Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 35: Tadeusz Borowski
In Borowski's stories atrocity is piled upon atrocity, but it has been argued that the close identification of character with creator was a deliberate moral decision
Thursday 25 August 2011 12.55 BST
"I saw the death of a million people – literally, not metaphorically," wrote Polish poet and author Tadeusz Borowski in 1946, in a letter. Borowski was arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw in 1942, shortly after publishing his debut book of poetry. Following two years in Auschwitz, he had been liberated from the Dachau concentration camp by the US Seventh Army in the spring of 1945. He published another collection in 1945 before switching to short stories, which he abandoned after 1948 to write communist propaganda. He committed suicide in 1951, aged 28.
Relatively few in number, his stories occupy a unique position in Holocaust literature and in fiction generally. In Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust, Christopher Bigsby identifies him as a link between Kafka and Beckett. Borowski called his brutal stories "a voyage to the limit of a particular experience". That experience was daily life in Auschwitz as a kapo, a non-Jewish inmate who works, schemes and exploits to survive amid daily slaughter.
In "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen", Borowski's narrator Tadek describes a day working on the ramp, unloading transports of Jews and directing them on to trucks that take them to the nearby gas chambers. The work is hard – barely is one transport emptied before another arrives – but the job is a choice one: while money and other valuables are Reich property, food and clothing can be claimed by those working on the ramp. These are key items for survival.
This state of affairs makes Tadek and his fellow prisoners complicit in the camp's murderous purpose, a fact the stories repeatedly acknowledge. At the end of "This Way for the Gas", Tadek remarks: "Suddenly I see the camp as a haven of peace. It is true, others may be dying, but one is somehow still alive, one has enough food, enough strength to work." His readers' tendency to see Tadek as Borowski (Tadek is the diminutive of Tadeusz) annoyed the author, but the Polish critic Jan Kott asserts that the close identification of character with creator was a deliberate moral decision on Borowski's part, "an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp." In his book on artists under communism, The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz identifies one of the exceptional elements of Borowski's stories: "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 Borowski's stories atrocity is piled upon atrocity, in frank, dispassionate prose: "They were undressed and Oberscharführer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into a flaming trench." Tadek clears "squashed, trampled infants" out of the emptied train carriages "like chickens, holding several in each hand". People are dehumanised: Jews flow between train carriage and gas chamber "like water from an open tap"; "Around us sit the Greeks, their jaws working greedily like huge human insects"; "From afar the women were faceless and ageless. Nothing more than white blotches …"
Yet Tadek is repeatedly confronted with the humanity of these "insects", these "blotches". "These women," he later notes, "were not so much alike as it had seemed when we looked at them from another sector." But apprehensions like this, threatening the cynicism with which Tadek seems to defend himself, don't lead to any transformative epiphany. Having recognised the humanity of the victims he remains powerless, and possibly even unwilling, to prevent their deaths. Indeed, he continues to help operate the mechanism that murders them.
Certain errors are common to readings of Borowski; one, committed even by such attentive readers as Neal Ascherson and Tony Judt, is to describe his stories as memoirs. In her survey of Holocaust literature, A Thousand Darknesses, Ruth Franklin argues that "to consider any text 'pure testimony', completely free from aestheticizing influences and narrative conventions, is naïve." This is especially true in Borowski's case, and not only because the testimony of his fellow inmates suggests he was quite different from his conniving, often cruel narrators. His stripped back style, although not as extreme as that of Hemingway, whom he read avidly, is crafted just as sedulously. His metaphors reflect the reality of the camp, as with "the empty pavement that glistened like a wet leather strap", and equal care is applied to structure. "A Day at Harmenz" describes a "normal" day at the camp. Amid details of backbreaking labour, random violence and arbitrary executions, it can go almost unnoticed that Tadek faces death on three separate occasions, each threat arising suddenly and requiring a different tactic to evade it. This lethal picaresque ends with him giving food to a Jew who is going to the gas chamber later that day. The unexpected act of charity is complex – it even seems a perversion of some kind, so distorted is the environment in which it occurs – but Borowski withholds the commentary a memoirist would supply.
Another error concerns morality. Al Alvarez describes the atmosphere of Borowski's stories as "a kind of moral silence, like the pause which follows a scream". It's a memorable description, but misrepresentative. Borowski's despair itself is moral. As Miłosz writes, he is "a nihilist in his stories, but by that I do not mean that he is amoral. On the contrary, his nihilism results from an ethical position, from disappointed love of the world and of humanity." If his cold prose belies this it's because, as his narrator muses in "The People Who Walked On", a "man has only a limited number of ways in which he can express strong emotions or violent passions. He uses the same gestures as when what he feels is only petty and unimportant. He utters the same ordinary words."
Borowski's distrust of his stories' ability to convey what he wanted, coupled with his inability to escape Auschwitz as a subject, left him in an impossible artistic position. His work had already been denounced in Poland, and when the Polish Writers' Association officially espoused socialist realism in 1949 there remained no place in fiction for his astringency. He produced reams of boilerplate propaganda, but private comments suggest his faith in Stalinism had eroded completely by the time of his suicide. The precise reasons for his death are uncertain, as are many other details regarding this troubling witness to the Holocaust, but the dreadful power of his stories remains undiminished.
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger