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This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

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Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp stories were based on his own experiences surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. In spare, brutal prose he describes a world where where the will to survive overrides compassion and prisoners eat, work and sleep a few yards from where others are murdered; where the difference between human beings is reduced to a second bowl of soup, an extra blanket or the luxury of a pair of shoes with thick soles; and where the line between normality and abnormality vanishes. Published in Poland after the Second World War, these stories constitute a masterwork of world literature.

180 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1946

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About the author

Tadeusz Borowski

42 books104 followers
Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish writer and journalist, and an Auschwitz and Dachau survivor. His books are recognized as classics of Polish post-war literature and had much influence in Central European society.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 649 reviews
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,215 reviews9,892 followers
March 7, 2015

I found this book very difficult to read. Not like Joyce or Proust or Faulkner, but because – when exactly do you read this? In the evening after a good dinner? No! Well, at bedtime then? Not unless you want nightmares.

I have read a few of these concentration camp memoirs, which, strangely insultingly, are classified as FICTION when they are, of course, the truth. But here, in the concentration camp world, reality reads like fiction, it is true.

Tadeusz Borowski writes with a heavy black humour about Auschwitz, which some may find almost unbearable. I don’t have so much of a problem reading the cold histories of the theory and practice of hell, as it has been called. I now have a certain level of knowledge. I can distinguish between the wildcat camps of 1937-39, the political prisoner camps like Dachau, the work camps like Mauthausen, and the terminal points of the three extermination camps Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, which really should be much more famous than they are. (But their fate was to exist very temporarily, for a year or 18 months, then to be bulldozed, and for the ground to be ploughed, and tilled, and for a farmhouse to be built and a family installed there who were to say they had farmed the land of Belzec for generations. Unlike the camps which were liberated, and therefore photographed. No photos of Belzec!) And I can compare all those to the empire that was Auschwitz.

So the nuts and bolts of the holocaust have become well known to me over the years. Reading the stories of one who was there and was able to write after liberation, that’s another thing. It is jolting and upsetting. It’s someone real. The first jolt comes on the third page of the title story (and what a title, surely one of the greatest titles in literature). Here we have the bantering conversation of some of the men working on the “Canada” team. These were prisoners whose job was to get the Jews out of the cattle trucks, up the ramps and off to the crematoria. (“All these thousands flow along like water from an open tap” he says.) Once that was done they picked up all the luggage which the Jews could not, of course, take with them. In this luggage was a whole lot of food – good stuff too, wine, cured meat, sausage, cheese, you name it. The Canada team were able to “organise” some of this stuff back to their barracks, and there they dined well. They also had their pick of the clothes in the luggage, so they dressed pretty well too. Imagine, prisoners living well at Auschwitz!

It is almost over. The dead are being cleared off the ramp and piled into the last truck. The Canada men, weighed down under a load of bread, marmalade and sugar, and smelling of perfume and fresh linen, line up to go. For several days the entire camp will live off this transport. For several days the entire camp will talk about “Sosnowiec-Bedzin”. “Sosnowiec-Bedzin” was a good, rich transport.

So now we overhear a conversation between two of these prisoners. One worried. He appreciates the good things these transports of Jews are constantly bringing. But – how long can this go on? Surely, sooner or later, they’ll run out of people! And then what? No more sausages, for sure. Well, it was a worry.

The stories here inhabit what Primo Levi calls the grey zone, the compromised, corrupted world where there is no innocence, only degrees of guilt. Borowski had a “good Auschwitz” in the way many people had a “good war”. They didn’t die, and it wasn’t all ghastly all the time. He describes the recreational facilities in Auschwitz. You’ve imagined the gas chambers and Sonderkommando and the ovens, now imagine this:

Right after the boxing match I took in another show – I went to hear a concert. Over in Birkenau you could probably never imagine what feats of culture we are exposed to up here, just a few kilometres away from the smouldering chimneys. Just think – an orchestra playing the overture to Tancred, then something by Berlioz

This book is overshadowed by the author’s suicide at the age of 29. This is a distraction, like other author suicides. The work always stands by itself, it is not placed by the grotesque act of suicide into a sphere beyond judgement. Readers encounter the reality inside these words, not outside. And inside these stories the atmosphere is oppressive, the fumes acrid, the stench is unbearable, the company not the best. When I finished this book I looked around. The room was quiet and warm, the fire was on (spring is here, but it’s still cold). One of the cats jumped onto the windowledge for another few hours of birdwatching. I remembered we’re out of marmalade and thanked Tadeusz Borowski for reminding me of that.

Do I recommend this book? I can’t say that I do. 5 stars.

Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,220 followers
October 14, 2017
This is an account of Auschwitz, in the form of a series of first person short stories, from someone who is still begrimed and drenched in its depravity. Because he wrote it so soon after his experience Borowski has managed to put little if any distance between himself and what he’s describing. The tone of the book, perfectly captured in its title, is thus deeply disturbing. In fact it reads like a suicide note.

Concentration camp stories tend to focus on the fortitude and humanity of inmates. Rarely do we see the darker side of what people did to survive. Rarely do we see the hierarchies among the inmates. Rarely do we see how successfully in their evil genius the Nazis stripped individuals of all moral sense. There’s the sense here that the inmates are like heroin addicts, survival their daily fix. They have their close inner circle of useful contacts and friends but are numbed to indifference about the plight of everyone outside that circle. They will even hurt these others if there’s something to gain, even if that something is merely a moment’s pleasure, the pleasure of accruing power. Power, as he states, is earned by the exploitation of others. People will always seek power and perhaps never more so than when they are made to feel powerless.

Perhaps the most memorable image in the book is of a game of football the narrator is playing while a transport arrives at the ramp. He registers the arrival of a train full of Hungarian Jews; the next moment his attention strays from the game the entire convoy has disappeared. “Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.” He narrates this as though it is of little more emotional significance than an unloading process in a factory.

This book is as disturbed as it is disturbing. Borowski, you feel, deliberately eschewed all temptation to make his material palatable, subject in any way to reason. He wanted to speak from the ground, not from the meditated hindsight of a library or study. Probably what it does better than any other Holocaust book I’ve read is show the extreme difficulty of processing what happened in the camps or even finding the appropriate moral tone with which to talk about it.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
May 1, 2020
The Dead Are Always Right

Tadeusz Borowski survived the horrors of Auschwitz, some of which are described in these stories, only to commit suicide. Despair is not an adequate explanation for such an act by a man who had experienced what he had. Neither, for me, is any other purely emotional reason.

So I have spent the better part of the last three days thinking and writing in an attempt to understand the rationale, the redeeming purpose perhaps, of his suicide. Surely, I surmised, his death, as that of Primo Levi among so many others, is something other than tragedy doubled. As it turned out, my thoughts were excruciatingly trivial; the 5000 or so words that followed were patent nonsense.

To say that the Holocaust, and especially the deaths of people like Borowski and Levi, are things beyond reason is simultaneously obvious and revelatory. Obvious because the sheer number of such victims provides overwhelming evidence of the depravity of human beings; revelatory, because their deaths explain that when we understand this, we become unbearable even to ourselves. We are an inherently hateful species.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews553 followers
January 14, 2018
True horror is something that can only be swallowed in sips, lest we drown in its sorrow. You need to read these 150 pages. You, whomever you are. You will feel like the luckiest guy or gal ever after reading it, for you are alive and free and not being forced to do unforgiveable things.

