Last Updated on September 14, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen falls into the genre of Holocaust literature. In his collection of short stories, Borowski presents an alternative viewpoint on this atrocious historical event by narrating from the perspective of a privileged, non-Jewish prisoner. Like many works of Holocaust literature, Borowski’s short stories are inspired by his personal experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Borowski uses an understated, documentarian style of prose that allows the horrific images of camp life—such as prisoners scraping crushed infant skulls off of the floors of train cars, eating raw human brains, and watching three thousand people be put to death between two throw-ins at a prison soccer match—to speak for themselves.
Desensitization to Violence
The prisoners at Auschwitz witness and endure endless violence at camp. Even in seemingly mundane scenes of camp life, instances and threats of violence are always present. In “The People Who Walked On,” the prisoners play soccer as thousands of Jews march past them on their way to the gas chambers. Instead of reacting or feeling upset, Tadek and the other prisoners try to normalize the experience by refusing to humanize the people walking to the gas chambers. Borowski’s idea that all of the members of the concentration camp community held some responsibility for the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust was initially met with disdain. After the book’s first publication in Poland, the Communist Party criticized the book as amoral and Americanized, and the Catholic Church criticized Borowski’s nihilistic perspective.
Survival and Morality
In order to survive, Tadek becomes largely desensitized to the violence surrounding him and focuses on making it through the war alive in order to be reunited with his fiancé. But there are still moments when his humanity takes over, and these are the times when he becomes most vulnerable. When he sees a young blonde woman as an individual person rather than simply part of a mass of prisoners walking to their deaths, Tadek becomes unable to perform his job and puts his life in danger. When he gives Becker his bowl of soup, he angers his Kapo, who later reminds Tadek that he has the power to have him killed. Any act of kindness or humanity between prisoners that is witnessed by the guards is met with suspicion or, in some cases, death. At Harmenz, Andrei shows kindness to two Greek prisoners by trying to teach them to march. When the Unterscharfuhrer sees this, he tells Andrei to kill them, and Andrei must beat them to death with a stick.
These moments demonstrate how little our usual notions of morality meant at Auschwitz. The Unterscharfuhrer is the one who orders the deaths of the Greeks, but their blood is also on Andrei’s hands. Furthermore, if Andrei had not been kind to the Greeks, the Unterscharfuhrer would not have ordered their deaths. But, if Andrei had behaved morally and refused to kill the Greeks, the SS guard would have shot all three of them.
Prisoner apathy is touched on in all of Borowski’s stories and is a prevalent theme in Holocaust literature. Even though the prisoners greatly outnumber the guards, instances of revolt are relatively rare. In “The Death of Schillinger,” Borowski includes one of these exceptions, but in the rest of the stories, thousands of prisoners submit to the SS guards without resistance. Borowski attributes this to something innate about human nature, which he explores more in-depth in “The Man with the Package.” Even after the prisoners have been selected for the gas chambers, they cannot accept that they will actually be killed. When the Schreiber is selected for the gas chamber, he insists on bringing his package with him, even though he knows that the...
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