On the evening of July 1, 1951, a twenty-eight-year-old writer turned on the gas in his Warsaw apartment, took an overdose of barbiturates, and lay down to sleep. This was his third suicide attempt, and the one that would eventually succeed: he died in hospital two days later. His life had been brief, but more eventful than most. He had spent over two years in Nazi concentration camps (at Auschwitz, Dautmergen, and Dachau-Allach), and not only did he live to tell the tale, but his accounts made history. They shaped the way subsequent generations would see and talk about the camps. That the chronicler of life in the proximity of gas chambers chose to gas himself to death was bound to be read as a meaningful gesture; his suicide would be related to what psychologists call “secondary guilt syndrome,” and discussed along with the suicides of other camp survivors, such as Primo Levy and Jean Améry. The case of Tadeusz Borowski (1922–1951), however, is more complicated.
In fact, as Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories testifies, nothing was simple with Borowski. Both the historian Timothy Snyder, who wrote the foreword, and the translator Madeline G. Levine, who also wrote the introduction, do an excellent job of recreating the complex context—political, social, cultural, and intellectual—in which Borowski wrote and lived and died. And so does Czeslaw Miłosz in The Captive Mind (1953), where Borowski features, memorably, as “Beta.” Miłosz’s portrait of Borowski is as insightful as it is haunting. When they first met in 1942, Miłosz realized that he had “a real poet” in front of him. He was also struck by Borowski’s curious “mixture of arrogance and humility.” Writes Miłosz: “In conversation he seemed inwardly convinced of his own superiority; he attacked ferociously yet retreated immediately, bashfully hiding his claws.” This highly explosive mixture not only defined Borowski’s life but may also have had something to do with the manner of his death.
If any one thing defines the twentieth century politically, it must be the emergence of the totalitarian state: born almost fully grown, like an ancient goddess, exquisitely equipped and frighteningly efficient. And nothing captures the essence of totalitarianism better than the concentration camp. In this respect, as in others, Borowski was the child of his century: camps are everywhere in his life and writing. Concentration camps were “a kind of family regularity,” observes Snyder in the foreword. Long before their son was interned in Hitler’s camps, Borowski’s parents spent a combined ten years in Stalin’s. Even before Borowski experienced the camps personally, his poetry tended to see the whole world as an immense labor camp, in which we slave ourselves to death without relief or discernible purpose. To come into this world only to find yourself a camp inmate must have appeared to him a farce of cosmic proportions: “There will remain after us only scrap-iron and the hollow, jeering laughter of generations.”