The 20-something author, husband, and father-for-three days was once a poet and aspiring writer. As a Polish teenager, he was arrested and taken to work as a slave laborer at Auschwitz and Birkenau. At gunpoint, he unloaded the cattle cars of Jewish families and Gypsy families. He carried and sorted their belongings to be stored in "Canada" - the warehouse that held wealth. He witnessed thousands of moms and kids being escorted onto trucks that trundled along a little road that wound into a pretty little patch of birch trees while their strong husbands were made to walk in a different direction.

"Several other men are carrying a small girl with only one leg. They hold her by the arms and the one leg. Tears are running down her face and she whispers faintly: 'Sir, it hurts, it hurts...' They throw her on the truck on top of the corpses. She will burn alive along with them."

By the time that Auschwitz and its more evil little sister Birkenau were built, a good deal was known about keeping masses of humanity free of infectious disease. Dead slaves cannot work in the mines or factories or build roads or play concertos or be used to test how best to treat gunshot wounds, right? They had value as living guinea pigs for learning how best to treat infected amputation sites, anoxia, and more. Epidemics of typhus and other illnesses could kill them all.

The SS doctors knew that typhus was spread by lice, so fumigating blankets and bedding along with clothing was important. Decontaminating the hair and bodies of those who already have lice was important for the welfare of all, correct?

Yes, you may be free of these awful insects, but regretfully you have been in close contact with hundreds of others on the train. We regret the way you had to be transported, but it was important for your safety to get you here quickly. Our apologies.

So, step this way to the bathhouses, please! Leave your soiled clothes for now. Let's get you and the children cleaned up, and then how about a thick bowl of steaming soup? Too hot? Maybe some chilled water and a salty tomato-onion salad instead.

Tadeusz Borowski does not shirk his responsibility in what was perpetrated at these two camps. Yes, he would have been shot or gassed or beaten to death with a shovel handle had he refused or revolted.

But still - the guilt.

As a Polish political prisoner, he was allowed to receive packages of food from his family in Warsaw and shared it with those who had little. From working on the ramp as part of the Canada crew, he was then transferred to work as a roofer and saw with a birds eye view what went on below him. Camp doctors later trained him as an orderly, and he did what he could to ease suffering.

But the atrocities he saw and his own culpability never left him. Dead babies, live children thrown into fire pits, cannibalism by those most starved, and the never ending zombie-like march of hundreds of thousands to the gas chambers ruined his soul.

He had been engaged to a girl before his arrest, and through some sort of miracle they were able to find one another after liberation. He began writing again and they got married. He published this very collection of stories and received rave reviews from Polish critics.

Three days after the birth of their baby daughter, the immensity of it all became too much. Tadeusz was 29 when he killed himself by opening a gas jet in his apartment. This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen! His black humor lived on. The book is only 150 pages - you can handle it and should.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,489 reviews2,373 followers
September 29, 2017
"Great columns of smoke rise from the crematoria and merge above into a huge black river which very slowly floats across the sky over Birkenau and disappears beyond the forests."

Naked, famished bodies, with sunken faces and deathly eyes, congregate on their wooden bunks.
Drenched in sweat from an unbearable heat they munch on stale bread with burning throats as dry as scorched sand. Tadeusz Borowski is one of them.

Outside the cattle carts are arriving, and that can only mean one thing. The unforgettable screams, the confusion, the madness, the horrendous stench of death. Men, women, children, infants. Welcome, your extermination awaits.

Brutal, ruthless, relentless, the cold eyes of the SS look on, their well oiled machine is in full working order, a machine spewed up onto the earth from the guts of hell...

There are 12 short accounts of Borowski's concentration camp experiences, Borowski was arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw in 1942, shortly after publishing his debut book of poetry, before being sent to his new home. Starting with the chillingly named 'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen' before ending with the sombre sounding 'The World of Stone'. This is without question one of the most powerful books I will ever read. But it's essential for it to be out there, as a record of the horrors of Auschwitz told from the perspective of someone who lived right at it's core. And it saddens me to think there are writers out there who try to make a quick buck by inventing a fictional work based around the Holocaust, knowing only to well as long as it's a tearjerker, it will most probably fly off the shelves, and even get a movie squeezed out if lucky. Sorry, I am not having it, and find it disrespectful to the dead and those who survived to tell the tale. Without the likes of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi or Borowski himself, the world would be left with nothing more than guesswork. This is too important for that.

Make no bones about it, reading this hurt, deeply, right to the pit of my stomach, many will find it
too unsettling as it is not “lyrical” enough, not sympathetic enough. He offers us no theories, and not a single redeeming possibility. Unembellished, because, as he wrote, “there can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice, nor moral virtue that condones it.” Surely there was no need to ask for sympathy?. Perhaps that is why this book is less well known than others that followed. We do not like what's in front of us, it's too disturbing. Borowski wrote this book when the memories were fresh, not older looking back over time. He was still a young man and still desperately trying to find something to believe in. All he had was his nightmares, and he wrote them down. Nothing ever relieved his pain. Atrocity is piled upon atrocity For that he gets my greatest respects. He committed suicide in 1951, aged just 28.

Trough all the horror and carnage he writes considerably well, even in parts poetically, "Suddenly I see the camp as a haven of peace. It is true, others may be dying, but one is somehow still alive",
In the abundant of literature concerning the atrocity's of the 20th century, one rarely finds an account written from the point of view of an accessory to the crime. In frank, dispassionate prose he simply opens his mind, it's never pleasant, but then it was never going to be.

The precise reasons for his death are uncertain, as are many other details regarding this troubling witness to the Holocaust, but the dreadful power of his stories remains undiminished, It's a reading experience I will not forget, no matter how hard I try.
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews932 followers
January 3, 2019
This is not an ordinary book. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a report of the man who survived. And this is a horrific testimony. Borowski’s prose, full of sharp and dispassionate descriptions, is so brutal and harsh, such dense that you barely can breath. At the same time Borowski’s writing is marked with strange indifference and some appalling calm while he tells about unimaginable atrocity and inhuman barbarism.

One of the most known stories is the title one when narrator participates in unloading new transport what always offers occasion to gain some goods . Bread, bacon, onion, milk and maybe a real champagne as muses Henri, the man who says that at least a milion people had passed through his hands. This unnerving story has something so ghastly unreal in itself but simultaneously we can sense, and it is almost palpable feeling, that everything's really happening. Newcomers are faltering in scorching heat , muddle-headed after several days in crowded wagons , completely unaware what will happen to them.
And on the other side – camp prisoners, these chosen ones, to take their luggage, to separate value things, to live. And when you think it is over you can read for several days the entire camp will live off this transport. For several days the entire camp will talk about “Sosnowiec-Bedzin”. “Sosnowiec-Bedzin” was a good, rich transport.

Or another story titled People who walked on. There is a scene I find particularly shocking, when prisoners were playing football, yes, there was a life in Auschwitz too, while another transport arrived and Borowski knocks you out with single paragraph between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.

