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February 5, 2010

Tadeusz Borowski – Auschwitz survivor

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , , , , , — furtherglory @ 6:22 pm

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.

Tadeusz Borowski, a political prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Tadeusz Borowski, a political prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.

She writes:

“The Nazi concentration camp seems an unlikely tourist attraction.”

And this:

“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?


  1. I do not want to offend the author and the readers, but alhough the truth about Borowski is pretty complex one can read a lot about him. He lived under Soviet rule as a kid and only after some time left Soviet Union for Poland. During the war he was a soldier of Home Army and a writer. He got imprisoned in Auschwitz after a “lapanka” (random street hunt for Poles that could end in a mass execution, a concentration camp or in slavery in Germany). Before Auschwitz he published in underground. The main subject of his poems was the painful truth that European culture is based on exploitation of other cultures (it is not a welcome truth nowadays but Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Beloruss were subject of incredible exploitation and mass murder of numerous gentiles as well).
    Borowski could never understand why the well-educated Germans killed well-educated Poles (e.g. operation Tannenberg) or Jews. After the war Borowski came back to Poland and witnessed communist hunt for Home Army soldiers. Unfortunately
    certain famous Polish writers and many POlish writers of Jewish origin decided to toe to the communist-party line. My guess and the guess of Milosz (Nobel Prize winner who wrote a book partially on Borowski) is that Borowski finally lost hope. He wrote increduible texts about communism (I mean extremely positive texts) but he knew waht communism was. And then he could no longer – he gassed himself.
    One fact should be emphasized, however, – all his mates from Auschwitz always claimed that he was a heroic prisoner, a man who never cooperated with Germans. After the war he witnessed the way “Allies” betrayed his colleagues and allowed Russians to torture and kill them. He could see no hope in his life, so he commited suicide.

    Comment by rationalist-from-bloodlands — September 13, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    • It could be that Borowski suffered from manic-depression, and that he killed himself because he was depressed.

      Comment by furtherglory — September 13, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

  2. […] I started blogging, way back on February 5, 2010, my first blog post was about Tadeusz Borowski who wrote a series of short stories which were published in a book […]

    Pingback by Which way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen? | Scrapbookpages Blog — June 23, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  3. You’ve made a common mistaken assumption that the narrator IS Borowski or that he killed himself out of guilt. He was quite the opposite actually but made a conscious moral decision to take responsibility for being a part of the complex machinery of Auschwitz. After the war there was a tendency to write hagiographies portraying the survivors as innocent victims and martyrs while Borowski insisted on telling the ugly and uncomfortable truth. In a critique response to a book by a fellow Polish writer and Auschwitz inmate Zofia Kossak- Szczucka, who as a member of Polish intellectual elite had a relatively priviliged and sheltered life in the camp and then told a tale how prayer and heroic spirit helped her survive and all kinds of nonsense, he wrote his famous statement: ” The first duty of Auschwitzers is to make clear just what a camp is…..But let them not forget that the reader will unfailingly ask: But how did it happen that YOU survived?….Tell, then, how. you bought places in the hospital, easy posts, how you shoved the” Moslems” into the oven, how you bought women, men, what you did in the barracks, unloading the transports, at the gypsy camp; tell them about the daily life of the camp, about the hierarchy of fear, about the loliness of very man. But write that you, you were the ones who did this. That a portion of the sad fame of Auschwitz belongs to you as well.
    As for his death, the matter is quite complex. and we will never know the reason. War destroyed practically all his youthful ideals and his love and that was his personal tragedy. After years of separation his relationship with. Maria was never the same. Although they got. married trying to recapture their pre- war. emotions it was impossible and he got a lover. His writing career was dead as he produced. nothing but social realism propaganda to the. point the he even accepted a special mission to. Berlin ( it’s suspected it was a spy operation). He became disillusioned with the system and if you remember his words about the ” hope for the more just world” that caused him and all others who perished accept their fate then it’ s not hard to understand he had suicidal thoughts.

    Comment by NYC girl — December 11, 2011 @ 1:23 am

  4. furtherglory,

    You have now said something that has opened up another question. You said Borowski was a hospital orderly, and also quoted from his short story, “As always on Sundays, a sizeable crowd of hospital orderlies and convalescent patients had gathered to watch the game.”

    It has always seemed quite a contradiction to me that in what we are taught were “death camps,” also called “extermination camps,” there existed hospitals, doctors, nurses, orderlies and all these convalescing patients! Many survivors report that they were in a hospital or infirmary and received proper care until they were released, in good health again. A number of these reports are from those who were children at the time, and indeed, many children were in camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau, even Buchenwald, at the time of liberation. And some had been there for a long time! Babies were even born in the camps! Yet, we are told that all children were gassed or killed, along with adults past working age. Clearly, this was not so.

