I hate reading reviews for this sort of thing; in fact, I actively avoid them these days. Why? Because a large number of people refuse to approach such books as art, as fiction. They insist, regardless of what the author has said, that they are memoir, that what they describe is absolutely true. There is, in my opinion, something slightly perverse about that, a kind of twisted psychology that I find distasteful. It is not a popular view, I’ll grant you, but it strikes me that it is as though they want everything to be true because it adds [perhaps sub-consciously] a certain spice to their reading to imagine that such awful things actually occurred.
I am aware that Polish poet, writer, and journalist Tadeusz Borowski did spend time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and that there are further parallels between the life of his narrator and his own life, but that is not unusual. No writer is ever able to completely disown themselves, and so of course his experiences will have filtered into these tales. Yet if he had wanted to simply bear witness he could have done so and he didn’t, he decided to compose a series of short stories instead. To ignore or dismiss that is to insult the author, and, to my mind, leaves you in danger of being a kind literary ambulance chaser. In any case, I have to approach this book as art, because, quite frankly, it is the only way I can bear to read it.
For the last couple of years, since I been trying to quit smoking, I have taken to carrying around with me during the day whatever book I am currently reading, fitting in a few pages during my breaks at work. Often people will peer at the cover, mutter the title to themselves, and then carry on with their own business. The other day a friend of mine came over to the table at which I was sitting, picked up This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, turned it over, read the title and winced. I think this is the only time that this has ever happened. It is not a ridiculous reaction, either. As titles go it is provocative, shocking even; it is also, I believe, appropriate, because it sums up the attitude – tough, mocking, cynical, cruel – of most of the stories contained within.
[Work Makes You Free. The gates of Auschwitz]
I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, and each is different, of course. But the one thing that generally tends to tie them together is that they focus on the victims, who are almost always Jewish, and their experiences; there is a very real sense of innocence, and clear distinctions between the aggressors and the oppressed, the good and the bad. That is not the case here. Borowski’s stories are written in the first person, and the narrator [if we assume it is the same one throughout – which for ease I will] is openly, actively involved in ‘the process.’ Now, one must not lose sight of the fact that Tadek has not chosen to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in this way he is a victim too, but, nevertheless, the morality on display is muddier than one would expect, to say the least.
The title story, which opens the collection, is particularly disturbing. I must admit that I found it tough to keep turning the pages, even bearing in mind my stance, my insistence that we read the stories as fiction. Unusually, Borowski dispenses with backstory, with arrests or journeys, and drops you straightaway into the camp. There is, therefore, no sense of building towards a [terrible] climax, towards an end; one gets the impression that life has always been this way and always will, which is, I imagine, how it must have felt to be a prisoner. The author also immediately challenges your expectations by introducing a ‘fat Frenchman’ [there were fat people in the camps? is the absurd question that ran through my mind], and describing a situation where the inmates appear to eat well and have access to all kinds of luxury items [Tadek notes that the labour gang ‘smells not of maple forests but of French perfume’]. One feels an instant revulsion for all this, for the idea that some prisoners were chowing down on bacon and potatoes while others starved, even though there is little sense in everyone starving together.
“Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and—we do nothing. We starve, we are drenched by rain, we are torn from our families. What is this mystery? This strange power of one man over another? This insane passivity that cannot be overcome? Our only strength is our great number—the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us.”
It is where this food, these luxuries are coming from that provides the most aggressive punch in the gut. I am a very cynical man, and so you would think that I would have been able to guess, that it would have been obvious, yet somehow it still came as a horrible surprise, as though I didn’t want to acknowledge the truth to myself until I had no choice. In short, the trains draw into the camp, and the labour gang, or Kommando, help to unload the new arrivals, in the process relieving them of their possessions, be they dead or alive. The gold and money goes to the S.S., and the rest goes to the workers, such as Tadek and the Frenchman. They are, then, essentially robbers, even, you might say, graverobbers. And yet what is perhaps hardest to stomach is not the stealing, the death, the prospect of the crematorium [or ‘cremo’ as it is called throughout the book], but the inhumanity, the lack of empathy displayed by the prisoners.
We want to believe, and the media plays a big part in helping us to believe, that those in crisis, those who are suffering, will stick together, will go down together, will, at the very least, sympathise with each other, but that is not the case here. I have long felt that certain atrocities or tragedies undergo a kind of Disneyfication. One need only look at 9/11, where the story has become about heroism and patriotism, and the truly awful has been buried. One of the collection’s overriding themes is, as one would expect, survival or, more specifically, what will people do to survive? What are we capable of in order to save ourselves? It’s a question not many of us would be comfortable in asking of ourselves, and even if one did it is impossible to say whether our response would be truthful. In any case, Borowski asks it, or the camp does, and the answers are often unpleasant.
“Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat.”
In the second story in the collection Tadek is speaking to a Jewish man, needling him somewhat about his actions in a previous camp. The old man, he himself admits, denounced his own son, had him hung. Again, we instantly recoil, we judge, we ourselves, as readers, denounce this man, and yet he then says something significant. He says that at some point one comes to see other people as food. Of course, he doesn’t mean this literally [although there is a story that does involve cannibalism], rather that other people become your means of survival, they are sacrificed, if necessary, in order for you to continue to live. I believe, or at least I hope, that none of us can relate to that dilemma: having to decide between one’s own existence or the existence of someone else. We cannot therefore truly judge this man, because lord knows what we would actually do. We know what we would like to think we would do, but that, as we sit comfortably in our homes, means absolutely nothing.
There is also one other thing to consider, which is that for those who are placed in brutal environments, who are treated brutally themselves, and witness brutality on a daily basis, there is the danger that it will become normal. Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, our expectations, behaviour, morals are likely to change depending on our circumstances; just look at the army, at the police. So, yes, Tadek’s attitude, his actions, appear cold and uncaring, even wrong, to us, but we are not in a concentration camp; in there, Borowski seems to suggest, that is just what life was like. People did not hold hands and help each other out, they looked after themselves, they wished people dead, they joked about the cremos, they got annoyed with weaker inmates.
Having said this, as the book progresses, there is a shift in tone, the narrator becomes more hopeful, certainly more sentimental and caring towards his fellow man or woman. Indeed, one story is in the form of a letter he sends to his girlfriend, who is also in a concentration camp. While this new, more humane Tadek is a relief it does, in my opinion, mean that the collection, taken as a whole, feels slightly uneven, even contradictory. Don’t get me wrong, This Way for the Gas is a fine book, but the second half is less original, less startling, less disconcerting in terms of what you are asked to confront, about man in general and yourself in particular.
neither poems nor prose
just a length of rope
just the wet earth —
that’s the way home.
neither vodka nor bread
just bursts of rage
just more new graves —
that’s youth and that’s love.