Postal Indiscretions: The Correspondence of Tadeusz Borowski by Tadeusz Drewnowski
Reviewed by Ruth Franklin
The New Republic Online
The book is small, about the size of an ordinary paperback, and heavier than it looks. Its cover bears neither a title nor the name of an author, just an upside-down red triangle with a "P" inside and the number 6643. Its cardboard binding is covered in fabric: a soft, flannel-like material, warm and fuzzy to the touch, striped blue-gray. It is one of the most remarkable documents to emerge from World War II. It is called Bylismy w Oswiecimiu, or We Were in Auschwitz, and it was published in Munich in 1946. Its three authors were listed on the title page by the numbers of their tattoos. Number 6643, the engineer Janusz Nel Siedlecki, was an "old-timer," as his low number demonstrates: he came to the camp in 1940, at its very beginning, as a political prisoner. Number 7587, Krystyn Olszewski, was an architect who would go on to become one of the chief city planners for Warsaw, Baghdad, and Singapore. Number 119198 was Tadeusz Borowski.
Borowski had published his first book of poetry in 1942, at the age of twenty, while he was a student at the underground Warsaw University. His fiancee, Maria Rundo (known as Tuska), was carrying the makings of a second book, a cycle of love poems, when she was arrested by the Gestapo the following year. Coming to look for her, Borowski was also arrested. He was sent first to Warsaw's Pawiak prison and then to Auschwitz, where he remained for a year and a half before being transferred to a series of camps in Germany. He, Siedlecki, and Olszewski, as well as their publisher, Anatol Girs, were liberated from Dachau in May 1945 by the Seventh American Army, to which they dedicated We Were in Auschwitz.
In Poland before the war, Girs had been a successful graphic artist and book designer. Now, in Munich, he established the Family Tracing Service, an offshoot of the Polish Red Cross devoted to reuniting the mass of refugees separated by the war, and brought the three survivors into his employ. It was he who originally conceived of We Were in Auschwitz, intending the book to offer, as he wrote in the preface, "the history of a certain concentration camp....Obviously, it does not subsume all of the circumstances of this camp, but very cautiously and, one is tempted to say, intimately, it gives a few fragments of what the authors themselves experienced and saw with their own eyes." Siedlecki, Olszewski, and Borowski each contributed chapters, ranging in length from a few pages to more than forty, told by narrators who share the authors' first names.
As if to put the book's authenticity beyond dispute, its cardboard covers bore the blue and gray stripes of the clothing worn by Auschwitz inmates, along with Siedlecki's number. A few copies -- only a handful are known to exist -- were actually bound in the fabric of that clothing. (Several years ago Welcome Rain Publishers released an English translation of the book, also by Alicia Nitecki, that reproduced this macabre design.) The book's title was We Were in Auschwitz, but by binding it with the clothing worn in the concentration camp -- clothing they might have worn themselves -- the authors make an even stronger declaration. "We were Auschwitz," they could almost be saying.
And the book's contents -- which were even more shocking than its "fantastical binding," as Borowski described it -- reinforce this impression. The stories, bearing ironic titles such as "I Don't Recommend Getting Sick" and "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" (the latter, one of Borowski's contributions, would eventually be anthologized as a classic of Holocaust literature), established the harshest perspective yet seen on the universe of the concentration camp -- not just its executioners, but also its victims. The writers did not shrink from offering details of torture delicately omitted by other memoirists: prisoners in the arduous penal company lining up for voluntary hangings, an escapee forced to march around the camp in a clown costume before his execution. But the most horrific aspect of the stories -- which ignited a controversy over the purposes of literature that would have drastic consequences for Borowski's future as a writer -- is their cold irony, their utterly unvarnished portrayal of the behavior of the prisoners toward each other.
This Auschwitz, in contrast to the myths that sprang up immediately in the war's aftermath, is not a place of martyrdom or heroism. It is a place where inmates higher up in the camp hierarchy, the Polish political prisoners and others with special privileges, jeer at the Jews and Gypsies lower on the totem pole; where even a minor offense will be brutally avenged; where a prisoner, wondering if his girlfriend might have been sent to the gas chamber, muses, "So what, what's gone is gone." All this is recounted in a chillingly unsentimental and brazenly nihilistic voice that emphasizes its own detachment from the horrors that it records. Yet this detachment, it soon becomes clear, is a literary device for containing the speaker's fury, which bubbles up between the lines of each story even as he tries to choke it back.
