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Auschwitz, our home

A new collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski shows not the slightest empathy for the victims of Auschwitz. It is a milestone in Holocaust literature nonetheless. By Arno Lustiger

For more information on Tadeusz Borowksi's life, read Arno Lustiger's biographical sketch here.

Memoirs and books by Auschwitz survivors like Ruth Klüger, Simone Veil and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski belong to the canon of Shoah literature, but the works of Hermann Langbein, Rudolf Vrba and Fritz Bauer are also important parts of any attempt to understand the breach of civilisation that was Auschwitz. The books of Nobel prizewinners Eli Wiesel and Imre Kertesz belong to world literature, as do those of Primo Levi. The latter committed suicide, like Jean Améry before him.

"Bei uns in Auschwitz" by Tadeusz Borowski, Schöffling Verlag 2007.

But the literary oeuvre of Tadeusz Borowski, who at 29 also took his own life, cannot be compared with any other. No one is capable of telling the whole truth about Auschwitz, but Borowski tells the most painful part of this truth with the greatest self-torturing honesty.

Borowski is among the important but little known writers to have bestowed an almost metaphysical dimension on Auschwitz. Although his oeuvre offers no contribution to the debate on "theology after Auschwitz", it does help the reader to comprehend the unbelievable and the monstrous in the lives and deaths of Homo auschwitziensis, even if only to a limited extent. Borowski's stories are characterized by great precision. He refrains entirely from moral value judgements, and there is not the slightest hint of empathy, making the book's brutal, horrific passages a torture to read. Is this nihilistic indifference, this lack of empathy feigned? Was it the author's provocative literary means of awakening empathy in the reader?

His book "Bei uns in Auschwitz" contains six novellas and 22 short stories. Some of them have been filmed, others adapted for the stage. Eight of the stories describe life and above all death in Auschwitz, the others are about events in Warsaw before the author’s arrest, slave labour in other camps, his liberation and his time at the Munich-Freimann displaced persons camp.

In the first story, from which the collection takes its title, Borowski describes what he experienced in the concentration camp which, besides the SS, was run mainly by Kapos and other specially selected German and Polish inmates with low prisoner numbers, also known as the "camp nobility" (known in euphemistic Nazi jargon as "Funktionshäftlinge", prisoners with special functions). As a Pole, Borowski was trained by SS doctors and given a privileged job as a male nurse. He was officially permitted to correspond regularly with his parents, often received food parcels from them, and benefited from all the other advantages only open to these prisoner orderlies: attending classical music concerts by the camp orchestra and visiting the brothel where fifteen girls forced into prostitution had to satisfy hundreds of Kapos every day. The privileges included care in case of illness, sufficient food rations, and above all easy work. Every day, a fellow inmate acted as a go-between, carrying letters back and forth between Tadeusz Borowski and his fiancee Maria Rundo, whose arrest had shortly preceded his own and who was also taken to Auschwitz, where she was interned in the women's camp.

Every day, the Kapos played football on a pitch surrounded by flowers within sight of the unloading ramp where Jews were constantly arriving by train. Borowski, who played in goal, writes: "I walked back with the ball and passed it to the corner. Between two corners, three thousand people had been gassed behind my back."

To see his fiancee more often, he had himself assigned to the roofing unit, whose members were able to move freely within the whole of the camp, including the women's section. Tadeusz Borowski and Maria Rundo saw each other every day, often even able to be alone together. As a roofer, he also worked in the section of the camp known as "Canada" where articles taken from murdered Jews were kept, including clothes, jewellery, and other valuables, including 7.7 tons of human hair. Here he had contact with the prisoners who belonged to the Sonderkommandos or Special Units, whose horrific tasks included moving the dead from the gas chambers to the ovens of the crematoria. He enjoyed privileges which normal, insignificant inmates could not even dream of.

Borowski wrote "Wir waren in Auschwitz" (We Were in Auschwitz) with his friends Siedlecki and Olszewski in the Munich-Freimann displaced persons camp in 1945. In April 1946, Tworczosc magazine in Warsaw published his story "Sosnowiec-Bendzin Transport," later renamed "This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" (exerpt here).

This twenty-page text counts among the most deeply distressing literary documents of the Holocaust and has been published in many languages. With his sparse style, Borowski had the gift of portraying characters and tragic situations so masterfully that they become almost indelibly engraved in the reader’s memory. Even Dante's "Inferno" pales in comparison with this report.

From early August 1943, transports began to arrive in Auschwitz from Upper Silesia, a region only 40 kilometres away that had been annexed by Germany as early as 1939 and which was home to more than 100,000 Jews, including 23,000 in Sosnowiec and 25,000 in Bedzin, the town where I was born. Just a few thousand men and women were selected for slave labour, thus surviving for the time being; the rest were gassed immediately, including many of my relatives.

My hand is reluctant to copy out excerpts from this story, but I will force myself to describe one detail. During the selection procedure, a mother denies her child and tries to flee to the group declared fit for work. The child screams miserably for its mama. Under a hail of terrible obscenities, mother and child are driven into the gas chamber together. But thousands upon thousands of Jewish women and men did not abandon their children and parents, choosing instead to go with them into the gas chambers in a show of solidarity, even though some of them could have saved themselves.

And an example of theology not after but at Auschwitz: a badly injured old Jew from the Bendzin transport is annoying a young SS man with his repeated requests to speak to the camp commandant. "Be quite, man. In half an hour you'll get to speak to the commander-in-chief. Just make sure you don't forget to say 'Heil Hitler' to him."