I’m thinking about Borowski’s life in Auschwitz, then Dachau and after camp. I’m wondering why he get involved later, like many other Polish writers, into communistic propaganda. Why he found communism so seductive. I’m trying to imagine myself on his place and I can’t. Also his death, pills and, oh irony, gas. It’s such a shame that evil system caught up with him finally. Though I do not know which one it was. Malaparte said once it is a shameful thing to win a war. And to survive ?

Profile Image for Carol.
368 reviews353 followers
August 21, 2017
Disturbing in the same way that the foreign film, "Son of Saul" was for me. It was unbearable to read more than a chapter or two at one time. The blurb on my book jacket conveys my thoughts perfectly.

"...This collection of concentration camp stories shows atrocious war crimes becoming an unremarkable part of a daily routine. Prisoners eat, work, sleep, and fall in love a few yards from where other prisoners are systematically slaughtered. The will to survive overrides compassion, and the line between the normal and the abnormal wavers, then vanishes. Borowski, a concentration camp victim himself, understood what human beings will do to endure the unendurable."

Borowski wrote this collection of concentration-camp stories after surviving imprisonment in Auschwitz and Dachau from 1943 to 1945. He committed suicide in Warsaw in 1951 when he was only 29 years old.
Profile Image for Leah.
143 reviews66 followers
December 3, 2014
It is difficult, with a moat of sixty years and an intellectual barricade of countless other World War II and Holocaust-related reading, to adequately begin to review this collection of short stories from Tadeusz Borowski. Falling back into the same reiteration of virtually all Holocaust/post-war writings is almost too easy: "This book serves as a reminder of the atrocities of war ...", "this book demonstrates how terrible man can be..." etc, etc, ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. The sorts of blanket recognitions and statements about Holocaust writing do not, in general, do either post-war mentalities, nor the atrocities of the event, justice: they provide an automated recognition of the war, but without truly instigating thought, consideration, and insight of what actually happened.

In many respects, This Way for the Gas ... establishes itself as a remarkably unique piece of post-war Holocaust writing. While Borowski himself was a kapo in Auschwitz, his experience there was vastly different from many others who passed through the camp. His lifestyle was comparatively luxuriant: he was afforded packages from home, 'organised' (stolen) goods from around the camp, and generally held a position of relatively power over the fellow inmates. Because he was a Pole (rather than a Jew or a Russian), Borowski possessed a substantial advantage over many of the most barbaric treatments at Auschwitz. Additionally, being selected as a kapo forced his participation in many of the very atrocities ocurring at Auschwitz: Borowski was likely feared and despised by many of the inmates under him in the camp's hierarchy.

The writing is terse, resigned, and strikingly detached. Concurrently with This Way for the Gas ..., I was reading 'Auschwitz' (by L. Rees). In this latter book, Rees stipulates that how many concentration camp workers managed to survive, despite the crushing mental and physical burdens, was in effectively detaching oneself from the surroundings. The behavior of detaching oneself from ones' environment is exemplified throughout 'This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.' Borowski himself creates a mental barricade between himself and his surroundings; in one scene he discusses playing keeper during a football game with other inmates. Between one out-of-bounds and a second, he sees a trainload (approximately five thousand) of people sorted, selected, and gassed only a few hundred meters from where he is playing.

The frankness (and, to us, callousness - though at the time, such responses were likely appropriate and acceptable given the circumstance) of the prose makes Borowski's works difficult to read. Inevitably, there is the comparison to Wiesel's 'Night' (another magnificent piece of writing), but the similarities, outside of being narratives of concentration camp survivors, are few. While Wiesel's writing is humane, gutwrenching, and almost impossibly difficult to read, Borowski's is so lacking of humanity, warmth, and compassion that it's nearly more difficult to read than Wiesel's writing. Borowski doesn't seem to be completely devoid of humanity, but the demonstrated acceptance of the conditions around him do not provide as distinct a demarcation as Wiesel's writings: inmates are not consistently helpless victims, nor are SS guards always the most brutal of characters.

Borowski's writing remains one of the most complex pieces I have ever read. There are many levels to what he has written, and his reflections and thoughts are inconsistent with their acceptance and understanding of his environment. Like much else written during the time, he ultimately is an individual trying desperately to cope with a decidedly inhuman, catastrophic situation as best he can.
Profile Image for Greta G.
337 reviews252 followers
January 19, 2017
This one is difficult to rate. Not all the stories did engage me on a same level.
I would definitely give a 5 for the title story. It's a unique testimony about prisoners unloading an incoming Transport. It's powerful and haunting :
"The bolts crack, the doors fall open. A wave of fresh air rushes inside the train. People...inhumanly crammed, buried under incredible heaps of luggage, suitcases, trunks, packages, crates, bundles of every description (everything that had been their past and was to start their future). Monstrously squeezed together, they have fainted from heat, suffocated, crushed one another. Now they push towards the opened doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand."

My expectations were very high, after reading the first short. But to be honest, the following stories didn't met those expectations. And that was a shame, because all of them are certainly worth reading.
Mr. Borowski gives a voice to the victims, who were reduced to beasts from the moment they were loaded into the cattle cars ; and the ones that were lucky enough to survive the transport and the selection at the train ramp, saw their lives as prisoners reduced to nothing but a beastly struggle for life.
Mr. Borowski understood this very well, and was painfully aware of the fact that he was no exception.

Whatever the rating given to this collection of concentration camp stories, one thing is certain : it packs a powerful punch, and is unmissable if you even want to try to understand what the victims went through.
"...in this war morality, national solidarity, patriotism and the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity had all slid off man like a rotten rag. We said that there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons ; he will commit them first out of duty, then from habit, and finally - for pleasure. "

Profile Image for Piyangie.
529 reviews490 followers
July 13, 2022
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of short stories that states a brutally true account of horror and survival in Auschwitz concentration camp. Borowski, a survivor of Auschwitz, writes this honest but brutal account to expose to the world the true horrors of the concentration camp.

This is not an easy read. The fact that Borowski has made the account as dispassionate as possible doesn't make it any easier either. On the contrary, knowing that this comes from his personal experiences makes matters worse, for then, one cannot be detached as one wants since one knows it's all true, and the things said, the events mentioned, actually took place. I have a fair knowledge of the holocaust and life in the concentration camps. I've even visited the Auschwitz main camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau and seen the remnants of the horrors. Yet, I wasn't prepared for Borowski's first-hand account. It tells not only of the horrors but also of survival. He shows how the prisoners themselves compete with each other for survival, how they too lose their humanity just like their jailers in the struggle to survive. It was horrifying. It staggered me, and at times, nauseated me. In truth, this was the most difficult read that I've ever done.

I endured this read for the same reason I bought it at Auschwitz. That is I felt that I should read it, that I should know the horrors that were hidden from the world, the atrocities done in those camps, because I felt I owe it to both the dead and forgotten, and the survivors. It'll be a one-time experience, however, for I never can go through it again. But I'm glad I read it this once.

P.S. I didn't rate this simply because I thought the rating system doesn't suit the gravity of the book. I can't say it was amazing, nor can I say that I liked or disliked it.
Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews684 followers
January 20, 2016
Translator's Note

--This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
--A Day at Harmenz
--The People Who Walked On
--Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter)
--The Death of Schillinger
--The Man with the Package
--The Supper
--A True Story
--The January Offensive
--A Visit
--The World of Stone
Profile Image for Anne .
455 reviews376 followers
January 2, 2021
This book made me feel and understand the horrors of Auschwitz like no other book I've read. Borowski is able to make the reader feel how very mundane and acceptable killing and torture became to the inmates. He uses a mix of humor and stark, in-your-face descriptions in relating his stories of camp life and of the atrocities. This puts the reader in the position of smiling and cringing at one and the same time. For instance, Inmates playing a soccer game are having a good time, but don't bat at eye while others are being tortured and killed. The following excerpt between two "pals" is particularly illustrative:

"What's new with you?"

