Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death
There are many haunting words in Tadeusz Borowski set of short stories which provide a personal account of his life in a Nazi (I cannot call them German as such places do not represent the German people I have ever met) concentration camp however the quotation at the top of this review for me was one of the most horrific purely because the day before I had sat in the Stade de France watching my team lose the Champions League Final and to be honest I felt pretty down so everything was bought into sharp context as I sat in the beautiful Jardin Du Luxembourg and read this particular passage.
To understand fully the impact of this particular book and its relevance as an account of life in a concentration camp it is important to know a little bit about the author.
Tadeusz Borowski was born in the Ukraine in 1922; his Polish father was taken to a Soviet Labour Camp as was his mother before the family was reunited in Poland. Borowski was captured during the war by the Gestapo while visiting a flat in search of his missing girlfriend who had been captured a day or so earlier at the same apartment and he spent the remainder of the war in both Auschwitz and Dachau.
After surviving life in the camps there is a certain irony that a few years after the end of the war in 1951 he would take his life by turning on the gas in his own kitchen after all those years spent avoiding the Nazi gas chambers.
A more complete account of Borowski life I provided in the introduction written by Jan Kott a fellow countryman. Normally I do not always read the introduction but with this particular book it certainly add value and whilst it does not specifically give the reasons why Borowski ended up taking his own life once you have read the book and understand the horrendous things that Borowski saw in his short life then it is not a great leap of understanding to see why he might especially given the fact that he found himself living back under Soviet control again.
Each of the stories in this book are quite short and are written in the first person with many of them actually letters that he wrote to his girlfriend.
The opening story from which the book gets its title is probably the most disturbing of all the stories as it charts the day that Borowski worked on one of the teams charged with unloading the transports of people destined for the gas chambers. Throughout the whole experience there is a sense of polite acceptance of those people who right up to the end believe that they are going for a communal bath after their journey whilst the whole time their belongings right down to the gold in their teeth is being recorded ready for shipment back to Berlin. Even the prisoners working with Borowski believe themselves to be fortunate as they are able to keep the food that the new prisoners bring with them and it is these transports that keep the rest of the camp alive with the food and clothes they are able to organize for themselves.
Whilst the scale of the killings is upsetting in itself the real horror in this book is the way that every day life is portrayed. Borowski has a wonderfully descriptive style of writing that brings to life his surroundings and the desperation of the inmates to cling onto life at whatever the cost. What is just as chilling is the stark fact that without the complicit compliance of the inmates the camps could not have operated on the scale that they did. It was the inmates that fulfilled many of the jobs in the camp whilst at the same time there was an organized orchestra which would arrange recitals in the evenings alongside poetry readings and plays. There was even a football pitch set up by the inmates past which new arrivals filed past on the way to the gas chamber.
Towards the end of the book the last couple of stories deal with the arrival of the Americans and the fact that rather than being automatically released the inmates are forced to stay in the camp while decisions are made about what to do with them. I found this sections quite interesting as it was a side to the whole war that I had not come across before, we tend to learn about the events in the camps in terms of numbers of human loss and not in what happened to those who survived who had no recognizable country to return to.
This is an excellent account of life in a concentration camp, it is harrowing at times however despite the bleak subject matter there are some wonderful descriptive passages and a certain dark gallows humour in places. Borowski was obviously a talented writer and although this is a translation the quality shines through and indeed in places there is an explanation of what a word means when no alternative English word exists.
I found this book to be very informative and an excellent read and certainly helped focus my mind on the fact that the events of Wednesday night were just a game.
The book will not answer all of your questions, indeed the reason for Borowski taking his own life is one that he took to the grave but certainly it has helped to ignite an interest in me to read more on the subject.
Published by Penguin Classics the rrp is £7.99 although you can buy it new from Amazon for £7.19 or from £3.98 in the new and used section.
The ISBN is 0-14-018624-7.
Thanks for reading and rating my review. Also thanks to the first reviewer of this book Maghda without whom I would never have discovered it.
This is a collection of 12 stories, set in a concentration camp; which in my opinion constitutes one of the most relevant and consistent - artistically and philosophically - accounts of the Nazi extermination machine. I have decided not to summarise or describe any of the stories or settings, but it is all there - the wire, the guards, the lice, the disease; beatings, starvation, slave labour, gas chambers and ovens; and the deaths, deaths, deaths, and more deaths; of thousands, of millions, happening behind the characters' backs, in front of their eyes, between one corner shot and another during the football match played by the ones who have been spared for now. This is how it is: throughout most of the stories, the daily routines of survival are happening in the shadow of the crematorium chimney; football played by those whose work consist of stacking the ovens with dead bodies.
Borowski arrived at Auschwitz as a "political" prisoner when the policy on extermination changed - three weeks earlier "Aryans" had stopped being sent to the gas chambers - except for special cases. From then on only Jews were gassed en masse. He was lucky, lucky in the fact that he had a chance to survive denied to those destined to die simply because of the accident of birth. This is important as it places Borowski's stories in a slightly different point of view to the strictly Holocaust-centred one.
The stories were published just after the war - written by a young man, really almost a boy of 24 years old. The trauma must have taken its toll, as after the war he first wholeheartedly supported the new communist government and then committed suicides in 1951, most probably disillusioned with the only thing that he perceived as the antidote to the evil of Nazism.