This precise transport also included my fellow Pole, the pre-war Communist and poet Stanislaw Wygodzki – our fathers had sat together on the town council in Bedzin. After 1945, he was a close friend and mentor of Borowski, who dedicated a five-verse poem to him, the younger man writing for the elder poet: "Home, poet, you're returning to your homeland / In Bedzin or Sosnowiec / You'll walk to the Jew Market, to the rails / At the loading site in the ghetto / You'll be very lonely there, like a piece of bark / Torn from the tree, for you're returning home from the place / Where your daughter swam skywards as ash / From the crematorium".

Towards the end of the story, we read: "For a few days, the camp will talk about the 'Sosnowiec-Bedzin' transport. It was a good one, a rich one." Why? Because the Jews there were wealthier than in the rest of Poland and because they had no time to eat the supplies they had brought with them, as the journey by rail took barely more than an hour. Perhaps the inmates working at the ramp scoffed my grandmother Mindel Lustiger's cheesecake, maybe the silk underwear of her daughter-in-law, my aunt Gisele from Paris, was put aside by Borowski as a gift for his fiancee Maria?

In Borowski's texts, there are several passage where the Jewish prisoners are portrayed as merciless sadists. Borowski recounts all these incidents not as an eye-witness, but from hearsay. It is part of the sensation-hungry, anti-Semitic camp gossip. Here, Pan Tadeusz, a pampered and spoilt Kapo with enhanced life-expectancy, elevates himself without a trace of sympathy or empathy above the defenceless Jews who are condemned to death, the morituri of our times. He freely admits that while he harmed no one in the camp, he also helped no one.

Only in the story "The Man With The Package" are we told anything about the dignity and heroism of the Jews. It ends with the sentence: "... as they went off into the gas, the Jews sang a moving song in Hebrew that no one understood." It was the Zionist song "Hatikvah" (Hope) which is now the national anthem of Israel (listen here).

In the story "Auschwitz, Our Home" we read on this subject: "It is hope that makes people walk apathetically into the gas chamber, makes them shrink back from uprising ... Hope that tears apart family bonds, makes mothers reject their children, makes women sell themselves for a piece of bread and turns men into killers. Hope makes them fight for each day of life, for maybe the next day will bring liberation ... We did not learn to renounce hope, and that is why we died in the gas."

Yes, Borowski was among the privileged prisoners corrupted by the preferential treatment granted to them. The Kapos ensured that an uprising – referred to in Nazi jargon as der A-Fall, "the big U" – could not take place. In spite of this, however, there was an uprising of the Sonderkommandos organized exclusively by Jewish inmates on 7 October 1944, with almost all of those involved shot dead after blowing up one of the five crematoria. Over a period of months, the Polish Jews Rozia Robota, Regina Safirsztajn, Ester Wajcblum and Ala Gertner, a girl from Bedzin, stole dynamite from the "Union" arms factory to blow up the crematoria. On 6 January 1945, the four heroines were hanged. These were the last executions at Auschwitz. Borowski's texts contain no mention of these sensational and tragic events.

Borowski clearly also knew nothing of the secret "Kampfgruppe Auschwitz" resistance group, whose leaders included not only Cyrankiewicz and Langbein, but also Mink and Kirschenbaum, Jewish officers of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.

The longest, most masterfully written novella in the book is "The Battle of Grunwald". For fear of anarchy and acts of vengeance in Germany after the country's defeat in the war, the liberated Polish POWs – forced labourers and concentration camp inmates – were transferred to closed "DP" camps guarded by the Americans. Borowski lived in such a camp, a former SS barracks in Munich-Freimann. Here he witnessed a celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald of 1410 when Polish troops triumphed over the armies of the Teutonic Order. In this novella, Borowski portrays his fellow countrymen with an unsparing sharpness that borders on the spiteful. Life in the camp is dominated by corruption, resentment, egoism and vandalism.

Into this chaotic world, and into the middle of the pompous Grunwald commemoration with all its food, drink and fireworks, comes the Jew Nina, who survived as a Christian child. Because her boyfriend was a Communist and an anti-Semite, she fled Poland. Her affection for Tadeusz awakens his sense of self-respect. She gives his life after Auschwitz meaning and she wishes to emigrate to Palestine or start a new life with Tadeusz in the West. But she is shot by an American guard at the fence. She is the only positive and morally intact character in the story, which was filmed by Andrzej Wajda in 1970.

Borowski's accounts will still command attention when other concentration camp books have been forgotten. I suspect that his poems and stories – which are still largely unknown in Germany – will survive as an important part of world literature. Of all the editions to date, from 1963 to 1999, this new version, congenially translated by Friedrich Griese, is the best. For me, it is a milestone in the literature on Auschwitz.

"Observe everything closely and do not lose courage when things go badly for you. For one day, we may be required to tell the living of this camp, of this time of deception, and to defend the dead." With these words, Borowski posthumously addresses me personally, his Auschwitz comrade No. A 5592. With this sentence, Borowski formulated a demand which became the maxim of my life.


This article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on 20 January, 2007.

"Bei uns in Auschwitz":
a new collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski. Translated into German from the Polish by Friedrich Griese. Schöffling, Frankfurt/M. 422 pages, 24.90 eur.

Other books by Tadeusz Borowski published in English:
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" by Tadeusz Borowski, trans. Barbara Vedder, Penguin Classics reissue, 1992
"We Were in Auschwitz" a collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski, Janusz Nel Siedlecki and Krystyn Olszewski. trans. Alicia Nitecki. Welcome Rain publishers, 2000

Arno Lustiger was born in Polish Bedzin in 1924. He survived internment at the concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald and after the war founded the Jewish community at Frankfurt/Main. He has dealt with the subject of the Jewish resistance in several books. Lustiger was awarded the Prize from the Galinski Foundation (2001, together with Wolf Biermann), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Potsdam (2003). He is Visiting Professor at the Fritz Bauer Institute of Frankfurt University and speaks eight languages.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

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