"Not much. Just gassed up a Czech transport."

'That I know. I mean personally."

"Personally? What sort of "personally" is there for me? The oven, the barracks, back to the oven,,...Well, if you really want to know ...'we've figured out a new way to burn people. Want to hear about it?"
He goes on to describe a particularly gruesome procedure then bursts out laughing when he sees his friends unease. He goes on, " Listen, doctor, here in Auschwitz we must entertain ourselves in every way we can. Otherwise, who can stand it?"

The title refers to line after line of thousands of men, women and children walking to the gas chambers every day. Whether watching "these lines of ants" from afar or taking part in "unloading the ramps," clearing away the dead from the cattle cars, it is all just a part of life. As Borowski says, In order to survive one had to go numb, feel nothing at all while, for instance, pocketing food left behind by those walking to the gas chambers,

At the same time, Borowski shows us that he, somehow, still maintained his humanity. This is obvious in the love letters he writes to his fiance in a nearby camp. In these letters he writes poetically and philosophically about hope for the future for both himself and for mankind.
Profile Image for Ben Winch.
Author 4 books358 followers
April 21, 2022
A mental-health episode involving a too-large dose of magic mushrooms sobered me recently when I made a call (my first) to “000”. A dose of sheer panic mixed with latent paranoia convinced me I might die here, in a tiny town in country New South Wales where I housesit and look after the dog for my father and stepmother while they travel. In the aftermath, having negotiated (or so it seemed) with two starched-uniformed paramedics for my freedom (“Call if you need us,” they said as they left, “but next time you don’t get a choice about coming to the hospital”), for days I could only read Borowski. Sleeping badly, having nightmares, alone and stuck far from friends and family, I found nothing else that gripped me or made sense. A few paragraphs, a page, a 3- or 7-page story – every burst was potent, helped to wake me, focussed my thought. In that state I wrote the following, for what it’s worth. The words may be clumsy, but the sentiment? I stand by it.

Tadeusz Borowski, a young writer approaching the peak of his craft, was imprisoned a few weeks after the rules were changed at Auschwitz: no “Aryans” (Borowski was Aryan) would be gassed. Borowski knew that lies are one thing and pretence another. You lie to stay alive, to get ahead, in both camp and civilian life (where later he rose to prominence in the Communist Party, admitted that he’d “stamped on the throat of his song”, and killed himself at 28 after trying unsuccessfully to intercede in the prosecution of a friend and writer two weeks earlier). But he was no criminal, no sadist. Not like Becker the ex-Poznan camp-senior who’d hung thieves “from the post” (hands behind their backs till their arms came out of their sockets) and “really known hunger” (“when one man regards another man as something to eat”). Or like First Sargeant Schillinger, killed when after taking a comely naked prisoner by the hand she “scooped up a handful of gravel and threw it in his face, and when Schillinger cried out in pain and dropped his revolver, the woman snatched it up and fired several shots into his abdomen.”

Schillinger was lying face down, clawing the dirt in pain with his fingers. We lifted him off the ground and carried him – not too gently – to a car. On the way he kept groaning through clenched teeth: “Oh Gott, mein Gott, was hab’ ich getan dass ich so leiden muss?”

Schillinger, Becker – these are pretenders. To pretend that one life is more important than another. To pretend that they do what they do for any higher reason than to get by.

Borowski, in writing fiction (and it is fiction, by what magic I’m not sure), is lying, but not pretending. His picture of Auschwitz is so true and sure and moving because it treats of it as just another aspect of life. Yes there is horror, but not only horror. And for a man who after the war apparently gave in to the rhetoric of hate in his pro-party journalism, he writes here miraculously without hate. He feels for everyone, from soldiers to the condemned. He sees in everyone oppressor and oppressed. In this, his wisdom is profound.

Compared to Borowski, I lead the life of an aristocrat. Life moves slow here, but I’m out of step. Hoping to catch a wave of experience, I fall back on self-destruction. For Borowski, catching or not catching that wave is irrelevant – he must ride it. From great suffering does not come great art, but suffering is sobering. Iggy Pop once said that when he got out front of a good rock band he didn’t feel anything, and he didn’t want to either. Tadeusz Borowski is a benign Terminator – no pity, no pain. Or rather he has been that. So stupid, so Western, to ritually ingest poison to know what’s important. Borowski, at 21, with his fiance in Birkenau shave-headed and covered in sores, knew it in his gut. Family, friends, freedom, home. If these were taken from me tomorrow and I was allowed one book I’d take Borowski. He’s here right beside me, just in case.

the best description of bread
is a description of hunger

Tadeusz Rozewicz

December 14, 2018
"This way for the gas ladies and gentlemen" is a book that I'd been wanting to read for a while. When a book is described as difficult reading, I feel like I have some kind of duty to read this book. We will never truly know what these people suffered in those inhumane conditions but we can pick up the writing that they left us, so we may learn from that and ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.
Not all the stories engaged me on the same level, but either way, I do think that the title given for this book is powerful enough to make one pick it up. For me the first story was the most haunting. The others included in this book we are along the same kind of nature but just didn't stand as strong as the first. Borowski gave these victims a vital thing, a voice. To the ones that were piled into the cattle cars and to the ones that actually survived to live on in the camp and then to just experience a painful struggle to make it through to the next day. I would recommend these powerful and horrific concentration camp stories to anybody who wishes to try to understand just what these people endured.
Profile Image for Jon Nakapalau.
5,100 reviews723 followers
August 28, 2016
Into an abyss that engulfs everything a man tries to hold onto the tattered remnants of his humanity. Each day he must fight for every strand that is left and try to bind the courage in his soul to make it through one more day.
Profile Image for [P].
145 reviews525 followers
July 22, 2015
For the last couple of years, since I been trying to quit smoking, I have taken to carrying around with me during the day whatever book I am currently reading, fitting in a few pages during my breaks at work. Often people will peer at the cover, mutter the title to themselves, and then carry on with their own business. The other day a friend of mine came over to the table at which I was sitting, picked up This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, turned it over, read the title and winced. I think this is the only time that this has ever happened. It is not a ridiculous reaction, either. As titles go it is provocative, shocking even; it is also, I believe, appropriate, because it sums up the attitude – tough, mocking, cynical, cruel – of most of the stories contained within.


[Work Makes You Free. The gates of Auschwitz]

I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, and each is different, of course. But the one thing that generally tends to tie them together is that they focus on the victims, who are almost always Jewish, and their experiences; there is a very real sense of innocence, and clear distinctions between the aggressors and the oppressed, the good and the bad. That is not the case here. Borowski’s stories are written in the first person, and the narrator [if we assume it is the same one throughout – which for ease I will] is openly, actively involved in ‘the process.’ Now, one must not lose sight of the fact that Tadek has not chosen to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in this way he is a victim too, but, nevertheless, the morality on display is muddier than one would expect, to say the least.

