Review “Here in our Auschwitz and other stories”: the terrible truth

“A book should be the ax of the frozen sea in us,” said Franz Kafka. “Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories,” the most comprehensive English-language collection to date of Tadeusz Borowski’s prose, is such a book. Borowski’s cutting descriptions of life in Nazi concentration camps shatter the bounds of even Kafka’s most surreal imagination.

In February 1943, Borowski, a 20-year-old Polish poet, was arrested in Warsaw by the Gestapo for his involvement in resisting the German occupation. A few weeks earlier, his first book – “hexameters that expressed my disdainful attitude towards the apocalyptically blowing winds of history”, as he would later write – had come out of an underground press. He paced his cell in the infamous Pawiak prison “and composed poems to the rhythm of my steps”. From his cell window, he watched the Warsaw ghetto go up in flames as the Germans suppressed the Jewish uprising there.

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Two months later, on his arrival at Auschwitz as a political prisoner, Borowski was given a uniform with a red triangle and a tattoo bearing the number 119198. Not being a Jew, he enjoyed certain privileges: Spared gas, he was assigned to work as a nursing assistant in a clinic where typhus was rife and, later, as a roofer. He could smuggle letters to his fiancée, Maria Rundo, who was imprisoned in the women’s barracks near Birkenau, and could even see her. But he also occasionally unloaded the arriving convoys, brought the convicts back to the trucks to the gas chambers. Throughout his stay at the camp, he had a clear view of the crematoria. “I saw the death of a million people, literally, not metaphorically,” he wrote in one of his letters.

After 16 months in Auschwitz, Borowski was sent to a concentration camp not far from Stuttgart, Germany, and in January 1945 to Dachau, on the outskirts of Munich. Released from Dachau by American soldiers in the spring of 1945 – “extracted from the depths of war”, as he put it – he abandoned poetry in favor of prose. A year later he returned to a devastated Warsaw, where he and Maria were married. Still stunned, he struggles to adjust to post-war life. “Evil is not in the world, it is within us,” he wrote to Maria a year after his release. “I think it’s going to be hard for me to live like this.” The statement turned out to be prophetic.

Many Polish writers of the generation decimated by the war, including Borowski, succumbed briefly but passionately to an almost messianic faith in the Communist Party (known as the Polish Workers’ Party). However, Borowski’s party membership did little to temper the regime’s aversion to his stories. Party leaders accused him of cynicism, moral indifference and insufficient patriotism. The Polish Minister of Culture called it a “dangerous phenomenon”.

However, in June 1949, Borowski was sent as press attaché to the Polish mission in East Berlin. There, in a grotesque Stalinist exercise in “self-criticism,” he denounces his own stories: “I was not able to analyze the camp in terms of class; even as I experienced camp, I didn’t really know what I was going through. . . . I had the ambition to show the truth, but I found myself in an objective alliance with fascist ideology.

From then on, Borowski squandered his gifts producing anti-Western propaganda and hack journalism. It was only at the end that disillusionment with the promises of a new communist order set in. During the last weeks of his life, he spoke more than once of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian poet who lamented having “stepped on the throat of his own song” for the communist cause. Like several other surviving writers – Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Améry – Borowski died by his own hand. In June 1951, he gassed himself in his kitchen. He was 28 years old.

The pioneer of Polish Holocaust literature remained virtually unknown to American readers until the 1970s, when Philip Roth published a selection of his stories, translated by Barbara Vedder, under the title “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”, as part of the Penguin Writers from Another Europe series. “Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories” features Borowski’s three collections of stories – “We Were in Auschwitz”, “Farewell to Maria” and “The Stone World” – and five previously untold stories.

Borowski’s well-crafted accounts, though told in the first person and no doubt informed by his experience, are neither memoirs nor personal testimonies. By conducting a conversation with darkness, they find nothing ennobling in suffering and affirm no moral doctrine. Borowski writes in one of them: “Morality, national solidarity, love of country, sense of freedom, justice and human dignity had deposited man like a rotten garment.

Although the egotistical, even nihilistic, narrator of the stories shares Borowski’s first name, he is not identical to the writer. “The truth about his behavior at Auschwitz, according to his fellow inmates,” Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said of Borowski, “is totally different from what his stories would suggest; he acted with heroism and was a model of camaraderie.

If one doctrine can be drawn from Borowski’s writings, it is this: the classical forms of tragedy – say, a hero who makes the wrong choice or who is made more human and sympathetic by a flaw – are inadequate when it is a question of describing a systematized machinery. which reduces its victims to an object, deprives them of choice and forces them to participate in their own victimization.

Borowski’s stories often read like fragments of an admission of complicity. In a scathing review of a novel by another eminent Polish writer on the war, he writes: “The first duty of the Auschwitzers is to clarify what a camp is. . . . But let them not forget that the reader will inevitably ask: But how is it that you Survived?” Borowski’s narrator knows he is steeped in evil. He and his comrades steal anything they can get their hands on. They rely for their own survival on a steady stream of doomed Jews. what they bring here,” says one character. Prisoners who unloaded trains, undressed new arrivals, and sorted through heaps of suitcases, trunks, and parcels could save canned fruit, sausages, condensed milk, vodka, linens, plunder that fed the black market in the camp. Here, there is no mercy, with one exception. “It is the law of the camp that people who go to their death be deceived until the last moment”, says the narrator. “It is the only form of pity authorized.”

In a chilling style that hides a searing rage – directed at both the savagery of the executioners and the acquiescence of the victims – Borowski describes almost unbearable contrasts: orchestra concerts, boxing matches, a brothel called “The Puff” and a match football played on a field. next to the ramp where Jews are unloaded from freight cars. “Miracles of culture are happening here, just a few miles from the chimneys,” says the narrator.

In the title story for this collection, Borowski writes, “I don’t know if we’ll survive, but I wish that one day we could call things by their proper names, as brave people do.” For “Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories,” Borowski has found his ideal translator: Madeline G. Levine, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who brings a poet’s sensibility to his audacious attempt to name the unnameable.

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