Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Borowski's story ‘‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen'' first appeared in Poland the spring of 1946, little more than a year after the Nazis began evacuating Auschwitz's more than 50,000 prisoners (including Borowski). The story was included in the 1947 volume, We Were in Auschwitz, which collected short pieces by Borowski along with the works of fellow Poles Janusz Nel Siedlecki and Krystyn Olszewski. In their collective Preface, the authors explained that they hoped to talk ‘‘without subterfuge, openly'' about the horrors they saw in Auschwitz. Their publication was an early attempt to diminish the already developing legend of the concentration camp: that in this place of horror, heroism supplanted cowardice, and prisoners worked together for the good of their fellow sufferers.

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Two years later, Borowski's first collection, also titled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, was published in Poland, making Borowski one of the first writers to depict the harshness of the concentration camps. Borowski's earliest readers noticed what became one of the most unique features of his stories: that no one was the "victim" and no one was the "criminal.’’ Rather, the narrator in his stories is part of the concentration camp community, which shares in the collective guilt over the deaths of millions of Europeans. Immediately, Borowski drew criticism; the Catholic Church denounced his nihilism while the Polish Communist party condemned his work as decadent, Americanized, and amoral.

In 1967, an English translation of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was published, and American critics in numerous publications immediately responded favorably to Borowski's courageous message. George Eckstein of Dissent noted that the stories were ‘‘remarkable in the unsentimental, unflinching frankness with which they face the universal brutality.'' Rather than eliding over the prisoners' role in the deaths of millions of people, Borowski emphasizes their brutality and implied guilt because this was the "bitter essence of life in the Nazi concentration camp.’’

Daniel Stern of the New York Times Book Review reserved the highest of praise for Borowski, whom he compared to noted Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel. ‘‘Do not let the title of this short-story collection mislead you,’’ he admonished readers, cautioning them from believing the book to be ‘‘merely another of the reports from hell’’ that reached readers in the decades after the Holocaust. ‘‘It is a true work of art, full of brutality and pain ... [Borowski] paints a picture of the horror and madness that ruled the concentration camps, so brilliantly that the immediacy of the experience is almost too much to bear.'' Stern further singled out the title story as a "bitterly perfect portrayal of the 'politics' of camp life,’’ which requires prisoners to be pitted against other prisoners. Borowski's skill, wrote Stern, causes the reader to momentarily lose all "normal moral control'' and root for the narrator. He also lauded the scenes of Jews arriving at the camp as ‘‘impossible to forget.’’

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was reissued in 1976, as part of a series of literature from Eastern Europe. Again, it drew overwhelmingly favorable criticism. Even thirty years later, wrote A. Alvarez in The New York Times Book Review, Borowski's prose still had an ‘‘impact and power [that is] as unsettling now as it must have been then.’’

In addition to responding to Borowski's message, literary critics have responded to his style. Stern praised Borowski's ‘‘irony tempered with lyricism.'' Alvarez compared Borowski's prose, the ‘‘purity of style and language’’ to that of Ernest Hemingway's, ‘‘which remained even while expressing the...

(The entire section contains 910 words.)

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