The title story, which opens the collection, is particularly disturbing. I must admit that I found it tough to keep turning the pages, even bearing in mind my stance, my insistence that we read the stories as fiction [something that, much to my irritation and dismay, some people seem incapable of doing]. Unusually, Borowski dispenses with backstory, with arrests or journeys, and drops you straightaway into the camp. There is, therefore, no sense of building towards a [terrible] climax, towards an end; one gets the impression that life has always been this way and always will, which is, I imagine, how it must have felt to be a prisoner. The author also immediately challenges your expectations by introducing a ‘fat Frenchman’ [there were fat people in the camps? is the absurd question that ran through my mind], and describing a situation where the inmates appear to eat well and have access to all kinds of luxury items [Tadek notes that the labour gang ‘smells not of maple forests but of French perfume’]. One feels an instant revulsion for all this, for the idea that some prisoners were chowing down on bacon and potatoes while others starved, even though there is little sense in everyone starving together.

“Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and—we do nothing. We starve, we are drenched by rain, we are torn from our families. What is this mystery? This strange power of one man over another? This insane passivity that cannot be overcome? Our only strength is our great number—the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us.”

It is where this food, these luxuries are coming from that provides the most aggressive punch in the gut. I am a very cynical man, and so you would think that I would have been able to guess, that it would have been obvious, yet somehow it still came as a horrible surprise, as though I didn’t want to acknowledge the truth to myself until I had no choice. In short, the trains draw into the camp, and the labour gang, or Kommando, help to unload the new arrivals, in the process relieving them of their possessions, be they dead or alive. The gold and money goes to the S.S., and the rest goes to the workers, such as Tadek and the Frenchman. They are, then, essentially robbers, even, you might say, graverobbers. And yet what is perhaps hardest to stomach is not the stealing, the death, the prospect of the crematorium [or ‘cremo’ as it is called throughout the book], but the inhumanity, the lack of empathy displayed by the prisoners.

We want to believe, and the media plays a big part in helping us to believe, that those in crisis, those who are suffering, will stick together, will go down together, will, at the very least, sympathise with each other, but that is not the case here. I have long felt that certain atrocities or tragedies undergo a kind of Disneyfication. One need only look at 9/11, where the story has become about heroism and patriotism, and the truly awful has been buried. One of the collection’s overriding themes is, as one would expect, survival or, more specifically, what will people do to survive? What are we capable of in order to save ourselves? It’s a question not many of us would be comfortable in asking of ourselves, and even if one did it is impossible to say whether our response would be truthful. In any case, Borowski asks it, or the camp does, and the answers are often unpleasant.

“Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat.”

In the second story in the collection Tadek is speaking to a Jewish man, needling him somewhat about his actions in a previous camp. The old man, he himself admits, denounced his own son, had him hung. Again, we instantly recoil, we judge, we ourselves, as readers, denounce this man, and yet he then says something significant. He says that at some point one comes to see other people as food. Of course, he doesn’t mean this literally [although there is a story that does involve cannibalism], rather that other people become your means of survival, they are sacrificed, if necessary, in order for you to continue to live. I believe, or at least I hope, that none of us can relate to that dilemma: having to decide between one’s own existence or the existence of someone else. We cannot therefore truly judge this man, because lord knows what we would actually do. We know what we would like to think we would do, but that, as we sit comfortably in our homes, means absolutely nothing.

There is also one other thing to consider, which is that for those who are placed in brutal environments, who are treated brutally themselves, and witness brutality on a daily basis, there is the danger that it will become normal. Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable, our expectations, behaviour, morals are likely to change depending on our circumstances; just look at the army, at the police. So, yes, Tadek’s attitude, his actions, appear cold and uncaring, even wrong, to us, but we are not in a concentration camp; in there, Borowski seems to suggest, that is just what life was like. People did not hold hands and help each other out, they looked after themselves, they wished people dead, they joked about the cremos, they got annoyed with weaker inmates.

Having said this, as the book progresses, there is a shift in tone, the narrator becomes more hopeful, certainly more sentimental and caring towards his fellow man or woman. Indeed, one story is in the form of a letter he sends to his girlfriend, who is also in a concentration camp. While this new, more humane Tadek is a relief it does, in my opinion, mean that the collection, taken as a whole, feels slightly uneven, even contradictory. Don’t get me wrong, This Way for the Gas is a fine book, but the second half is less original, less startling, less disconcerting in terms of what you are asked to confront, about man in general and yourself in particular.

neither poems nor prose
just a length of rope
just the wet earth —
that’s the way home.

neither vodka nor bread
just bursts of rage
just more new graves —
that’s youth and that’s love.
Profile Image for Ned.
302 reviews128 followers
January 1, 2017
Told from the vantage of a very young, Polish, political prisoner, this one was unique. Having read a fair bit of holocaust literature, what separates this is that it has no Jewish point of view at all, and does not decry the evils of the Nazi targeting this genocide. The other unusual feature of this story is that it was written shortly after the events themselves. Without the benefit of hindsight and perspective, the entire context is missing from this narrative. In fact, the horrors are mostly described without emotion, such as observed post-war in soldiers so numbed that the extreme and perverse for them has become commonplace. A bizarre result is that the descriptions are rendered with clear, artistic style and are detailed and factual. Great writing focuses on detail, and Borowski as an aspiring poet writes beautifully. Without the emotion, however, this was a disconcerting read. The sheer volume and mechanized human destruction is nearly unbelievable, but entirely true from my other readings. For example, the constant stream of body to body crammed full railway cars arriving and depositing the humans with all their wealth is efficiently razed and humans split according to sexual desirability and workability. The “workers” are tattooed with serial numbers (in the millions), and those of no value to the Reich are stripped and sent to the crematorium. It’s shocking that the sheer numbers did not revolt over their relatively few guards, but these people were deceived into believing they were going to be incarcerated temporarily, hence their early possessions were on their persons. The workers, mostly bribed with cheap favors, were prisoners themselves, who stripped everything of value into a warehouse – jewelry, etc… anything of worth. Then the hoards (and they were in the thousands) were stripped naked (men, women, children, old and young alike) for shower, at which point they were locked in and gassed. Within 20 minutes they were all dead, the floor dropped and the corpses burned in massive ovens. Apparently the 4 main buildings held 5000 each and therefore 20,000 at a time could be literally converted to ash within hours. The firepower and processing of human flesh and water (we are 90% such) and fat must have been horrific beyond imagining. Yet millions were killed thusly in 2-3 years time.

So our “survivor” documents this all, the local brothel of prisoners, the petty exchanges, the bartering and the illness and the politics of this enormous camp, in incredible detail. The author survives, being non-Jewish and of relatively minor threat to the Reich, only to find himself displaced in Germany after the war was won, again a prisoner unable or unwilling to return to his homeland, which has become a communist society with its own treachery.

