Massacre and genocide have been on the scroll of human history since cracked skulls left their sure signs, then in cave paintings, incised clay and fine Roman script. It was Carthage that was razed to the ground, its people’s massacred or enslaved and its fields sown with salt six generations before Christ. The great ravagings of the Khans across their western world, into Baghdad (1258) and beyond have perhaps no equal. Colonization destroyed whole peoples. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that atrocities were planned and executed, methodically and coolly as a central aim of war, by a people thought by much of the world to be the definition of civilization.
We may protest against reading such history, or the indecent particulars of human cruelty. The mind has evolved to let memory and painful knowledge diminish to keep surviving the days that come. There are times, however, when painful knowledge, rescued, may work to prevent future pain. With the red and black flags of one of the worst holocausts of human history now snapping over torchlight parades in American cities, and hate-filled language finding its way into popular consciousness, it is more urgent than usual to make the effort to read and know deeply to what those beliefs once led.
The record of those particular atrocities is full, and still growing, in statistics, memorials, histories, memoirs novels and films. There can’t be a literate person in the world unaware, at some level, of what happened from 1933 to 1945 in Germany and the lands it controlled, though memory, as always, is selective. And much has slipped away.
Some six million Jews, largely from Poland (3 million,) the Ukraine (1 million) Hungary & Romania (750 thousand) were exterminated; in western Europe — France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Germany/Austria — 455 thousand. As many, or more, “others,” were also murdered: Poles of every faith, Slavs of many countries, Ukrainians, communists, socialists, Roma, the “unfit,” Some were shot in the hundreds and buried in vast pits. Some were sent straight to the gas chambers. Many were first sent to work camps, kept on starvation diets until they died or were sent off to the gas — knowing full well what was in store. The numbers run from 6 million to as high as 17 million more deaths.
Young men and women marching proudly under the Nazi flag in America, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, calling for racial purity and assault on “strangers” are contemptuously unaware of the deaths of millions of non-Jews, perhaps their own forebears, by the masters of race murder. Race-war does not confine itself to those you hate. Friends and neighbors become “other.” The man you once stood next to informs on you and you excuse his murder.
One of those “other” men, a Polish, Catholic, student and poet, Tadeus Borowski, survived two years in Auschwitz and Dachau to write some of the most damning lines about the camps ever written. Some of his most shocking stories, both highly regarded and strongly condemned, are available in English translation by Michael Kandel, 1967. Titled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen they placed him, as a writer and witness, with Eli Wiesel and Primo Levi, though unlike them, he wrote as both victim and executioner. Fellow Pole, Czesław Miłosz says, “In the abundant literature of atrocity of the 20th century, one rarely finds an account written from the point of view of an accessory to the crime.”
In three stories the narrator is a young Polish prisoner by the name of Tadek, a common nickname for Tadeusz. He is a low status Kapo, the top ranks of which were predominantly Polish criminals. Subordinate to the SS they were the middle managers of the camps, trading their acquiescence and work for survival.
In the title story “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Tadek is assigned, along with other favored prisoners, to meet the incoming trains, packed with suffering humanity. Designated the “Canada Kommando,” they wait as the doors slide open, assuring everyone that for health and order all goods and clothing must be left on the ramps. They have learned to use confident, comforting language.
The bolts crack, the doors fall open. People … so monstrously squeezed together, they have fainted from heat, suffocated, crushed one another. Now they push towards the opened doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand.
“Sir, What’s going to happen to us?” They jump from the train to the gravel, anxious, worn out.
“Where are you people from?”
“Sosnoweic-Bedzin. Sir, what’s going to happen to us?” They repeat the question stubbornly, gazing into our tired eyes.
“I don’t know, I don’t speak Polish.”
It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. This is the only permissible form of charity.
The prisoners are guided into two lines, women and children, ill and crippled go to one side for immediate gassing. Able bodied men are lined up to go to work camp. The “Canadas” keep anything not gold or money, which is turned over to watchful SS officers for use by the State.
“We proceed to load the loot. We lift huge trunks, heave them onto the trucks. … One of the crates falls open : suits, shirts, books drop out on the ground …weighed down under a load of bread, marmalade and sugar, and smelling of perfume and fresh linen, [we] line up to go.”