Though the three former prisoners claimed authorship to the stories as one, this unforgettable voice has come to be strongly associated with Borowski, and it is most pronounced in the four stories that he wrote for the volume, which he later reprinted under his own name in his first collection of stories. When the stories first appeared in English translation -- one in an anthology of Polish writing published in 1962, another in Commentary the same year -- they were immediately recognized as singular in the burgeoning genre of Holocaust literature. But in the politically sensitive literary climate of Poland in the late 1940s, Borowski was more repudiated than celebrated. The editors of a prominent literary journal reprinted two of his stories from We Were in Auschwitz, but accompanied them with a note in which the editors distanced themselves from Borowski's work. Critics in both the Catholic and the communist press disparaged his writing as distasteful and even immoral. By the end of the decade, Borowski had renounced his own fiction and launched himself as a journalist, writing propagandistic columns that promoted socialist realism in literature and the dream of the communist society.
In July 1951 he committed suicide, shortly before his thirtieth birthday. It was an act that many critics, most prominently Czeslaw Milosz, have understood as the unavoidable consequence of his political compromises. As Milosz mercilessly portrayed him, under the pseudonym "Beta," in The Captive Mind, Borowski, who as a youth had been "a real poet," succumbed after Auschwitz to hatred and bitterness: "Pitiless and intolerant, he was one open wound." In propaganda he found the ideal vehicle for his fury, and he grew addicted to the esteem that his "malignant articles" brought him. "His mind, like that of so many Eastern [European] intellectuals, was impelled toward self-annihilation," Milosz concluded. (Milosz also repeated the rumor that Borowski, after surviving Auschwitz with Tuska and later settling in Poland with her, had been unfaithful and found it too much to bear.)
But Borowski's suicide can also be read as a final act of rage against a world that turned out, in his estimation, to be little better than Auschwitz itself, a world filled with robbers, swindlers, and murderers, and governed by similarly corrupt codes of conduct. A. Alvarez has famously written that "around Borowski's stories there is a kind of moral silence, like the pause which follows a scream." But the scream, for Borowski, was the essence of his work. If Elie Wiesel was the great mystic of the Holocaust and Primo Levi was its great analyst, Borowski was its angry young man, a pent-up vessel of pressurized fury that could do nothing in the end but explode.
The story of Borowski's life has all the makings of a myth: a meteoric rise followed just as quickly by a meteoric fall; the almost unbearable irony of his death (he gassed himself by putting his head in the oven). And like all myths about writers, the myth of Tadeusz Borowski has come to overshadow his work. To make matters worse, for years his poetry and his fiction have been relatively inaccessible, existing in incomplete and scattered versions. (An authoritative edition of his complete work has appeared in Polish only in the last few years.) The literary critic Tadeusz Drewnowski published a biography of Borowski in 1972, though it remains untranslated. The agonizing questions raised by Borowski's life and work have by and large gone unanswered. Why did he switch abruptly from poetry to prose after the war, only to renounce literature altogether a few years later? What led him to embrace the Communist Party, and what eventually disillusioned him?
And so the appearance of Borowski's correspondence, which was published in Poland in 2001 and has just been translated into English, is especially welcome. But even these letters -- which include postcards that Borowski sent to his parents from Auschwitz, love letters to his fiancee when they were separated after the war, and editorial correspondence from Borowski's period as a literary critic and journalist -- tend to be revealing primarily for what they do not reveal. The title of the volume is misleading: very few "postal indiscretions" are committed here. Borowski's letters can be candid and affecting, but they are often very guarded. And yet, while it leaves more than a few mysteries maddeningly unsolved, this book offers an incomparable view of a man very different from the furious narrator of his stories -- a gentle, joking man who encouraged and supported his literary friends even as he struggled with the morality of creating literature in the wake of the death camps, who pined for his great love even as he despaired that he would ever again feel like a whole human being after Auschwitz.
