Yesterday, I read an article written by Cathy Alexander on February 4, 2010, which was on this Australian web site.
The title of the article is “The worst place in the world is deeply thought-provoking.” A photo of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate at the former Auschwitz concentration camp accompanies the article, in case there is someone who doesn’t know that the “worst place in the world” is Auschwitz.
The article begins with this quote:
“Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.”
No explanation for the quote is given, but I recognized the words immediately. This quote is from a small book entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is a collection of short stories written by Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish political prisoner who survived Auschwitz and then had a promising literary career before he took his own life on July 1, 1951. The title of the short story about the soccer game is The People who Walked On.
The famous quote that Ms. Alexander put at the top of her article is an exaggeration. It would actually take all day for 3,000 Jews to be gassed at Birkenau.
The soccer field at Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, was right behind Krema III, the crematorium building which had one of the two large underground gas chambers at the death camp. Three thousand Jews would arrive on a train transport and a privileged group of Kapos would be there to take their luggage and reassure them.
As the victims marched to the gas chamber, there were other privileged prisoners playing soccer, as well as the prisoners in the camp orchestra who would be practicing for a concert in another nearby field.
After the provocative quote at the beginning of her article, Ms. Alexander proceeds to describe what it is like for a visitor to Auschwitz today.
“The Nazi concentration camp seems an unlikely tourist attraction.”
“That’s partly what’s so unsettling about a visit to Auschwitz. It’s a mixture of horror and the mundane – tour groups, toilets, a snack shop.”
Finally at end of the article, Ms. Alexander gets to the initial quote, as she writes:
“So why was Tadeusz Borowski, the author quoted at the start of the story, both a victim and a survivor of Auschwitz?
“He survived the camp and was freed by the Russians in 1945. He wrote stories about the thousands of people he saw taken to the gas chambers. One is called “this way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen”.
“Six years after he left Auschwitz, and haunted by his experiences, Borowski opened a gas valve and took his own life.”
Actually, Borowski was transferred to a labor camp near Stuttgart and then to Dachau. He was liberated by American soldiers at Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau.
No one knows why Borowski took his own life because he didn’t leave a note. He had attempted suicide twice before. He seemed to have everything to live for: his wife, who was a survivor of the Birkenau death camp, had just given birth to a baby girl three days before. He was already a well-known writer, one of the first to write about the Holocaust.
Ms. Alexander asks why Borowski was both a victim and a survivor of Auschwitz. Borowski alludes to the answer to this question in his story This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Borowski wrote the story in the first person, told through the eyes of a Kapo named Tadeusz. The story is fiction, but based on the real life experience of an Auschwitz inmate.
In his short stories, Borowski was trying to make the point that there were prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau who survived because they cooperated with the Nazis and did nothing to save the Jews. They were also victims because many of them couldn’t live with this after the war.
After Borowski was liberated at Allach, he still had to remain behind barbed wire as the former prisoners had to stay in Displaced Persons camps until they could emigrate to another country. The last DP camp, at the German army barracks at Belsen, was finally closed in 1957.
Borowski wrote this in the diary that he kept in a DP camp in Morachium, Germany:
“No doubt the purpose of this whole great war was so that you, friend from Chicago, could cross the salt water, battle your way through all of Germany, and reaching the barbed wire of Allach, share a Camel cigarette with me… And now they’ve put you on guard duty, to keep an eye on me, and we no longer talk to one another, and I must look like a prisoner to you, for you search me and call me boy. And your slain comrades say nothing.”
Borowski’s wife was sent from Birkenau to a camp in Germany where she was able to go to Sweden after she was liberated. She was reluctant to leave Sweden, but after Borowski went there and proposed marriage to her, she finally consented. Neither of them wanted to go back to Poland or to Ukraine where Borowski was born.
The story entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was written while Borowski was in the DP camp at Morachium, and it had already been published in Poland.
The story begins with a first person account by a fictional character named Tadeusz; it describes how the Kapos were excited when a new transport of Jews arrived at the Judenrampe, the railroad platform that was used before the train tracks were extended inside the Birkenau camp.
A new transport meant that the Kapos could steal the food that the Jews had brought with them and take items of clothing from the luggage before it was taken to the warehouses known as Canada because of all the riches to be found there. The point is that some of the prisoners at Auschwitz saved themselves by helping the Nazis and that they were living the good life in the camp while others died in the gas chamber. Tadeusz Borowski was a victim because he couldn’t live with the fact that he was one of the privileged prisoners who was playing soccer while the Jews descended to their death in the gas chamber.
Tadeusz Borowski chose to die by sticking his head into a gas oven and turning on the gas. Was he trying to make amends for the way he callously continued playing soccer while he knew that 3,000 Jews from a transport were being gassed?