Why did Borowitz use a variation on his own name for a man who his readers would judge as abominable? How could he write so coldly, with apparent indifference?
After the newly arrived prisoners are out of the cars, a “thin pock-marked SS man” gestures the Canadas to go in and clean up.
“We climb inside. In the corners among the human excrement and abandoned wrist-watches lie squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand.
And there is worse, some of it all but unreadable. A Jewish man who had his own son hung at another camp, for stealing bread.; a helpless prisoner viciously kicked by others on his work-gang; hungry Greeks who eat, “their jaws working greedily, like huge human insects,” When another prisoner is struck across the face by an SS guard, Tadek “chokes with laughter.”
An old man in a long line of prisoners pulls his pants down and squats alongside the road.
“An SS man [with a kindly smile] calls to him and points to the people disappearing around the bend. The little old man nods quickly , pulls up his trousers and, wobbling in a funny way, runs at a trot to catch up.
You snicker, amused at the sight of a man in such a big hurry to get to the gas chamber.”
Why implicate oneself? Why distract from the most culpable, those who conceived and organized the system of murder? It was “a moral choice” says Jan Kott, a fellow Pole, “an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp.” Without cooperation at many levels, the camps would not have functioned as they did. “A man will do anything, anything, to stay alive.” And as we read we begin to see that what at first seems indifference conceals irony, contrast and sarcasm, sometimes grotesque — as if he must write what he knows but cannot yet fully admit that he knows it. Indeed, five years after his release from a Displaced Persons camp, and attempted return to normalcy, he committed suicide, in his own grotesque irony, by gassing himself at the kitchen stove.
It is for this portrayal of responsibility for which the stories, when they were first published, were condemned, by the Polish Catholic Church on one hand, and by the Communist Party — of which Borowski later became a member– on the other, as being “nihilistic, amoral and decadent.”
The longest story at 44 pages, “Auschwitz, Our Home “ is a re-writing of letters he wrote to his sweetheart in another prison camp. Being Poles, but not Jews, they were allowed to write and receive letters, indeed, to receive food and other small items from their families. In many paragraphs, you might think he was writing from a summer resort, not a death camp. Then the odd phase slips out.
They are “lucky” he tells her, because three weeks earlier the gassing of non-Jews had ceased.
Or here, as one of the “bigwigs” in the camp is dying.
“Wouldn’t you say I was fairly well known at the camp, eh?” he asked, looking anxiously into my eyes.
“There isn’t one man around who wouldn’t know you …and always remember you,” I answered innocently.
“Look over there,” he said pointing at the window.
Tall flames were shooting up in the sky beyond the forest.
“Well, you see. I want to be put away separately. Not with all the others. Not on a heap, you understand.”
The shortest story “A Visit,” is 2 pages. The narrator is out of the camps, trying to write. Who will he visit tonight, “the half naked man drenched in sweat who fell on the loading ramp out of the cattle car in which no air was left,” or the emaciated people, no longer able to work, being taken to the gas chamber?
As brutal as Eli Weisel’s memory, in Night, of fathers being deserted by their sons, Borowski finds even worse. Not only does he tell us of suffering, he tells us that he closes his eyes to the suffering of others. He laughs. He eats well, from food brought by those walking into the gas. At times, he says, “life is not so bad.” And the telling of it impacts us more by its bluntness and coldness.
Though both Weisel and Borowitz were writers, not merely memoirists, using literary devices, placing and arranging, and crafting striking metaphors ( “…the empty pavement … glistened like a wet leather strap”) Borowski’s work went through less shaping. Several of the included stories were written within months of his release, and saw little further editing. Night, on the contrary, 110 pages in the English translation, has been reduced from the original 862 pages in Yiddish,. Major cuts were made with the help of Franciois Mauriac for the French edition, softening and stylizing for the French audience.
Ruth Franklin in her important book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction says
“If Eli Wiesel was the great mystic of the Holocaust and Primo Levi was its great analyst, Borowski was its angry young man, a pent up vessel of pressurized fury that finally could do nothing but explode.”
Though not as widely read as the other two he comes highly recommended. Imre Kertész, while receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002 said that all his works were written because of his own fascination with Borowski’s prose. In a world heating towards similar fires, it seems a good time to pick up This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and be reminded — what other-hate brings, and how so many become complicit.