The initial letters, sent to his mother first from Pawiak prison and then from Auschwitz, reveal the impress of the censor, metaphorically if not literally: their contents are restricted to the careful explanation of what sorts of food items Borowski was permitted to receive. "Send me whatever, and as much as, you are able, and preferably as often as you wrote in the letter. Don't worry about me, I am completely healthy and feel fine," he writes on May 30, 1943, in his first letter from the camp. "If you can," the second letter pleads, "send more, and more often." A few weeks later, the business-like language does not hide his desperation: "Send bigger packages and as often as possible....More dried bread, also loaves of bread, as much fat as you can...whole packages of onion, garlic, and other vegetables." It was a sign of Borowski's relatively privileged position as a Polish political prisoner that he was permitted to receive such packages; the Jews were not even allowed to write letters. And Borowski flaunted this privilege in his stories. In "A Day at Harmenz," a Jew who has been selected to go to the gas the next day begs "Tadek," the narrator, to share his food. "Okay, Jew, come on up and eat," Tadek replies. "And when you've had enough, take the rest with you to the cremo." (It is almost unbearable to learn that at the same time that Mrs. Borowska was sending her son the packages that cushioned for him the brutality of Auschwitz, she was sheltering a Jewish child at the family's home in Warsaw.)
Borowski was lucky in another way as well: he was able to pass letters to his fiancee in the women's camp, and even to arrange visits with her. Of course, there is no mention of this in the letters home. A single cryptic comment -- "I'm happy that Tuska often sees her husband" -- is all that he will dare. But the story "Auschwitz, Our Home" reconstructs the letters that Borowski sent to his beloved, which describe the particularly tranquil period when he had been sent to train as an orderly at the Auschwitz hospital -- a position highly preferable to hard labor. Auschwitz itself is depicted as something not far from paradise by those inmates who have experienced Birkenau. (The distinction here is between "Auschwitz I," the camp's administrative headquarters, and "Auschwitz II/Birkenau," the much larger and better-known extermination camp.) "These people over here are crazy about Auschwitz," he writes. "Auschwitz, our home,' they say with pride." The story's narrator, too, speaks of the camp with something like affection: he describes "the Puff," the camp bordello, which functions in the usual way, except that its users must undergo disinfection before and after their visits; and a wedding that takes place to the accompaniment of the prison orchestra. "Now everyone at the camp walks proudly, head high. We even have weddings in Auschwitz!'"
But Auschwitz was not, of course, all sex and romance. "Auschwitz, Our Home" gives Borowski's bluntest assessment of the evil of the Nazi system, which he describes with a chilling simplicity:
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, pit man against man, and...surely you would have thought me mad....But this is how it is done: first just one ordinary barn, brightly whitewashed -- and here they proceed to asphyxiate people. Later, four large buildings, accommodating twenty thousand at a time without any trouble. No hocus-pocus, no poison, no hypnosis. Only several men directing traffic to keep operations running smoothly, and the thousands flow along like water from an open tap.
"One ordinary barn"; "only several men directing traffic" -- what disturbs Borowski particularly is the apparent normalcy with which business at Auschwitz is conducted, not to mention the relatively small amount of infrastructure and labor required to keep the system running. No one, he seems to believe, had to be coerced to assume his necessary place in the camp. Even the inmates responsible for the cruelest task -- unloading the transports of prisoners arriving at the camp, despoiling them of their valuables, and leading them to the gas chamber -- were not "bad people," Borowski wrote elsewhere in the volume. "They were simply accustomed."
A reader who did not know the context of Borowski's Auschwitz letters might think their writer was taking the cure at some particularly unluxurious spa. "All's well with me, I'm just a bit tired," he wrote to his mother in January 1944. "I, myself, am, of course, well and cheerful, a normal person who accepts the present as though it were already the past, who is full of hope and not without a future," he reported the following summer. Again, a truer picture can be found in Borowski's fiction. The story "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" is based on a harrowing day that Borowski spent working on the ramp where the trains came in. A friend invites the story's narrator, again called "Tadek," to join the commando -- the workers get to keep some of the food and clothing they find, and the work is not physically challenging. The catch, as Tadek quickly discovers, is that he is forced to confront the Jews headed to their deaths. Here he is no longer an onlooker to the thousands who "flow along like water from an open tap," and accordingly, his formerly disingenuous tone is now cynical and knowing. But still he is not beyond all possibility of shock -- and it is at these moments that the story's moral voice, often overlooked amid the onslaught of cynicism, can be made out.