I learned that the town Auschwitz itself could see the prisoners, and the author having found his way into a better job in the hospital, feels comfort in this part of the camp compared to the shabby and fatal Birkenau killing factory, observes from his new vantage (p 100): “What delightful days: no roll-call, no duties to perform. The entire camp stands at attention, but we, the lucky spectators from another planet, lean out of the window and gaze at the world. The people smile at us, we smile at the people, they call us ‘Comrades from Birkenau’, with a touch of pity- our lot being so miserable- and a touch of guilt-theirs being so fortunate. The view from the window is almost pastoral- not one cremo in sight. These people over here are crazy about Aushchwitz. ‘Auschwitz, our home…’ they say with pride.”
The author, toward the end, begins to understand his place in the dynamic, after having been released (p 168): “…there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly tivial reasons; he will commit them first out of duty, then from habit, and finally- for pleasure….We believe neither in the morality of man, nor themorality of systems. In German cities the store windows are filled with books and religious objects, but the smoke from the crematoria still hovers above the forests…”

Alas, our author, shortly after his escape and still a young man, can’t handle it and on the eve of committing suicide (p 180): “I take out fresh paper, arrange it neatly on the desk, and closing my eyes try to find within me a tender feeling for the workmen hammering the rails, for the peasant women with their eratz sour cream, the trains full of merchandise, the fading sky above the ruins, for the passers-by on the street below and the newly installed windows, and even for my wife who is washing dishes in the kitchen alcove; and with a tremendous intellectual effort aI attempt to grasp the true significance of the events, things and people I have seen. For I intend to write a great, immortal epic, worthy of this unchanging, difficult world chiseled out of stone.” The despair cannot be overcome by our author, he is ruined forever by what he has seen, and he does not escape it ultimately. Tragic, powerful. These horrors can hardly be imagined, but, they were not imaginable even then, not so very long ago, really… we owe it to ourselves to never let this tragedy unfold again. But even saying that gives me dread, as it can happen again.

I finished this an hour before midnight in the last day of 2016.
Profile Image for Mike.
426 reviews42 followers
September 13, 2012
These semi-autobiographical stories are incredibly difficult to read; the mind, at least the sane mind, jerks backward from them like a panicked, rearing horse. The book should be read not only because the writing is superb, but because I don’t know of any other way to stand with the victims other than by reading about them, in this book and others, and forcing myself to see them as wide-eyed as I can, something I feel compelled to do, even if such make-believe solidarity is futile and of no benefit to the dead.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
977 reviews1,220 followers
October 14, 2018
Mostly skimmed, over the course of two or three hours, because it was either that or never reading it.

I'd always been scared of this book, but, catching up on classic Polish literature (albeit books not about the war whenever possible), the book's brevity, and Borowski's place as one of the author case studies in The Captive Mind made me have a go. I read the introduction a couple of days ago - I like introductions in their own right - and figured that actually, I'd been right all along, I wouldn't be able to read the rest. Then I was listening to the Captive Mind chapter on Jerzy Andrzejewski, and because I'd recently read Ashes & Diamonds I was getting a lot more out of it than if he was merely an abstract example or a Wikipedia page. So I decided to have a go at reading Borowski's stories after all, before listening to the next chapter, about him.

Initially I wished I could send this book back to myself aged 15-19 when I was reading lots of modern classics, when I had a much less emotional, aka hardened, response to literature in general - and was bored and numb to anything about the war, as those with parents or grandparents who were refugees from it sometimes became… All the conversations, all the documentaries whenever they were on TV, all the novels about it, even for kids and teenagers. Yet another black & white photo of a mountain of dead people's glasses? *rolls eyes*. (It wasn't until 35-ish that I became interested in reading about the war again: so strange how the ideas and facts were familiar, yet they were as harrowing as if I were hearing them for the first time.) Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint showed that inured state of youth perfectly (and in more entertaining fashion) - but these days, suggesting in trivial tones that WWII might be tedious seems to be shocking to some conscientious, political Millenials and Gen Z, who are concerned about the alt-right, and who are too young to have grown up sick to the back teeth of all the jaw-jaw about the war.

But honestly, even back then, the title of this book scared me when I saw it in shops. And given how much more deeply, sometimes physically, I feel what I read now than I did in those days, I knew couldn't read it with the type of attention I normally give to books. But I did, luckily, have the energy for speed-reading. So eyes side to side over the lines, words gabble gabble gabble like a YouTube video on double speed. Sometimes I would slow involuntarily and feel too much, one second thrown on a truck as one character, the next swigging from a hip flask of vodka as someone else; a while later I looked up a Polish town on Wikipedia and shivered involuntarily on seeing, like a ghost, Yiddish among the languages in which its name was given; and there were times when I felt queasy - but largely I got the overview of the book I was seeking.

It has a higher ratio of really brutal details than the average long newspaper article or TV documentary about concentration camps - attempts at cannibalism, people burnt alive, the necessary casualness of talking to an officer about filling a pond with human bones, and… I'm not going to be looking at a spade handle the same way in a hurry. It directly shows through first person narrative, rather than just telling the reader about, the self-interestedness, dehumanisation and racism that some prisoners (including the narrator) practised as they tried to survive - plus occasional scenes of some very very black humour. There's a moral ambiguity in which prisoners to an extent mirror their captors; and they display pre-existing social attitudes that would often be unacceptable in Anglo countries today. It is bleaker than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - a book of similar length translated to English not long after this, and which sometimes used to be shelved nearby - the span of time covered by Borowski's stories shows far more change in conditions and subjection to capriciousness.

Not too surprisingly given its time of writing, it's not exactly a feminist book either; women (female prisoners) are a commodity to soldiers and to male prisoners (p.108), and after the camps are liberated, that's still more or less the case: "It was difficult to acquire an apartment, a car, a mistress and official travel permits". Though two characters do in effect answer back, one when asking the narrator to help with an ill child: "'All you know is that it's pretty! But it can die any moment!" (p.89), and the other, the intelligent though brief post-war conversation of "the poet's mistress (the philologist)" in 'The January Offensive'. Borowski's / the narrator's fiancée was in a neighbouring women's camp for much of their captivity. Their communication helps keep him going, although what we hear about her as an individual in these stories is mostly (p.121) from before they were arrested. (Afterwards, he ruminates at his desk while she provides the soothing sounds of the washing-up.) Much as with Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (his wife was in Barcelona much of the time) I thought it would have been interesting to hear her side of it as well, although she doesn't seem to have published it. Maria Borowska outlived her husband, so perhaps there were interviews in Polish.

The disjointed sequence and episodic nature of the concentration camp stories, plus occasional repetition of ideas, has the effect of listening to an old man talking on different occasions about whichever memories of the war have currently surfaced. (Although Borowski didn't even make it to 30, never mind to old age.) I'd always thought this collection was all concentration camp stories - it's a partial selection from one of Borowski's Polish story collections, made by a British editor, and this assumption made the book seem symptomatic of the old difficulty of finding anything in English about Poland that wasn't about WWII. However, the last four stories are set after the liberation of the camps, and appear to be in chronological order.

It was the material not directly about the brutalities of camp life (or about interesting and humane conversations at the camp, like Mrs. Haneczka who brings food in 'A Day at Harmenz') for which I slowed down and really concentrated. There were brief asides that made me smile, like "Finnish dances by one of those composers with many 'a's in his name", or suggesting that Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki (surprisingly little of whose work has been translated to English) would have suited playing the saxophone.

Even before I've listened to Miłosz's chapter about Borowski, I've started wondering about connections with other Polish writers. Did Andrzejewski know Borowski, and was there any link between Borowski's time as a camp orderly, and the character of Antoni Kossecki in Ashes & Diamonds? Who were the two talented writers mentioned on p.137 of This Way for the Gas, who died in Warsaw and whom Borowski opposed, and were they Futurists? Was Miłosz the poet in 'The January Offensive'?


