It is difficult, with a moat of sixty years and an intellectual barricade of countless other World War II and Holocaust-related reading, to adequatelyIt is difficult, with a moat of sixty years and an intellectual barricade of countless other World War II and Holocaust-related reading, to adequately begin to review this collection of short stories from Tadeusz Borowski. Falling back into the same reiteration of virtually all Holocaust/post-war writings is almost too easy: "This book serves as a reminder of the atrocities of war ...", "this book demonstrates how terrible man can be..." etc, etc, ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. The sorts of blanket recognitions and statements about Holocaust writing do not, in general, do either post-war mentalities, nor the atrocities of the event, justice: they provide an automated recognition of the war, but without truly instigating thought, consideration, and insight of what actually happened.
In many respects, This Way for the Gas ... establishes itself as a remarkably unique piece of post-war Holocaust writing. While Borowski himself was a kapo in Auschwitz, his experience there was vastly different from many others who passed through the camp. His lifestyle was comparatively luxuriant: he was afforded packages from home, 'organised' (stolen) goods from around the camp, and generally held a position of relatively power over the fellow inmates. Because he was a Pole (rather than a Jew or a Russian), Borowski possessed a substantial advantage over many of the most barbaric treatments at Auschwitz. Additionally, being selected as a kapo forced his participation in many of the very atrocities ocurring at Auschwitz: Borowski was likely feared and despised by many of the inmates under him in the camp's hierarchy.
The writing is terse, resigned, and strikingly detached. Concurrently with This Way for the Gas ..., I was reading 'Auschwitz' (by L. Rees). In this latter book, Rees stipulates that how many concentration camp workers managed to survive, despite the crushing mental and physical burdens, was in effectively detaching oneself from the surroundings. The behavior of detaching oneself from ones' environment is exemplified throughout 'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.' Borowski himself creates a mental barricade between himself and his surroundings; in one scene he discusses playing keeper during a football game with other inmates. Between one out-of-bounds and a second, he sees a trainload (approximately five thousand) of people sorted, selected, and gassed only a few hundred meters from where he is playing.
The frankness (and, to us, callousness - though at the time, such responses were likely appropriate and acceptable given the circumstance) of the prose makes Borowski's works difficult to read. Inevitably, there is the comparison to Wiesel's 'Night' (another magnificent piece of writing), but the similarities, outside of being narratives of concentration camp survivors, are few. While Wiesel's writing is humane, gutwrenching, and almost impossibly difficult to read, Borowski's is so lacking of humanity, warmth, and compassion that it's nearly more difficult to read than Wiesel's writing. Borowski doesn't seem to be completely devoid of humanity, but the demonstrated acceptance of the conditions around him do not provide as distinct a demarcation as Wiesel's writings: inmates are not consistently helpless victims, nor are SS guards always the most brutal of characters.
Borowski's writing remains one of the most complex pieces I have ever read. There are many levels to what he has written, and his reflections and thoughts are inconsistent with their acceptance and understanding of his environment. Like much else written during the time, he ultimately is an individual trying desperately to cope with a decidedly inhuman, catastrophic situation as best he can. ...more