The language of the story, relentlessly impersonal, works against any recognition of the Jews' humanity: "heads" and "mouths" appear at the train windows instead of people; the Jews are a "crowd," a "wave," or a "river," rather than individuals. Tadek even describes his own actions with a distinctly impersonal Polish verb form: rather than saying "I jumped into the car," a literal translation would be something like "The car was jumped into." But human contact cannot be avoided for long. Several times Tadek must acknowledge his victims, and each encounter disturbs him profoundly. Cleaning out one of the cattle cars, he finds a pile of dead babies. An SS officer tells him to make the Jewish women carry them onto trucks destined for the gas chambers. Most of them run in horror, but an older woman, taking the babies from his arms, looks into his eyes. "Child, child,' she whispered and smiled at me." Another woman refuses to acknowledge her own child, who runs after her, screaming; she is beaten by an outraged member of the commando. Finally Tadek encounters a blond girl who reminds him of Tuska. She faces him with unusual poise:
"Listen, listen, tell me, where are they taking us?"
I looked at her. Here standing before me is a girl with marvelous blond hair, with lovely breasts, in an embroidered summer blouse, with a wise, mature gaze. She stands, looks me straight in the eye, and waits. Over there is the gas chamber: communal death, hideous and disgusting. On the other side, the camp: the shaved head, the padded Soviet trousers in the heat, the repulsive, sickening stench of dirty, overheated women's bodies, the animalistic hunger, the inhuman labor, and then that same chimney, but a death still more hideous, still more disgusting, still more terrifying. No one who comes here -- even if his ashes do not rise into the air above the chain of guards -- will ever return to his former life....
I was silent. Her mouth tightened.
"I already know," she said with a shade of haughty disdain in her voice, tossing her head back. She walked boldly toward the trucks. Someone tried to hold her back, but resolutely she pushed him away and ran to the steps of the truck, which was already almost full. I could see from afar only her flowing blond hair, blowing in the wind.
The question that the girl asks, of course, cannot be answered. "It is the law of the camp that people going to their deaths are deceived until the very last moment," Tadek says earlier in the story. "This is the only permissible form of mercy." The story's title, then, is the height of irony; it represents precisely what cannot be said. Tadek has no choice but to be silent, but he recognizes his silence, too, as a form of complicity. In the last scene, the commando, returning to the camp, passes a division of SS officers marching and singing their anthem "Und morgen die ganze Welt" ("And tomorrow the world"). "Rechts ran! To the right!' someone calls from the front of the command. We get out of their way."
After Dachau was liberated, at the end of April 1945, Borowski made his way to Munich, only about ten miles from the camp. For some time, as he reports in his letters, he could find no civilian clothes, and had to go around in his "prison stripes." When he was finally able to exchange them, the only available replacement was an SS uniform, which he was still wearing the following fall. The war had ended, but its traces were not so easily shaken off.
In his letters from Munich, in which he debated whether to return to Poland, Borowski was generally laconic about his experience in the camp. "You probably haven't got the slightest idea how long a person can live without food," he wrote to an old schoolmate of his, describing the journey from Auschwitz to Dachau. In another letter ten days later, he was even more succinct: "I survived, it was awful, but no matter." Of course, it did matter. It mattered more than anything. As he would write in "This Way to the Gas," "No one who comes here...will ever return to his former life."
For one thing, there was very little left of Borowski's former life to return to. He was thrilled to discover that a few of his friends from university were still alive -- including Stanislaw Kazimierz Marczak, to whom several of his poems were dedicated -- but they brought the terrible news that many others, along with much of his poetry, had not survived the war. "If you remember anything, write it down and send it to me," he begged. It took him months to trace Tuska, whom he had not seen since August 1944, when she had been transferred to Ravensbruck. "Tell her, if she's alive, that I exist," he wrote to Marczak, in words that appear nearly verbatim in one of his poems. "That I will return at her slightest summons leaving everything behind: writing, stories, promises." He finally discovered her living in Sweden in November or December 1945, but it was another year before they would reunite and marry in Poland.