Two of the more striking passages not directly about the camps were about other societies.

I was amused by his description of "young American boys", i.e. GIs, and the American values they embodied:
Brought up worshipping success, a success to be achieved only by the daring use of one's wits, believing in equal opportunities for everyone, accustomed to judging a man's worth by the size of his income and a woman's beauty by the length of her legs, these strong, athletic, cheerful men, full of the joy of living and the expectation of great opportunities right around the corner…They had no interest in politics…

And, at some length, a different way of looking at Classical civilisations, which, at least to someone who doesn't keep up with the academic research, seems to continue still, perhaps simply due to the state of the records:

We work beneath the earth and above it, under a roof and in the rain, with the spade, the pickaxe and the crowbar. We carry huge sacks of cement, lay bricks, put down rails, spread gravel, trample the earth.... We are laying the foundation for some new, monstrous civilization. Only now do I realize what price was paid for building the ancient civilizations. The Egyptian pyramids, the temples and Greek statues—what a hideous crime they were! How much blood must have poured on to the Roman roads, the bulwarks, and the city walls. Antiquity—the tremendous concentration camp where the slave was branded on the forehead by his master, and crucified for trying to escape! Antiquity—the conspiracy of the free men against the slaves!

You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realize he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labour. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden ploughs, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies. We were filthy and died real deaths. They were 'aesthetic' and carried on subtle debates…

What does ancient history say about us? It knows the crafty slave from Terence and Plautus, it knows the people's tribunes, the brothers Gracchi and the name of one slave - Spartacus.

They are the ones who made history, yet the murderer - Scipio - the lawmakers - Cicero or Demosthenes - are the men remembered today...

If the Germans win the war, what will the world know about us? They will erect huge buildings, highways, factories, soaring monuments. Our hands will be placed under every brick, and our backs will carry the steel rails and the slabs of concrete. They will kill off our families, our sick, our aged. They will murder our children.

And we shall be forgotten, drowned out by the voices of the poets, the jurists, the philosophers, the priests. They will produce their own beauty, virtue, and truth. They will produce religion.
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
June 26, 2017
This book is so powerful it can make you vomit while reading.

This a holocaust book. I have read so many of these but this one is the most brutal in terms of vividly describing the scenes in the concentration camp - Auschwitz. I would not say that this is bereft of the haunting prose of say W. G. Sebald's "Austerlitz", the intriguing thesis of Viktor E. Frankl's "The Man's Search for Meaning" or the palpable honesty of Elie Wiesel's "Night". (Note: the most popular Holocaust book by Anne Frank, "The Diary of a Young Girl" has no concentration camp scene). In fact, all of those ingredients are in this book by Borowski. Not even Steven Spielberg in his famous movie, "Schindler's List" compares to what I felt while reading this book. Many a times while reading when I thought I could smell the blood and the rotten brains and entrails or imagine seeing lice crawling on the pages of the book. I thought I saw black chimney smoke coming out from the window yesterday while I was about to finish this. There are so memorable scenes that almost made me cry and actually made me grit my teeth. Now I have painful blisters on my inner lip due to actually biting my lips in desperation and sorrow for the victims of the holocaust mostly of which were gassed naked inside the chamber.

I actually pick a Holocaust book whenever I have a problem. Or maybe I a worrying about something. Or maybe I am depressed. Holocaust books are eye-opener: my problem is nothing compared with how the victims suffered from the hands of the Nazis or Aryans or even fellow Jews who are happened to be given some assignments in the concentration camps. This kind of book will make you be thankful that we were not among those who were persecuted because of religion.

The best part in Borowski's narration is that story where thousands of naked women, old men, children are walking to the gas chamber. Non-stop, trains after trains. They are silent. No one's fighting. No one's questioning their fate. They know where they are going. Why? Borowski says: because they hope that by what they are doing, they are giving us, the living one thing: HOPE that things will change. That there will never be another Holocaust.

Brilliant writing. Beautifully written yet very depressing.
Profile Image for Dhanaraj Rajan.
450 reviews311 followers
August 23, 2019
There are many ways I could write a review for this book. But I limit myself to some basic observations and recommend it highly to each and everyone who has not yet read it.

As I read the book (a collection of concentration camp stories) I was remembered of another book that I had read earlier. That is Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. Primo Levi had originally titled it as: IF THIS WERE THE MAN. The similarities in both the books are very many.

Both of them were the concentration camp prisoners and later the survivors. Levi spent a year in the camp as a Jew and Borowski spent two years in the Auschwitz/Dachau camp for two years as a Polish prisoner. Both of them write in a very detached manner. They just narrate the everyday happenings of the camp. While Primo Levi chose the genre, memoir Borowski chose the form of short stories. But then, there are not much differences as the short stories are narrated in the first person and the narrator's name is Tadek. May be, in a memoir one could organize thoughts and observations under various headings and could easily compartmentalize (the Daily Work, Hospital Life, Selection for Death, The authority, the torture, etc). But the same thing is narrated in the short story form by Borowski - each story circles around a certain event.

In this collection there are just twelve stories. And this collection is well arranged as the first story speaks of the earlier days of concentration camp life and thus it progresses to the stories when the war was coming to an end to the liberation of the camp to the free life in Poland by Borowski. The shadow of the concentration camp stands over his entire life and the entire collection.

Each story impacts you - and when I say impact I am not just using an interesting word to praise the book. It may be the case as well. But what is important is that you get the impact almost emotionally and many times also physically. I realized my own body shivering many times. Add to it the fact that I was haunted by the images narrated in the book at night and thus lost sleep for two days. The first and the second story can shatter anyone. And I had recently visited the horrendous site - Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site. Thus I could easily see the scenes narrated in the story by my own eyes. I saw myself walking on the camp site when the event narrated in the book was taking place.

Along the way, Borowski just gives few commentaries or some conversations that had gone among the prisoners in which is revealed his tremendous will to understand the situation. And the result is very much pessimistic and frightening.

Here is a quote taken from a dialogue between two prisoners regarding justice:
'I think that for those who have suffered unjustly, justice alone is not enough. They want the guilty to suffer unjustly too. Only this will they understand as justice.'

And searching for reason to such amount of atrocities without any itching in the conscience, he finds it in the idealistic, progressive philosophical thoughts that shaped the Nazi Germany.
Here is a quote: "But, being a German, he fails to distinguish between reality and illusion, and is inclined to take words at their face value, as if they always represented the truth. He says KAMERADEN and thinks that such a thing is possible. Above the gate leading to the camp, these words are inscribed on metal scrolls: 'Work makes one free.' I suppose they believe it, the S.S. men and the German prisoners--those raised on Luther, Fichte, Hehel, Nietzsche."

The final vision based on the concentration camp experience is even more shattering:
"We said that there is no crime that a man will not commit in order to save himself. And, having saved himself, he will commit crimes for increasingly trivial reasons; he will commit them first out of duty, then from habit, and finally--for pleasure.
'The world is ruled by neither justice nor morality; crime is not punished nor virtue rewarded, one is forgotten as quickly as the other. The world is ruled by power and power is obtained with money. To work is senseless, because money cannot be obtained through work but through exploitation of others. And if we cannot exploit as much as we wish, at least let us work as little as we can. Moral duty? We believe neither in the morality of man, nor in the morality of the systems."

