The Only Way to Stand It

‘Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories’
Children, adults, and elderly Jews undergoing the selection process on the Birkenau arrival platform (“The Auschwitz Album,” Yad Vashem/Ushmm)

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.”

Borowski’s Auschwitz stories are told, with disturbing directness, in the first person. The narrator—who both is and is not Borowski himself—makes a point of coming across as a cynical observer of camp existence. This cynicism proves an excellent narrative device: it allows him to see everything with detachment, impartiality, and even a sense of humor. One thing that strikes the reader of these stories is, odd as it may sound, their hilarity: there are jokes and witticisms and good cheer scattered everywhere. Nothing escapes the narrator’s biting humor, not even death—especially not death. At one point he finds himself “humming a popular tune called ‘The Crematory Tango.’” In the opening story, “Here in Our Auschwitz,” the narrator, along with other inmates, tongue firmly in cheek, takes pride in the place:

You people over there in your Birkenau don’t have the faintest notion what miracles of culture take place here, just a couple of kilometers from the chimneys. Picture it: they’re playing the overture to Tancred and something by Berlioz, and also some Finnish dances by a composer who has a lot of a’s in his name.

Borowski’s gallows humor is more than a laughing matter. It is a way of coping with the unspeakable—a survival strategy. His narrator spells it out: “Here in our Auschwitz we have to amuse ourselves as best we can. You think there’s another way to stand this?” When you find yourself cast in a cosmic farce, the only way to remain on your feet is to come up with a counter-laughter, and outlaugh the farceur. In a meaningless world, this may be the only way to find and hang onto some meaning. The narrator is keen to have the last laugh, even as the farce reaches its most damning depths.

 

Without metaphors or embellishment, and with the devastating precision of a born journalist, Borowski captures the camp experience in all its naked brutality.

“I have read many books about concentration camps,” Miłosz writes of Borowski’s account of his Auschwitz experience, “but not one of them is as terrifying as his stories because he never moralizes, he relates.” Borowski made his debut in 1942 as a poet, but after Auschwitz he found himself incapable of using poetry to convey the experience. Perhaps it seemed to him obscene to use hexameters to describe gas chambers, or to try to find a rhyme for “Zyklon.” Without metaphors or embellishment, and with the devastating precision of a born journalist, Borowski captures the camp experience in all its naked brutality.

In real life, the inmate Borowski cared for others, helped them when he could, showed sympathy and solidarity. But the world we see through his narrator’s eyes is devoid of any such feelings; here humanity is in perpetual war with itself, ready to do anything to survive. In “A Day at Harmenze,” an inmate named Beker distinguishes philosophically between mere hunger and “real hunger,” and volunteers a definition of the latter: “Hunger is real when one person looks at another as something to be eaten. I have already experienced such hunger.” This is the world Borowski tasked himself to describe and make intelligible.

As a Pole, Borowski’s narrator (like Borowski himself) was not meant for the gas chamber but for “auxiliary” work in the medical facilities, in construction, or in railway maintenance. That put him in a good position to observe the workings of the extermination factory. One day, along with other auxiliaries, he plays soccer on an improvised field, right next to the chimney. He is a goalie. He notices the trains coming in, people being unloaded and taken away. He keeps playing until he realizes what has just happened: “Behind my back, between one corner kick and the next, they had gassed three thousand people.” This is typical Borowski: pure, uninflected observation. No emotion interferes with the recording. And it’s this maddening impassivity that makes him such an excellent recording device. The death of three thousand people is not scandalous or dramatic. It is, in Borowski’s account, banal and casual, and that makes it all the more unsettling. Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories is a haunting, visceral, profoundly disturbing text. If reading it makes you feel sick, that’s precisely what Borowski wants.

When the narrator does allow himself to make an observation or draw a conclusion, he maintains the same steadiness of hand and iciness of voice: “Look at what an original world we are living in: how few people there are in Europe who have not killed a man! And how few people there are whom other people would not wish to murder!” At times his philosophical detachment allows him to contemplate a future world from which he is completely absent, but at whose construction he contributed with his pain. Borowski gives us a glimpse into a world where Hitler has won:

What will the world know about us if the Nazis are victorious? Gigantic edifices will arise, highways, factories, towering monuments. Our hands will be placed beneath every brick, the railroad ties and concrete slabs will be carried on our backs. They will slaughter our families, the sick, the old. They will slaughter the children. And no one will know about us. The poets, lawyers, philosophers, priests will drown our voices. They will create beauty, goodness, and truth. They will create religion.