Separated from his love, Borowski was uncannily nostalgic for the time they had had together at Auschwitz. This nostalgia appears in both his letters and his poetry. "Swiatlo i cien," or "Light and Shadow," a cycle of love poems that he had begun in Warsaw before they were both arrested, includes what might be the only love poem set in the death camp, a pastoral reverie that begins "You remember the sun of Auschwitz ..." and goes on to imagine the countryside around the camp, the "far-off green meadow and white-celadon clouds," as if the landscape itself were the poet's lover. Another poem written at Dachau begins: "I know you are alive." These dense allusive lyrics, deeply romantic and infused with a shimmering corporeal vision of nature, would be remarkable regardless of the circumstances of their creation. That some were written in the camps makes them nearly miraculous.
But as he waited in "faraway, hateful Munich" for word from Tuska on whether she would return to Poland with him, Borowski began to grow skeptical about the value of his poetry -- of any poetry at all. "Our era hurts too much to write poems about the setting of the moon," he wrote in early 1946. In another letter around the same time, he expressed a withering condemnation of some earlier Polish poets, particularly the Romantics, and their preference for florid description and "Byronic grief" over reality:
Please believe me when I say that some parts of Germany (Dresden, Wurttemberg, the Alps, for example) are as beautiful as the landscapes in the novels of bygone centuries. But when we walked across them in prison stripes, we did not extol the beauty of this country. The beauty of an enemy land? We developed our own criteria for beauty: the most beautiful city? Frankfurt reduced to rubble.
In his Munich poems, Borowski cultivated a voice even more powerful in its constrained ferocity than the voice of his stories. The poems' tight, almost singsong rhythm and their ingenious rhymes serve as an ironic contrast to the subject matter: the wreckage of Europe in the wake of the camps. (What other poet has devised so many rhymes for "crematorium"?) In "Resume of a Good German," he traces the career path of an SS soldier -- the Hitler Youth, battles in Africa and Russia, finally Auschwitz -- along with his reading material along the way: Goethe, Hegel, Hitler. (Borowski rhymes "Hitler Jugend" with "Tugend" -- German for "virtue" -- and "Mein Kampf" with "ramp," the platform where the transports were unloaded.) "Friends" affects a painful sneer at his fellow students who died in the war: "All of my friends/the SOBs/knew life in the dregs/of KZs." (KZ is the abbreviation for Konzentrationslager, the German word for concentration camp.)
These flashes of angry humor cannot entirely light up the immeasurable sadness at the core of Borowski's poetry. Grounding these pyrotechnics is a mournful vision of a world unable to leave Auschwitz behind. In a heartbreaking inversion of his love lyrics, "Farewell to Maria" warns his beloved not to return to Poland with him: "My love/was devoured by the crematorium fire." In "Fairy Tale for Children," he imagines legends of the camps passed down through generations, with no redemption: "The children will build gas chambers,/they will murder people inside." A poem dedicated to Stanisaw Wygodzki, a Jewish poet who had also survived Auschwitz, predicts the circumstances under which each of them would return to Poland. Wygodzki, Borowski wrote, would be "alone, unneeded/like a shred of stripped-off bark," his wife and daughter both having perished. In contrast, Borowski imagines himself sharing a meal with his family, but fundamentally no less alone.
"That was interesting," someone
"My poor boy," someone will sigh.
And I will feel myself far away
with a world beyond waking in
I saw the death of a million people -- literally, not metaphorically," Borowski wrote in one of his letters. The burden of bearing witness to this enormity was overpowering. As early as summer 1946, he declared in a letter to Tuka that he had given up poetry, though he continued writing poems for at least another year. But prose was not the answer, either. Borowski was ambivalent about We Were in Auschwitz even before the book appeared, describing it as "an unfortunate mix of encyclopedia, symphony, proclamation, and anecdote....I wrote two stories for it to which I will admit, and a few other things that I'd willingly foist off on my friends." (In fact, Borowski not only wrote four stories for the book, but he reportedly edited those written by Siedlecki and Olszewski, and may also have written the book's extensive editorial remarks as well as its indispensable "glossary" of Auschwitz terms.) "There is nothing artistic about it, since it was written in haste and to order," he wrote to the editor of a literary journal about the book. "I am sending you one of the stories as a sample of no worth."
