I am sometimes embarassed of my interest in holocaust literature. There is something morbid about wanting to read the tales of death chambers, of cattle cars, of people being pulled out of their homes in middle of the night.
And yet, it is such a bizarre side of reality – something so humongous and beyond understanding, that I feel compelled to know more, to understand what happened. The many books and many films on the topic mostly share the survivor tales, or tales of tragedy – the after-effects of the holocaust (or more appropriately “Shoah”). These tales, the most beautifully written ones, like from Sebald, or Kertesz – bring to fore the sense of loss, the disorientation, which goes far beyond the actual physical act of mass-murder. But there is little written or said to explain the perpetration, what went on in the minds of the tormentor and the tortured when the physical act was being carried out. How did a whole machinery get convinced to participate in the barbarism? What went on in the minds of people in the camps, seeing the fumes from the chimney?
Borowski’s collection of short stories touches upon something of the latter – but his reality is so harsh and inhuman, that I almost want to scratch it out as cynical rant. He himself spent 2-3 years in Auschwitz, and the stories seem autobiographical. So you would assume that they would have some truth in them. But if there is, it is a disturbing truth.
“Weakness needs to vent itself on the weaker”. This seems to be a theme of Borowski’s stories, and also the centre of life in Auschwitz. The prisoners, enslaved by the Germans, have more respect for their guards than they have for their fellow slaves, whom they often spy on, tell on, beat-up, steal from. There is little sympathy for the person who is in the same boat.
In the title story, slaves help to unload the cattle trains. There is a selection process – those unfortunate, are being sent to the gas chamber directly. The slaves are doing their own sorting – of the belongings of the new arrivals – they collect gold and valuables for the regime, food and utilities for themselves. They deceive the people being led to the ‘evil eye’, sometimes even laugh at them, but most of all, treat them with contempt.
The tone of this story, and most of the others that follow is cold and sharp. There is little emotion – only a very animal-like awareness of senses – hunger, lust. The narrator sounds nihilist, but his bitterness sometimes escapes into the text.
The most compelling story, which is also beautiful, is written as a letter (or rather collection of letters strewn together) called Auschwitz, our home. It is beautiful for the shimmer of humanity it offers. The writer of the letters writes to his girlfriend (these are, in all likelihood from the letters written by Borowski himself to his girlfriend whom he had followed into the slave camps). He writes about the absurdity that is going on around them.
He tells her:
If I had said to you as we danced together in my room in the light of the paraffin lamp: listen, take a million people, or two million, or three, kill them in such a way that no one knows about it, not even they themselves, enslave several hundred thousand more, destroy their mutual loyalty, put man against man, and…surely you would have thought me mad. Except that I probably would not have said these things to you, even if I had known what I know today. I would not have wanted to spoil our mood.
He writes about how hope and God have weakened the people, who, imagining justice, and looking to a better future, are not tearing down the death camp. He also talks of his own hopes of surviving the camp.
It is difficult to accept Borowski’s account as objective truth. He wrote most of these stories after coming out of the camp. He mentions somewhere that the slaves were only surviving on hope – but it is impossible that the world outside of the camp walls could match up to the enormous Eden these hopes must have built.
There will be no borders after the war, I know, and there will be no countries, no concentration camps, and people will not kill one another. This is our last fight.
Any unfairness, any punishment, any harshness in the post-Auschwitz life would have seemed like a much bigger failure to the survivors, who had come to expect a heaven outside Auschwitz. Disappointment and bitterness were bound to follow – therefore I think Borowski’s account is tinged brightly with his disappointments of the Poland after war. The fact that he committed suicide within a few years of freedom, highlights this disappointment.
Besides, his letter, which seems to have been actually written while in Auschwitz, is less brutal, more human and looks out with some hope, however feeble, makes me think that a lot of steeliness must have come post-Auschwitz.
In one of the stories, the narrator calls the Chimneys to be the great eye – it made me wonder if Tolkein’s mordor was indeed the death camp? Where else could he have drawn inspiration for a world so bleak.
Borowski and his work has been described in Czeslaw Milosz’ work The Captive Mind which I had read sometime ago. There, he had referred to Borowski as Beta – and it is thanks to one of the comments on the blog post that I could find out who Beta was.