Here in Our Auschwitz and Oth­er Stories

Tadeusz Borows­ki, Made­line G. Levine (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – January 27, 2022

The pub­li­ca­tion of the Pol­ish writer Tadeusz Borowski’s Here in Our Auschwitz and Oth­er Sto­ries is a sig­nif­i­cant event for stu­dents of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. Sent to Auschwitz as a polit­i­cal pris­on­er in 1943, at the age of twen­ty-one and released from Dachau by Allied sol­diers two years lat­er, Borows­ki is best known for his vol­ume of har­row­ing sto­ries, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gen­tle­men, writ­ten dur­ing and after the war. That col­lec­tion first appeared in an Eng­lish trans­la­tion in 1976, as part of Philip Roth’s Writ­ers from the Oth­er Europe” series. Here in Our Auschwitz enlarges the col­lec­tive under­stand­ing of Borowski’s archive of Holo­caust writ­ings and deep­ens the sense of his place in the canon of Holo­caust authors as a fig­ure as impor­tant as Pri­mo Levi or Jean Amery. Borowski’s vision of the bru­tal, death-bound world of the con­cen­tra­tion camp con­tin­ues to unset­tle, a ter­ri­fy­ing fore­cast of our own time, befouled by the return of author­i­tar­i­an regimes and the out­break of anti­semitism around the world.

What marks Borows­ki as wit­ness to the night­mare of Auschwitz is his shock at sens­ing mankind’s capac­i­ty for degra­da­tion,” in Tim­o­thy Synder’s assess­ment in the excel­lent Fore­word to Here in Our Auschwitz. This sen­ti­ment echoes Philip Roth’s insight, voiced thir­ty years ago, about Borowski’s dark vision of human­i­ty; the only way to write about the Holo­caust,” Roth observed about This Way for the Gas, was as the guilty, as the com­plic­it and impli­cat­ed.” As a non-Jew­ish polit­i­cal pris­on­er assigned a sad­ly famil­iar gray-and-blue striped” prison uni­form — a pasi­a­ki—to wear, Borows­ki was luck­i­ly spared the inevitable fate of the gas cham­ber, but he was, in effect, deeply impli­cat­ed in the Nazis’ mur­der­ous sys­tem: a per­pe­tra­tor, guid­ing Jews to their deaths, clean­ing out the gas cham­bers, a wit­ness to unfath­omable lev­els of human depravity.

In his writ­ing, Borowski’s nar­ra­tors evince what Borowski’s trans­la­tor Made­line G. Levine terms an unavert­ed gaze”; as a result, Borows­ki expos­es the com­plic­i­ty of every­one, vic­tim and vic­tim­iz­er alike” — a self-lac­er­at­ing stance that the crit­ic Ruth Franklin describes as Borowski’s uncon­strained feroc­i­ty,” a con­vict­ing gaze that Borows­ki directs both toward him­self and to the Nazis’ sys­tem­at­ic genocide.

In Levine’s superb new trans­la­tion, Borowski’s seem­ing­ly detached descrip­tion of Jews crammed like ani­mals in box­cars remains soul-dis­turb­ing, hard to read, much less to re-imag­ine, as in these pas­sages from the sto­ry Ladies and Gen­tle­men, Wel­come to the Gas” reveal:

The lights flick­er spec­tral­ly, the wave of peo­ple flows on with­out end, con­fused, fever­ish, stu­pe­fied. These peo­ple think that they are start­ing a new life in the camp, and they’re prepar­ing them­selves psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly for a dif­fi­cult strug­gle for exis­tence. They don’t know that that they are going to die right now and that the gold, mon­ey, dia­monds they have hid­den with such fore­thought in the folds and seams of their gar­ments, in the heels of their shoes, in their bod­ies aper­tures, will no longer be need­ed by them.

It may be that Borowski’s Hem­ing­way-like detach­ment enables him to deflect, or mask, the unimag­in­able deprav­i­ty of the camps into a flat­tened prose that some­how absorbs the unspeak­able hor­ror in his midst. Much like the achieve­ment of Art Spiegelman’s min­i­mal­ist draw­ings in Maus, Borowski’s imag­ing of Jews on a slow-mov­ing death train drawn with crum­pled, pale, flat faces, seem­ing­ly cut from paper, with enor­mous eyes burn­ing with fever, peer through the win­dows” cap­tures, with a few fleet­ing lit­er­ary strokes, the hor­rif­ic stench issu­ing from the ter­ror that per­vad­ed the camps.

Here in Our Auschwitz gath­ers still rel­a­tive­ly unknown selec­tions from Borowski’s prose that appeared orig­i­nal­ly in Pol­ish dur­ing his short life. After the war, in the late for­ties, he was denounced by the Pol­ish Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment as deca­dent,” an artist who admired and imi­tat­ed West­ern modes of lit­er­ary rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Then, star­tling­ly, Borows­ki became an apol­o­gist for agit-prop Stal­in­ist art and denounced his ear­li­er works. A major fig­ure in Pol­ish lit­er­ary his­to­ry, Borows­ki com­mit­ted sui­cide on July 1, 1951, at the age of twen­ty-nine. He gassed him­self in his War­saw apart­ment. In Ruth Franklin’s telling assess­ment of Borowski’s haunt­ed, guilt-rid­den life, the Nazis, in the end, exter­mi­nat­ed his soul.”

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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