International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Tadeusz Borowski (Born 1922 in Zhytonyr, Ukraine, died 1951 in Warsaw, Poland. He was arrested by the Gestapo in February of 1943, he was not Jewish, as a political prisoner. His girl friend had recently been arrested and when he went to find her, he was arrested also. His recently published collection of poetry was labeled as subversive. He was ultimately sent to Auschwitz as a slave labourer. Non-Jewish prisoners were often treated better than Jews and Borowski was made a “Kapo”, an inmate with authority over others. He was assigned to work the rail road receiving docks when a train of new inmates arrived.
“This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is the title story of the collection of his stories based on his time in Auschwitz, he was there for two years. As of now I do not have a clear understanding of the pre-translation publication history of the stories. It was first translated into English in 1959 and the very dark humour in his stories is said to have had a large influence on Central European Literature.
Just the title to the story has kind of a ghoulish feel as we imagine a demented evil resort flunky telling that to new arrivals to Auschwitz. The story is narrated by a Kapo, working train arrivals. One of the rules was that arrivals were not told they were being sent directly to the gas chamber, if they were sent right. The narrator sees terrible things as the trains unload. It is a lot of work just to pile up the bodies of those who died on the train, to be burned on the spot. In one seen relayed as if commonplace a three year old child with only one leg is burned with the dead, to save the work of carrying her to the gas chamber.
Working the arriving trains was a plumb assignment. The S S was there to supervise and take the gold and jewels from the suitcases. The inmate workers got to keep any food found in the luggage which is why they liked the assignments. They judge each arriving train based on how much food they score.
The arriving prisoners are in a state of extreme panic. The job of the Kapos is to keep them under control. There is no empathy, the worker inmates focus on their own survival. They have no hesitation to beat arrivals to keep order. Over it all young Germans stand guard with machine guns, ready almost eager to shoot arrivals.
Everyone’s humanity is destroyed.
This story and the full collection is considered a classic of Polish and Holocaust Literature.
When I learned that at age 28 Borowski committed suicide by breathing in the fumes from a gas oven, it chilled me.
You can read this story and a few other Holocaust short stories at the link above.