Borowski stated, "It is impossible to write about Auschwitz impersonally." He defined as the "first duty of Auschwitzers ... to make clear just what camp is." It is where survival depended on a prisoner's taking part in the murder and degradation of their fellow victims. "But write that you, you were the ones who did this," Borowski intoned. "That a portion of the sad fame of Auschwitz belongs to you as well."

In the collection's title story, Borowski squarely fulfills his obligation. Seen through the eyes of a Polish gentile prisoner, as Borowski himself was, "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" describes a typical day at Auschwitz. The narrator joins in the task of unloading thousands of Jews from the cattle cars and sending them to their death in the gas chamber, all to acquire food and maybe a pair of shoes. Subject matter aside, Borowski's story is chilling and unforgettable in the success with which the narrator distances himself from his actions. As readers grow to understand that the narrator is forced to this extreme in order to continue to perform the work that guarantees his own existence, they become implicated themselves—they become part of the community of the concentration camp.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In his story “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Tadeusz Borowski describes in harsh detail, through the first-person narrator, the daily routines and horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The opening scene is a surreal picture of thousands of men and women, naked, waiting through the heat and boredom until another transport arrives to carry thousands of Jews to the gas chambers. Like the narrator’s friend Henri, many of the inmates are members of the Canada Kommando, the labor gangs who work at unloading the transports. Henri and the narrator are introduced as they discuss the transports while lying in their barracks, eating a simple snack of bread, onions, and tomatoes. The transports mean survival. As the guards look the other way, the laborers can “organize” food and clothing from the piles of personal possessions collected from the Jews on the way to their deaths. As Henri states, “All of us live on what they bring.”

The monotony is finally broken by the approach of a transport. For the first time, the narrator joins Henri as part of the labor gang heading to the station. The station is “like any other provincial railway stop” except that the regular freight here are those sentenced to the gas chambers. While the laborers wait, Henri barters with a guard for a bottle of water, on credit, to be paid for “by the people who have not yet arrived.” As the freight cars pull into the station, the desperate cries for water and air from the prisoners crammed into the cars are quickly silenced by the gunfire ordered by an officer annoyed by the disturbance.

Once the doors are opened, the prisoners surge toward the light like a “multicolored wave.” The Canada Kommando members work feverishly, taking bundles from the crowd, separating those destined for the labor gangs from those headed for the chambers, loading trucks marked as Red Cross with the dazed prisoners. In sharp contrast to the mayhem on the ramps, a Schutzstaffel (SS) officer, with calm precision, marks off the new serial numbers, “thousands, of course.”

A more odious task yet remains for the laborers as they are ordered to clean out the dead and dying from the cars. The narrator describes the trampled bodies of infants he carries out “like chickens.” He begins to be affected by the terrors. At first intensely tired, he slips into a confused and dreamlike state as he sees the scenes repeated over and over. His own feelings of helplessness and terror turn to disgust and hatred for the Jews themselves—for, as he tells Henri, he is there, acting so brutally, only because they are.

Just as the last cars leave, the tired laborers hear a whistle, and “terribly slowly” a new transport pulls in. The cycle of atrocities begins anew. Now the Kommandos are impatient and brutally rip the bundles from the prisoners and hurl them into trucks. The scenes of horror intensify as a mother tries to abandon her children in the hope of making the labor gangs (for all mothers and their children are gassed together). A couple locked in each other’s arms, “nails in flesh,” are pulled...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)