This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen Summary

Tadeusz Borowski

Summary

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of short stories by Polish author Tadeusz Borowski, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp for two years. In 1944 to 1945, the Soviet Army was advancing on Poland, and the SS began transferring the remaining prisoners to other concentration camps and destroying the evidence of the mass killings at Auschwitz. Borowski was sent on a death march to Dachau concentration camp, where he was later liberated by the Americans.

“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”

“This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” opens with a description of the chaotic, crowded, and inhumane conditions at Auschwitz. The prisoners have just been deloused and are walking around naked. Tadek, the first-person narrator, returns to his bunkhouse, sits on the top bunk with some of the other prisoners, and eats the food he received in a package from Warsaw.

After the men have finished their snack, a messenger runs into the Block Elder’s shack and announces that a train has arrived and they can go to the station with the “Canada kommando.”

When the transport arrives, the prisoners cry out for water and air. As the prisoners are unloaded from the train, they ask to know what will happen to them, but Tadek says he does not speak Polish. After the prisoners have all gotten off the train, the SS officer tells the kommando to clean up the car.

The Canada kommando climb inside the car and carry out “squashed, trampled infants” as if they are chickens. The SS man tells them not to put the infants on the truck but to give them to the women.

The women do not want to take the infants, and Tadek “explodes” at a woman who will only take the infants after an SS man threatens to shoot her. Afterwards, Tadek turns to Henri, a French prisoner, and asks if they are good people. Tadek says that he feels no pity for the Jews going to the gas chamber, only anger. Henri responds that it is perfectly logical, and even healthy, for Tadek to take out his anger on someone weaker than him.

As they finish unloading the second train, an “enchanting” young blonde woman walks off of the train. She asks Tadek what is going to happen to her, and, when he does not answer, she says that she knows what is going to happen.

They clean out the second train, and Tadek vomits after a corpse’s fingers close around his own. He makes his way over to the metal rails, where he lies down and imagines being back in his bunk with the other prisoners who are not going to the gas tonight.

“A Day at Harmenz”

“A Day at Harmenz” is divided into seven sections that depict different scenes from a typical workday at Harmenz. Harmenz was a subcamp of Auschwitz where prisoners performed agricultural labor on an SS farm.

In the first section, Tadek sits in the shade of the chestnut trees, tightening the fishplates along the tracks. Mrs. Haneczka, a kind woman who lives at Harmenz, comes outside and offers Tadek some food, but Tadek refuses.

Becker, an old Jewish prisoner, tells Tadek that he is wrong to refuse food and should ask for more potatoes. Tadek says that he will be glad when Becker is taken to the gas because Becker killed his own people when he was a camp senior.

(The entire section is 1871 words.)

Introduction

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.

Overview

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...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)