After his return to Poland in June 1946, Borowski continued to publish stories on "camp themes," many of them just a few pages long, which were collected in 1948 as Kamienny Swiat, or Stony World. Some of these were based on his experiences in the German camps; others were intended to demonstrate how "concentration camp reality" had persisted into the postwar period. He also threw himself into literary journalism, producing numerous reviews and essays for the journals and magazines that had sprung up or resurrected themselves after the war, and even starting one of his own. (It folded after a few issues.) The letters from this period, largely business correspondence concerning deadlines and manuscripts, give almost no hint of the commotion that Borowski's work was causing. His most notorious piece was a devastating review of a memoir by the Catholic Auschwitz survivor Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, in which Borowski alleged that she had doctored facts in order to conceal her privileged status at the camp, and accused her of promulgating the Polish "martyrological myth" (by suggesting, for example, that Polish women could tolerate hunger better than others because they were accustomed to observing the Catholic fast days). It led to a concerted attack on him by both the Catholic and the communist press. Borowski was accused of immorality for his stories' portrayal of the savagery of Auschwitz -- for daring to suggest that anyone might have been more focused on survival than on good deeds -- and told that he lacked the ethical right to judge the writing of others. Several editors even demanded that he be brought before the court of the Polish Writers' Union.
If these attacks disturbed Borowski, he does not acknowledge it in his letters. But he does hint at the government's growing interest in literary activities. In a letter to a friend on January 10, 1948, Borowski refers jokingly to "the Ministry of...and...(of Art and Culture, but since there is neither art nor culture there, I maintain that only and' remains)." He joined the Communist Party later that year, but his membership did not alter the official position on his fiction. At a meeting of the Polish Writers' Union in January 1949, Wlodzimierz Sokorski, the minister of culture, referred to Borowski as "a dangerous phenomenon, sometimes even positively harmful," and the editor of one of Poland's most prominent literary journals, formerly a supporter of Borowski's, joined in the chorus of condemnation. "He declared my creative work youthful, pointed out and condemned its immoralism, left the door open for the future with the words that it is hard to assess him as yet,'" Borowski reported. "It'll be easier when they hit me on the head."
It goes without saying that these attacks were unfair. Borowski's critics were judging him on religious and political grounds, not on his literary merits; and they had their own obvious political motives. Yet his friends, too, were growing concerned about his unbearably pessimistic worldview, his conviction that the brutality of Auschwitz continued unabated in the "stony world" of the postwar years. A colleague wrote that Borowski's skewed perspective reminded him of "the Malayan girl in Conrad's story: a girl who, reading only the local paper consisting of reprints from European papers of news about accidents, comes to the conclusion that Europe is one great slaughterhouse." Anatol Girs, who had by now emigrated to America, repeatedly urged Borowski to abandon the camp theme: "One cannot always live in camp memories. It was written about and one needs to let it go....There are, after all, enough subjects, as you well know."
But Borowski had no other subject. Auschwitz was an essential element of his self-conception. "We're a pair of sick people, you and I," he had written to Tuska a year after liberation. "We suffer from some indefinable nostalgia and are weary of the world. But evil doesn't lie in the world, it lies in us. I think it is going to be hard for me to live like this."
Traveling to Belgrade in 1947, Borowski had found himself impressed by his Yugoslav colleagues' pragmatic approach to their careers. "Literature isn't the chief occupation of young and old writers, and there are three, maybe four, professional writers -- making a living only off writing," he reported to Tuska. "The rest concern themselves with matters often far from literary, and that are primarily useful, and only after that beautiful. Perhaps this is better."
As socialist realism was promoted more and more fervently -- it was officially espoused for the first time at that writers' conference in 1949 -- Borowski struggled to find a way to function within the system. In June 1949, he moved to East Berlin to work as a cultural attache at the Polish Press Office. He seems to have thought that the post would provide him with a salary while still allowing him time for his own work. In fact, the job may have been intentionally designed to frustrate him; forced to do administrative tasks all day, he was unable to write.
But the German Democratic State was established in October, not long after Borowski's arrival, and he seems to have found in it his inspiration. "Infant cries in Berlin: a new people's democracy is being born," he wrote to Aleksander Wat a few weeks after the state was established. "May we have ever more of such infants!" Returning to Warsaw the following March, he devoted himself entirely to journalism, producing a weekly column in which he promoted socialist realism and denounced the decadence of the West. Milosz, in The Captive Mind, describes this final stage of his career:
For all their violence and precision of language, his articles were so dull and one-dimensional that this debasement of a gifted prose writer stirred my curiosity. He was certainly intelligent enough to understand that he was wasting his talent. In conversation with several literary authorities whose word determines a writer's place in the official hierarchy, I asked why such measures were being applied to him...."No one makes him write articles," came the reply, "that's the whole misfortune. The editor of the weekly can't drive him away. He himself insists on writing them. He thinks there is no time, today, for art, that you have to act on the masses more directly and elementally. He wants to be as useful as possible."