WW2 brought on a failure of great systems. The era of the ovens - the industrialisation of evil, the "banalisation of evil" mentioned by the philosophers - demanded a different language, a different kind of art: if art was at all possible. Screaming does not help, it is somehow too trivial in the face of extermination of millions. But the survivors had to bear witness. Borowski found an artistically compelling solution in his choice of the point of view and in the style he employs to speak about the unspeakable.
Psychological analysis is hopeless in the face of the reality of genocide. Thus, the shocking subject is described by a strictly behavioural narration, introspection is almost non-existent. This achieves an effect of immense alienation as unimaginable crimes are described as if they were something normal.
From Borowski's point of view, a description of individual tragedy is impossible in the face of the reality of genocide (although there were artists that concentrated on just that).
The greatest achievement of the author lies perhaps in his choice of the narrator. In the person of "Tadek" - one of the experienced, well-adjusted, completely institutionalised inmates - Borowski found a vantage point for his account. His narrator is a victim collaborating in crime; immunised against the evil that surrounds him; able to find a relatively comfortable situation. His tone is one of cynicism and moral indifference; he views the murdered people and the ones dying of starvation from a distance, without compassion, with scorn even.
Borowski gave the narrator his own name and biography, in what surely is an act of solidarity with the "guilty survivors" (his real behaviour in the camp was very different). The actual dissociation between the author/writer and the narrator of the stories is complete but the voice is so compelling, so realistic, so TRUE that it can throw the reader; the narrator can be (and often was by inexperienced readers) too easily identified with the author.
Staying in the camp makes one forget. The student, the poet becomes just another assistant Kapo. Memories are banned if not repressed. Reflection is forbidden as harmful to survival. Only the present counts. Only where the next piece of bread, tin of condensed milk, cigarette come from counts. The narrator slides into this survival mode, slowly becomes one of the potential winners, potential survivors. He cheats, steals and works his way up in the camp world with one and only one aim - to survive. The moral rules are broken every day and the only way to survive is to accept that and ultimately broke them yourself. But the dying victims the narrator observes are not heroic either and there is nothing special about them. They could be anybody - they represent no values, except for being human, but being human doesn't count for much in the "world of stone". The murder is also inhuman, there is nothing special about the murderers either. They could be anybody - even you, even me.
The whole collection is ultimately much more than a discussion or an account of the camps, the Nazis and the Holocaust. It touches on fundamental issues of morality and concepts of good an evil in extreme circumstance, in a criminal system that treated man as an object, and removed from him the possibility of being human.
Borowski's moral message is catastrophic: there is no innocents, there is no heroes. Biological survival is what matters most and in the name of that all moral values will be rejected. The biology is, however, forgiven. Yes, animals - and human animals too - want to live. That is only natural. The prisoners are stripped of civilisation, but ultimately, it is the civilisation that is the great accused of Borowski's stories. A death camp is not a creation of human animal, of nature red in tooth and claw, however bad it might be.
There is one story: "Auschwitz, Our Home", located in the middle of the collection that should have been perhaps placed at the beginning. In this one - taking the form of letters written by the narrator to his fiancée, incarcerated in the female section of the camp - the author really identifies with the narrator, and offers a comment and judgement. There is still a connection to the outside world, the narrator is not totally institutionalised in the camp, and he reflects on what is happening and what it means. If you read this book, start with this story, it will be extremely helpful for understanding Borowski's perspective and for understanding his characters and artistic method used in the other stories.
"'You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realise he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads.... We were filthy and died real deaths.... What does ancient history say about us?... We rave over the extermination of the Etruscans, the destruction of Carthage, over treason, deceit, plunder. Roman law! Yes, today too there is a law!."
The camp is thus the creation of the civilised world and the whole world is a concentration camp - it is, it was and it will be.
His was an account of years and places in which history shows its destructiveness with overwhelming strength. Using the words of one of his pre-camp poems: "We'll leave behind us iron scrap / and the hollow, mocking laugh of generations." The book is one of the cruellest of testimonies of the "fate which man has prepared for man" in the twentieth century; but it is more than that.
The current and in my opinion, permanent value of Borowski's work goes beyond bearing witness and beyond commenting, it goes beyond the particular of the camps and the gas chambers. It questions the nature of civilisation that allowed, no, that actually created the ovens of Auschwitz.
"History is a sequence of Auschwitzes, one following the other." This is an extreme view, but one perhaps worth contemplating.
In the final analysis I want to believe that it is a historical rather than universal account, that the madness of 20th century totalitarianisms was a qualitatively different; that Auschwitz and Parthenon are not expressions of the same. That there is a difference, however cynical it might sound, between collateral damage of civilisation building a temple versus the purposeful insanity of destruction: Hitler continued to exterminate the Jews even when it would have been economically more viable to us them as slave labour, even when his Reich was crumbling and he could not really afford to continue.
I also want to believe that there is individual hope: and that belief is corroborated by knowledge of acts of extraordinary defiance and courageous humanity in the camps. We know of people giving their life for others chosen to die the most horrific of slow deaths. We know, in fact, that Borowski himself did not became institutionalised - during his stay in the camps he continued to write poetry and was a part of the underground movement.
Read this book if you have a chance. It is no pleasure and the fact that it is a fictional account does not take any of the horror out, in a way makes the vision more compelling. It asks questions that are still important now and should keep being asked as only remembering the horror and asking the questions again and again gives us a slight hope of refuting Borowski's conclusion.
The book was published by Penguin and is available on Amazon for £6.39.
The link that allows you to read part of the title story: