This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski

One tactic I’ve noticed certain films and books try to do is blend the villain and the hero together, creating an anti-hero. Someone you want to cheer for but at the end of the day is a bad guy. Borowski does this with his firsthand account, except the roles of the good and bad are reversed. The characters are the inmates of Birkenau, so broken and numbed to the evils they were forced to be a part of, at times becoming the hands of the devil himself. Watching new shipments of jews come into the camp is an everyday occurence, and Borowski and his fellow Polish Aryans watch through the barbed fences as they are loaded onto trucks and taken to the gas showers. One of his accounts quotes one of the SS guards as saying fifteen thousand had been killed in one day, a “good, rich transport”.
Borowski reveals how possible it is for a good human being to forget morals in place of surviving. Many, including myself, often sit back and look at the horizon of the Holocaust and gawk bewilderdly, wondering how a country of people were led and trained to blame and kill millions of their neighbors and fellow human beings. Then you realize that even prisoners, those thrown into the concentration camps without cause by the NAZI party, took part in the routine killings and eventually were past feeling to the moral brotherhood they were shattering. “I don’t know why, but I am furious, simply furious with these people. Furious because I must be here because of them. I feel no pity. I’m not sorry they are going to the gas chamber. Damn them all!”
Moving people from the trains to the trucks was a chore. Their screams an annoyance. Borowski describes going in after the people had been carried away from one of the train cars and carrying out the dead children by their necks. “We carry them out like chickens. Holding several in each hand.”
You can’t judge, because you’d probably do the same, or worse. One chapter is on a normal day at Harmenz, part of the camp where the Poles worked. The Aryan prisoners had been in the camp the longest, and therefore had moved up in the hierarchy. They recieved more food, more downtime, more sleep, more benefits. Still, a wrong move would lead to them being “selected” for the gas. Borowski comes ever so close to being killed just for a conversation mistaken for subversive actions. He plays dumb, and ends up winning the guard’s favor for a pair of shoes. Some Jews weren’t so lucky, and they were killed for not being able to do march straight legged.
It’s interesting learning the clockwork of the camps, i.e. what becomes praiseworthy and what is valued. A low number, below one million, is very prestigious. It means you survived for a very long time. Apples, onions, bread, all was like thousands of dollars (or reich Marks in Germany). The Poles received Nettle soup, with rotten nettles at the bottom, and little else. STill, this was better than the almost water soup the Jews received. And more.
Borowski asks at one point, why does “one man have such power over another?” How are such large numbers led to their deaths so submissively? It makes one wonder, definitely, and the reader is left to ponder its answers.
He also compares the world to the concentration camp. “The weak work for the strong, and if they have no strength or will to work–then let them steal, or let them die.”
A large part of the book is Borowski’s letters to his sweetheart. He describes everything in the camp. Again, his description makes the entire scene 2D, blending horrific things like the smoke from the crematoria and soldiers rocking back and forth on a spade over a prisoner’s neck, with the beauty of the outside and memories from the German and Polish cities he’s been to. His dinner and someone’s death appear in the same sentence like they were supposed to. Our imaginations can’t reconcile the horror of such scenes alone, but the ignored contrast only shock us more.
You should read this book. You owe it to the author, and the millions who died.

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2 thoughts on “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski

  1. blake says:

    I’ve noticed this trend you speak of, where the villain has positive traits and the good guy has negative traits. I think that’s what makes fascinating art. Where you can put yourself on both sides of whatever conflict. Remember when we watched ‘The Lives of Others?’ It totally places the viewer in morally ambiguous situations in order to demand some introspection. Which, I feel, is the point of art. It must force the audience to think, to take a closer look at themselves, at society, at problems facing society.

  2. Magicman says:

    Brilliant. Excellent definition of art. I never thought of it that way. Do you think that’s what art has become or what it always is? Do you feel older forms of art from the renaissance or enlightenment are meant for the same purpose, or is that only a modern transition that has taken place?

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