How did Borowski so quickly jump from party scourge to communist darling -- from joking about "the Ministry of ...and..." to serving as its official mouthpiece? His letters offer no explanation. In Berlin, we see him for the first time writing in communist boilerplate, admiring the maturity of the city's young workers and observing "the class struggle in the area of culture." (In a letter dated around the same time, Tuska gives this assessment of West Berlin: "luxury behind window displays, prostitution on the streets, and despair in the heart.") But only a single letter written during the last year of his life is included in this volume, a superficial note to his brother that offers a report of a factory visited on a recent trip to Berlin and the news that Tuska was expecting a baby. (Their daughter was born less than a week before Borowski's suicide.) Since Drewnowski, in his introduction, acknowledges having omitted only letters dating from Borowski's Munich days, it can be assumed that no letters from this period have been discovered.
Drewnowski has included some excoriating letters from friends and colleagues who were amazed at Borowski's transformation. "Do you think, Sir, that a great literature can arise without being based on the literary output of older generations, even though...[they] concerned themselves with bourgeois' problems?" the journalist and theater critic Jan Pawel Gawlik inquired sharply. The editor Stefan Kisielewski, who had supported Borowski during the initial attack on him, now turned unsparing: "I consider you a journalist of great talent and equally great ignorance....I doubt, anyway, that I can stop you on the intellectual slope down which you are heading. But I want my conscience to be clear: that I warned you."
The circumstances of Borowski's suicide left the doors wide open for speculation about his motivation. Drewnowski notes that he attempted suicide several times during the last year of his life, citing a letter from 1946 as the explanation: "Sometimes it seems it would be good to leave the field of battle before one commits some kind of compromise." (But this does not really explain it, since the year before his death was too late for Borowski to avoid compromise.) Milosz, in The Captive Mind, commented that "those who observed him in the last months of his feverish activity were of the opinion that the discrepancy between what he said in his public statements and what his quick mind could perceive was increasing daily. He behaved too nervously for them not to suspect that he was acutely aware of this contrast."
In England and America, by contrast, students of the grim subject have followed the usual tendency to assume that a Holocaust survivor's suicide is a direct effect of his or her experience of the Holocaust. "Having escaped the Zyklon B of Auschwitz, he gassed himself at home," A. Alvarez concluded. Yet this assumption seems in some cases facile, an oversimplification. To say, after Primo Levi's suicide, that "Auschwitz killed him forty years later" is to overlook the severity of Levi's depression, which plagued him throughout his life, as all his biographers attest. (There may also be evidence that Borowski suffered from manic depression.) To the causes of history, the temperaments, the inclinations, the psychologies of the survivors must also be counted: as Lionel Trilling once observed, it is in our particularity that we suffer. Anyway, speculations about the motivations for suicide always have an air of ghoulish futility: who can ever understand why another person, especially a stranger known only through his writing, commits this most hopeless of acts?
In the case of Tadeusz Borowski, however, the Auschwitz interpretation does seem to have a certain plausibility -- although in a way quite different from the easy correlation that is normally suggested. This requires some explaining. Unusually for a non-Jewish writer, Borowski's stories about the camp have been unquestioningly accepted into what has become established, for better or for worse, as the canon of Holocaust literature. His work is taught in college courses alongside the memoirs of Wiesel and Levi, and he is assumed, like them, to have been among the victims of the Holocaust, not among the perpetrators. For this reason, it is important to remember that Borowski -- at least for the purposes of his fiction -- viewed himself as a kind of perpetrator.
There can be no doubt that Borowski suffered terribly at Auschwitz; but he experienced the camp at a certain remove. As a Polish political prisoner, he was exempt from the very worst treatment. And thanks to the food that he received from home, he did not have to subsist on the Auschwitz starvation diet, painstakingly documented by Levi as amounting to about eight hundred calories per day. Levi, too, as he readily admitted, for a time occupied a more privileged position as a laboratory worker, but as a Jew he lived in a state of constant threat from which Borowski was -- at least for a time -- exempt.
