Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish author who was sent to Auschwitz and Dachau from 1943-1945. When he was twenty-one, his fiancee was arrested by Nazis at a friend’s apartment, and when Borowski went to look for her, he was ultimately sent to the concentration camps as well (both were part of underground activities in Warsaw). After his release, he searched for his fiancee and found her living in Sweden. Meanwhile, he was working as a writer and journalist. He eventually did marry his fiancee, but in 1952 at the age of 28, just three days after his wife gave birth, he committed suicide (there had been two previous attempts).
According to the book’s introduction by Jan Kott, writers/survivors at the time were expected to write either martyrologies or Communist works that were ideological and clearly showed right and wrong. Borowski was determined to document all that he had witnessed at Auschwitz and Dachau so that history would not be forgotten. However, his writings shocked a lot of people with their subject matter because of the perspectives they revealed. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of concentration camp stories released a couple of years following Borowski’s release.
“Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter)” is told in series of letters from one man in Auschwitz to his sweetheart in Birkenau, the women’s camp; it tells of daily life in Auschwitz (Borowski was also allowed to write his fiancee letters while he was at Auschwitz). In the story, the narrator is sometimes gossipy and sometimes much more reflective:
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? …
The women who share your bunk must find my words rather surprising. ‘You told us he was so cheerful. And what about this letter? It’s so full of gloom!’ And probably they are a little bit shocked. But I think we should speak about all the things that are happening around us. We are not evoking evil irresponsibly or in vain, for we have now become a part of it…
For me, the most haunting story was the first in the collection, the book’s title story. It’s the story that introduces readers to some Auschwitz lingo; “Muslim” means “the camp name for a prisoner who has been destroyed physically and mentally…a man ripe for the gas chamber.” The story is told from the perspective of a member of “Canada,” a term for the prisoners who were the best off in the camp. They were “wealthy” because of their task: they were the ones who unloaded people from the trains. After separating out anything of actual monetary value, such as jewelry, they were allowed to eat their fill from the contraband removed from people on the trains; mountains of food were confiscated. The emotional price of this so-called privileged position was overwhelming for some. Trains arrived day and night carrying thousands of people, and Canada had to lie to everyone and send them on their way straight to the gas chambers. When the trains were unloaded, they had to clean them out and remove any corpses. Some members of Canada had become hardened and sarcastic, and in their time doing the job, several had had to direct friends and family members to the gas chambers lest they be sent there themselves.
I can see how Borowski’s Auschwitz writings may have shocked people who were expecting victim narratives. The title story isn’t the only one showing a hierarchy of prisoners being callous towards each other. Throughout the book, he remains pretty blunt about the horrible things that he was likely a part of (since he was not Jewish, he was one of those in a relative position of power inside the camps and as such probably had to do some of the things he writes so vividly about). The tone of his writing is detached, his narrators often resigned to the inevitable. The collection is very different from other Holocaust narratives I’ve read. Most other works are from the perspective of victims of horrible cruelties; in Borowski’s book, the narrators are both victims and perpetrators.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was originally released in 1947. I read the version republished by Penguin Classics in 1992.