Now just think of the original title Primo Levi gave for his memoir IF THIS WERE THE MAN. The answer can be anything. The prisoner who killed the other prisoner, the prisoner who stole the food of the other starving prisoner, the prisoner who without a pinch of conscience pushed the other almost dead (but living still) prisoner inside the burning oven, the prisoner who was willing to eat the spilled brain of an executed prisoner (shot in the neck in the public square) - That is the way to survive.

Imagine the horror that might have been theirs (Levi and Borowski) after the liberation. Everyday they were visited by demons from the past. They feel the maximum guilt for having survived. They feel increasingly that it is in no time that they too will be reduced to smoke and ash. The feel death as a constant nagging companion. To escape the nagging they embrace it willingly. Both, Levi and Borowski, like many other concentration camp survivors took their own lives.

There is a question raised by Borowski in the book which made me cringe with fear. Thinking of the war and its outcome he makes an observation in the form of a question. I give you the question: "IF GERMANS WIN THE WAR, WHAT WILL THE WORLD KNOW ABOUT US?"
Profile Image for Petra.
1,147 reviews16 followers
September 26, 2013
Borowski's experiences are horrendous. His writing is superb. With few words and little emotion he manages to bring the horror of the concentration camp experience into these pages. His writing style, detached, shows how man had to separate himself in order to live day to day under these horrific conditions.
Throughout, I thought I could feel his guilt for having survived. Perhaps I'm reading things into Borowski's words. He sounds so haunted.
This is probably as close as we can get to finding out what truly happened in the camps. These aren't stories. They are memories.

"There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice."

"We are as insensitive as trees, as stones. And we remain as numb as trees when they are being cut down, or stones when they are being crushed."

"...with a tremendous intellectual effort I attempt to grasp the true significance of the events, things and people I have seen."
4 reviews1 follower
August 9, 2007
A book to test your fortitude. If you can read more than one story at once, your capacity for the banality of human injustice and horror is great indeed. The only hope to be found in reading this collection of short stories is in the knowledge that the author survived to tell them.

The 5-star rating system is ridiculously inadequate for a book like this--perhaps for all books. Did I 'like' it? Did I 'enjoy' reading it? No. But I could not put it out of my mind. There are passages so terrible that they will haunt you, passages that will knock the wind out of you.

And if you come away with nothing else, you will understand the innate cruelty in humanity. There are no Schindler's in these stories, no heroes. Only people struggling for survival under the worst of conditions.
Profile Image for David.
188 reviews21 followers
January 15, 2010
Suffering is not ennobling: it is just suffering. Genocide does not martyr people: it just kills them. There was no triumph to dying in the camps. The victims of the Holocaust were not just tortured and dehumanized, but often demoralized into shocking behavior. This book will denies the reader the comforting fallacy of a world in black and white, a world made up of evil people and good ones. A “fortunate” non-Jew, Borowski was arrested and spent two years as a prisoner and orderly in Auschwitz, Dachau and other camps, where he survived as countless others did, but helping to keep the camps running. Although to say he survived the camps is misleading, as he committed suicide by gas in 1951. In the interval between the war and his delayed casualty (just as Hans Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone to capture his experience as a German citizen), he wrote these tales. There were acts of resistance and heroism, to be sure, but for most of those who survived the camps and many who didn’t, terror was something that was both taken and given, and even the ghastliest atrocities become commonplace after a while. People are remarkably adaptable; they get used to anything. They laugh and play football as thousands file by on their way to the gas chambers. Clothing is better than nakedness; people with food are better than starving people; the living have triumphed over the dead. This is the morality of the camps, these are some of the lessons to be derived from these anti-heroic stories drawn from Borowski’s experiences, but the book cannot be reduced to such platitudes. The experience of reading them is a little harder to convey. There are images and situations that scar the mind a little, and it is a good thing these are short stories, because you want to pause in the reading, and some readers may find that one or two is enough. But the cumulative effect of reading the whole book is unique, and in some ways more both more bearable and more disturbing than Elie Weisel’s Night. Truly one of the most profound reading experiences I have ever had, and one I will surely return to.
Profile Image for Joachim Stoop.
751 reviews513 followers
December 26, 2022
I do not recall Primo Levi's If This Is a Man hitting me this hard. And although I visited Auswitch and Birkenau when I was 17, I never felt myself some kind of witness 'till reading this human all too human account. Because my heart was beating in my stomach and my belly felt full of bile, I wanted to quit several times but the way this is written -non-dramatic yet highly engaging- stopped me from abandonding this. There all several paragraphes which I marked as approaching the (philosophical) core of what it means to suffer (in a man-made hell) but also to be human and moral.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,298 reviews450 followers
March 20, 2017
Impossible to do justice to this book in a review. A slim volume of 180 pages that takes a while to read because of the horror of Auschwitz, conveyed in such simple language that gives a sense of trying to survive under the constant smoke and ash from the ovens. Not an easy read, but it is not fiction. Written by a survivor who committed suicide in 1951.
Profile Image for Matthew Devereux ∞ .
63 reviews55 followers
April 11, 2022
I think that Borowski has to be considered a victim of the Holocaust since he committed suicide after the war (as perhaps Primo Levi must). These stories about Auschwitz were depressing but beautifully written. It is a shame he died so young.
Profile Image for a random hopeless romantic .
98 reviews41 followers
May 1, 2023
each story was like a stinging, burning sensation in the throat as if u've just drank a full glass of vinegar and are close to throwing up because ur insides are aflame. truly devastating and raw.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,531 reviews1 follower
January 8, 2018
Tadeusz Borowski contributed articles, stories and poems to underground Polish publications during World War II which caused him to be arrested by the Gestapo in February 1943 and sent to Auschwitz were he spent almost two years before being transferred to Dachau.

Borowski factual seemingly detached point of view can cause the reader to question Borowski's basic humanity. However, in retrospect it appears that Borowski was profoundly traumatized. Initially he took refuge in the belief that the advent of communism on a global basis would ensure that atrocities such as he had witnessed at Auschwitz would never happen again. Unfortunately when the communist regime in Poland tortured one of his fellow internees, his fragile mental equilibrium shattered. Borowski committed suicide at the age of 28. This collection of short stories is recognized as a classic in Poland but has languished in relative obscurity in the Anglo Saxon world which is unfortunate.

For many readers the best story in the book is the Battle of Grunwald which harshy criticizes nationalism and calls instead for human solidarity across ethnic, linguistic, and religious divides. This story was turned by Andrzej Wajda into the brilliant movie Landscape after the Battle which is well worth viewing.

Borowski was a sharp observer and an excellent literary stylist. This set of stories belongs in the Holocaust canon.
Profile Image for Vikas Singh.
Author 4 books286 followers
August 4, 2021
Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the level of inhumanity a man is capable of reaching. The stories all inspired from the real life experiences of Borowski are testimony to the horrible war crimes and torture inflicted upon the prisoners as a daily routine. At time bordering on sarcasm and dark humor, Borowski paints a picture that will leave you disturbed. As a reader one is amazed at the self inflicted torture author must have undergone to pen down these stories. The effort must have left him seriously disturbed
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