The gulf between Borowski's experience of Auschwitz and Levi's experience of it can be seen in two particularly telling passages. In a story called "The People Who Walked On," included in We Were in Auschwitz, Borowski describes playing soccer on a field at the camp directly adjacent to the ramp where the transports were unloaded. One day Borowski was tending goal, and as he went to retrieve the ball, he noticed that a transport had just arrived and the people had assembled on the platform. He returned to the game and continued playing, then looked back a few minutes later. The platform was now empty. "Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death." This line has become notorious as an example of the indifference affected by Borowski's narrator -- a transport is being unloaded, and he continues playing soccer! It can also be read as a judgment less on the narrator than on the entire apparatus that disposes of human beings in such a preternaturally efficient manner. What can it be like to realize that the population of a small town was sent to the gas chamber while one had one's back turned? But no matter how the line is read, there can be no doubt that the Borowski figure in the story is on the soccer field, not on the ramp.
Compare this description, in Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, of what might have been the same soccer game. It occurs in a chapter titled "The Gray Zone," in which Levi analyzes the cases of certain groups of privileged prisoners at Auschwitz, and the varying levels of collaboration with the system required of virtually everyone who survived the camp. (Levi mordantly notes that "privileged prisoners were a minority within the Lager population; nevertheless they represent a potent majority among survivors.") He devotes particular attention to the prisoners who served on the Sonderkommandos, the work forces who escorted the prisoners to the gas chambers and disposed of their bodies afterward. These prisoners were kept segregated from the general population of the camp, and thus they attained a certain legendary status as the personification of collaboration and degradation. "It has been testified that a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of those wretches," Levi writes, "and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration." To emphasize their utterly depraved condition, he tells of a soccer game played between a team representing the SS crematorium guards and a team representing the Sonderkommando. "Nothing of this kind ever took place, nor would it have been conceivable, with other categories of prisoners," Levi writes. "But with them, with the crematorium ravens,' the SS could enter the field on an equal footing, or almost. Behind this armistice one hears satanic laughter....We have embraced you, corrupted you, dragged you to the bottom with us....You too, like us and like Cain, have killed the brother. Come, we can play together."
Borowski was no "crematorium raven." According to his biographer Drewnowski, he worked on the Sonderkommando for only one day -- the day that he depicts in "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." But many of the details that he provides in that story -- the use of alcohol on the ramp, for instance, or the psychological makeup of the squad members -- corroborate Levi's analysis. He was not one of the brutes Levi imagines, men psychologically decimated by the inhumanities they were forced to perpetrate. And who is to say that any prisoner, faced with the offer of delicacies from all over Europe, new clothes, maybe even a watch, could have turned that down? Yet the fact remains that it was Levi who starved with the hordes of miserable Jews, and Borowski who mocked them when they begged him for food: "Okay, Jew, come on up and eat. And when you've had enough, take the rest with you to the cremo." It was Levi who incredulously heard the report of a soccer game in Auschwitz, and Borowski, with his back to the ramp, who tended the goal.
"The worst survived, that is, the fittest," Levi wrote also in The Drowned and the Saved. "The best all died." What he meant, as he had already written repeatedly, is that it was impossible to survive Auschwitz without resorting to theft, to trickery, even to collaboration; at the very least, to selfishness and deception. Those who did not do so -- who shared their food rations, who picked up the slack for those unable to perform heavy labor, who extended a hand to help a prisoner who had fallen -- were guaranteed to perish. This is hardly a moral judgment, at least when it is sensitively made; no one can fault survivors for the ferocity of their will to survive. And no one who has read Levi's scrupulous and intelligent writings can believe that their author could have been among "the worst." The same is true of Borowski -- a writer of extraordinary talent and perception, whose moral rage at an incomprehensibly vast injustice was so all-consuming that in the end it overpowered his political judgment. But he would have concurred fully with Levi's philosophy of the camp. And the psychological wound suffered by a person who believes that about himself is unimaginable. In a terrible way, in a pitiful way, Borowski was not only in Auschwitz; he was Auschwitz. His privileges came at an annihilating cost. The Nazis spared his body, but they exterminated his soul.