Monday, May 07, 2007

On Tadeusz Borowski

This is a detail from Bird's Hell, a work by the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann. It is featured on the cover of Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, a collection of stories, or rather fictional memoirs, set in Auschwitz. Neither the horror of the image nor the brutal title can prepare one for what is inside. Reading, writing and thinking about holocaust is always extremely difficult, but even by that standard this book presents something different altogether.

Borowski was a Polish gentile and a member of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation. In 1943, when he was 21, he was arrested along with his fiancee and was sent to Auschwitz. He survived because he was made a Kapo (a lower administrative official), one of the privileged cogs in the vast machine of extermination. Also by the time he arrived there, the gassing of non-Jews had ceased at Auschwitz. All the stories in the volume are narrated in first person, presumably based on himself. They read more like autobiographical fragments or snapshots of nightmare visions and less like full-fledged narrative. Often most of the story is just a snapshot of conversations that these privileged guards have between themselves and with other prisoners, both in the labour camp and those who are going to die. There is no psychology, no philosophy, no reflection, there are occasionally a few startling phrases but otherwise it is just brute facts, honest, lacerating and simple.

After the war Borowski returned to Poland, married his fiancee (who had also survived) and later joined the communist party and started writing political tracts for them. It soon proved too much for him and in a cruel twist of fate he took his own life by inhaling gas from the gas oven. He was only 29. Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, wrote about Borowski in his book The Captive Mind. The character "Beta" was actually Borowski in real life. In his portrait Milosz points to Borowski's selling out for shallow ideological goals as the main reason for suicide which might well be the case. But after reading these stories it is not difficult to imagine the fate of whoever wrote them. They are all filled not really with Survivor's guilt but rather survivor's rage, and extreme rage at that. It is a rage against the fundamental "will to life", against hope and against so called human values. The stories seem to suggest that it is these which are at the root of the Hobbesian moral anarchy that he witnessed at Auschwitz, not among the victimizers (they are mostly in the background) but rather among the victims themselves. Holocaust is generally seen as presenting a "limit-case" (to use a mathematical terminology) for different aesthetic, ethical and philosophical theories... in other words it is place where theories break down and traditional categories collapse. These stories here do show how.

I didn't mention anything about the individual stories because I didn't know what to make of or even how to read them in particular terms.

Sign and Sight reprints a translation of a German review of his story collection. Wikipedia has more information, it also links to his translated poetry. One of them here:

Night Over Birkenau

Night again. Again the grim sky closes
circling like a vulture over the dead silence.
Like a crouching beast over the camp
the moon sets, pale as a corpse.

And like a shield abandoned in battle,
blue Orion- lost among the stars.
The transports growl in darkness
and the eyes of the crematorium blaze.

It's steamy, stifling. Sleep is a stone.
My breath rattles in my throat.
This lead foot crushing my chest
is the silence of three million dead.

Night, night without end. No dawn comes.
My eyes are poisoned from sleep.
Like God's judgement on the corpse of the earth,
fog descends over Birkenau.


Nico said...

Hi Alok, how great! I love Beckmann. Did you know that he lived in ST. Louis for a long time? I noticed you have Bruno Schulz in your pile. It's going to be great to make an analogy/comparison with Borowski!

Alok said...

Sorry I didnt see this comment earlier. I am yet to start Schulz. Had read one of his story before but I have now got his collected works edition. It looks interesting. Will get to it soon.