Commentary by Karen Bernardo
“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman” is the title piece of a short story collection by the late Polish Holocaust survivor Tadeusz Borowski. Borowski was not a Jew, but a poet who suffered from clinical depression. This was sufficient reason for him to be detained at Auschwitz and Dachau as a political prisoner. Because of his non-Jewish background, however, his views toward both his captors and his fellow prisoners are somewhat different than those normally reported by concentration camp survivors.
It’s not that he views his incarceration in any more sanguine terms than the Jews with whom he was imprisoned. It’s simply that Borowski does not seem able to separate the prisoners and the captors into villains and victims. He views the entire situation as evil, not evil perpetrated upon the innocent by the guilty, but a situation in which the Jews buy into their own fate because they are too foolish to suspect the totality of the corruption of human nature.
This is a view of the Holocaust which is even darker and bleaker than our usual interpretation of it. At least in the Anne Frank view of those terrible years, we are able to see the survivors as noble and courageous people who, despite the loss of seven million Annes, came out of their experience determined to make sure that such a terrible thing never happens again..
Borowski, on the other hand, sees precious little noblity or courage anywhere. In the title story, the narrator, Tadek, is a member of a force responsible for going through the Jewish victims’ personal possessions in search of any valuables they can salvage for the coffers of the Third Reich. Tadek knows that most if not all these people are under a death sentence, and yet he does not tell them this; although he feels deep shame about his job, he justifies it on the grounds that he believes the Jews to be responsible for their own imprisonment.
He even feels that it is these same miserable Jews who have condemned him to feeling badly about himself. He says, “...I am furious, simply furious with these people—furious because I must be here because of them. I feel no pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber. Damn them all! I could throw myself at them, beat them with my fists.”
Tadek’s skewed argument is that even the concentration camp prisoners who worked for the Nazis suffered, and the fact that they were allowed to survive but forced to work for their captors is even more dehumanizing than being allowed to die. Captive workers were forced to carry dead Jews to the crematorium, as well as witness a myriad of other sickening and despicable acts. Borowski argues that whatever the captive laborers did in the camps they had to do, or else their insubordination would have signed their own death warrants. Through Tadek, he argues that he is not guilty, but he is nonetheless overcome with shame.
Clearly Borowski’s feelings toward his Holocaust experience are very conflicted, as evidenced in the wide range of emotions exhibited in his story. At the beginning of the story, he is anxious for the next wave of affluent Jews to come in so he will be able to loot their belongings. When they actually come, however, he has to watch, and to some degree participate in, the barbaric treatment shown these people.
He writes, “I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back. Out of the corner of my eye I see an S.S. man, swearing profusely. I stagger forward and run, lose myself in the Canada group. Now, at last, I can once more rest against the stack of rails.”
Tadek is unquestionably sickened by his situation, but his conflicted feelings coalesce into a kind of extreme existentialism. He feels there is no point to anything, literally no point at all, and this lack of meaning in his life became unendurable; it is scarcely surprising that six years after the end of the war, Tadeusz Borowski committed suicide.
Yet saddest of all is the fact Tadek’s suggestion that his point of view was not an uncommon one among the non-Jewish survivors of the concentration camps. Tadek’s reactions to the Jews range from indifference to intolerance to hostility. Under the extreme pressure of existence in the concentration camp, these feelings harden into a kind of numbness, because this is the only way he can get from one day to the next. As his friend Henri says “[It] exhausts you, you rebel—and the easiest way to relieve your hate is to turn against someone weaker. Why, I’d even call it healthy.” Understandable, possibly—but healthy, never.
“This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” is found in the book of the same name, available from Amazon here:
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