In “The People Who Were Walking,” the narrator works on the roof of one of the camp’s buildings. Thanks to his position there, he can see the whole clockwork process of extermination:  

From the roofs there was a clear view of the burning pyres and the working crematoriums. A crowd would go inside, undress, then the SS men would quickly shut the windows, screwing them down tight. After a couple of minutes, not enough to coat a sheet of tar paper properly, they would open the windows and side doors and air the place out. The Sonderkommando would arrive and drag the corpses onto the pyre. And so it went from morning to night, beginning anew every day.

We have read so much about the Holocaust that our understanding of it has become somewhat blunted. We know so many details about the camps that we no longer grasp what a scene like this really means—we fail to see its enormity. Humans had always killed other humans; they had done so cruelly and savagely, but also clumsily, with deficient tools, poor organization, and high rates of failure. For all the perseverance of the past mass murderers, and despite their best efforts, some of their intended victims would always manage to escape. As this scene reveals, however, by the middle of the twentieth century we had made a science of mass murder and could finally destroy each other on a truly industrial scale, aided by a flawless bureaucracy. Once you were caught up in the extermination machine, the chances of escape were close to nil. That was considered progress, of a kind. Indeed, there was a sense in which the war itself, and the Holocaust that accompanied it, was an extension of the Enlightenment ambition of technical mastery. “Never in human history has a stronger hope existed in man,” observes the narrator, but “also never has it caused so much evil as in this war, and that is why we are perishing in the gas.” So much knowledge, so painfully gained, long centuries of scientific and technological progress—all of it at the service of barbarism.

When Borowski published his Auschwitz stories after the war, they were an instant classic. Almost overnight, he became the conscience of his generation. His accounts attracted a wide readership. It also attracted the attention of the Polish Communist Party, which was then cooking up its own brand of totalitarianism. Much as they liked Borowski’s anti-Nazi stories, they had serious reservations about his ideological pedigree. Borowski would take some handling, but eventually he fell in line. The newly installed Communist regime dealt with him in classic carrot-and-stick fashion: in 1949 they denounced him as “a decadent cosmopolitan beholden to Western literature,” and at the same time offered him a well-paid position as an apparatchik. The trick worked: Borowski went for the carrot. Remember the dangerous “mixture of arrogance and humility” that so impressed Miłosz when he met Borowski? In no time at all, Borowski was posted to Berlin as a press officer with the Polish embassy. His work there brought together journalism and espionage, with a strong flavor of political opportunism.

For good measure, Borowski issued stern self-criticism, denouncing his Auschwitz stories for giving unintentional support to fascism: “I wasn’t able to parse the camp in class terms; even as I experienced the camp, I did not really know what I was experiencing.... I had the ambition of showing the truth, but I ended up in an objective alliance with fascist ideology.” When Borowski returned from the camps, he must have thought he had left the absurd behind. Now he found he had carried it with him into postwar Poland. Apparently the absurd was wherever Borowski was.

Miłosz met Borowski for the last time in 1950. “The bashful poet had become a thorough homo politicus,” a “well-known propagandist,” and a hack writer. “Every week,” recalls Miłosz, “one of his malignant articles appeared in a government weekly.” By now, Borowski was no different from the narrator of his Auschwitz stories: opportunistic, cynical, ready to do anything to survive. But, ironically, he didn’t. Borowski may have become an opportunist, but he was no fool. He couldn’t help noticing, for example, that even as the regime was pouring favors on him, it started arresting and torturing his closest friends. When he tried to intervene, the regime ignored him. He must have realized that he was now in bed with thugs, and that awareness gradually poisoned him. No wonder that, as he was approaching his end, Borowski became obsessed with the suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), another poet who sang so much praise to the Communist regime that he eventually drowned in it.

Borowski was buried in a Warsaw military cemetery, with state honors and much fanfare. A band played “The Internationale.” The farce was now complete, and the last laughter was not his.

Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories
Tadeusz Borowski
Trans. by Madeline G. Levine
Yale University Press
$28 | 392 pp.

Published in the May 2022 issue: 

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities at Texas Tech University and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury).

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