    Getting back to Borowski, if he was a hospital orderly, how did he explain the existence of medical care, and also of soccer games which all inmates in the camp could watch and even participate in if they could organize or get on a team? Sports were not restricted only to “elites.” I now more than ever think that Borowski’s suicide may be related to his misrepresentation in his fictional books of what “camp life” was really like.

    Why didn’t he ever write a real historical non-fiction account of his own experience? It it because it wouldn’t have been acceptable? Because it wouldn’t have shown enough suffering or fit the official line that had already been established? Did Borowski attempt in his “disturbing” stories that reveal the relativism of cruelty in the camps, ie. that the prisoners were as guilty of nasty behavior as the guards, maybe more so, to redeem himself somewhat from not telling the actual truth as he knew it?

    I think his suicide that no one can make sense of leads us in that direction. If there is any truth to my speculations, Borowski himself was like his characters — both a victim and perpetrator.

    Comment by sceptic — February 7, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    • As I have explained on my web site, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration camp, a labor camp, a transit camp, and a death camp, all rolled into one. The town of Auschwitz was the largest railroad hub in Europe; prisoners were sent to Auschwitz and then transferred to other camps after being held in transit camps inside Birkenau and the main camp.

      Tadeusz was not only a hospital orderly, he was selected to be one of 10 prisoners to be trained to be medical orderlies, or almost doctors, as he says. Medical training at a “death camp”? Unmöglich! (Impossible) He took his training at the Auschwitz main camp.

      The Auschwitz main camp was a concentration camp, not a death camp. The death camp was at Birkenau, a 425 acre camp, where there was room for a soccer field. The main camp had no space for a sports field. Tadeusz described how the Auschwitz prisoners received letters, as well as packages, from home. One prisoner, who was a patient in the camp hospital, received a package of green tomatoes which he had to let ripen, under the bed covers, before eating them. He wrote about how the prisoners had cooked the food that they received from home on top of the ceramic stoves in the main camp. I was really impressed with those stoves when I visited Auschwitz; my house didn’t have anything like that when I was growing up.

      In his stories, he describes the “Puff” which was the name for the brothel, and the concert hall where the prisoners could listen to a concert every Sunday, right after attending the Sunday boxing match.

      On page 135 of his short stories, published under the title “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Tadeusz describes a wedding that took place in the main Auschwitz camp. Afterward, the couple spent their wedding night in the “Puff” which had to be closed for one night, while the prostitutes slept in Block 10, the medical experiments block. The bride was brought to Auschwitz from France on the orders “of H. himself.” I think he meant Heinrich Himmler, not Hitler.

      As for the children in the Birkenau camp, have you ever noticed that the Holocaust survivors are usually very attractive people? I have seen several survivors in person at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and I was impressed with how good they looked. Most of the survivors who are still alive today were younger than 15 when they went through the selection at Birkenau. My theory is that Dr. Mengele waved the cute kids to the right, instead of to the left, which meant a trip to the gas chamber. Look at the photos of the child survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. These were cute kids with chubby cheeks! According to one survivor, Dr. Mengele brought chocolate and and hair ribbons for the little girls in the camp.

      I think that Tadeusz Borowski did write what he thought was the truth. He tells about the cruelty of the guards and about the criminals in the camp who were the Kapos, or the prisoners who supervised other prisoners. He also tells about the good times in the camp – the soccer games, visits to the Puff and the concerts.

      Comment by furtherglory — February 7, 2010 @ 10:56 pm

  5. Someone told me about this new blog, and I’m glad. ‘Tadeusz Borowski’ is an interesting, informative essay that I enjoyed. The commenter “feet2thefire” seems to have missed the point of some of it, it seems to me.

    My take is that everything that is written or said about the Holocaust, survivors or Auschwitz (plug in any other camp name) is accepted in a solemn – to the point of religious – way; that is, without much thinking, and certainly no questioning. Everything has to be blamed on the Nazis; even the worst collaborators have to be excused or justified in the end. The “victims” must be only victims, never a mixed bag, and the same with the perpetrators. But this goes against everything we know about human nature and history.

    In your article, the newspaper writer is a total captive to this position. Borowski himself, in his novel, presents an exaggerated (incorrect) vision of what was taking place … that’s why he made it a novel! It made a much better story that way. Maybe he felt guilty as time went on because he didn’t tell the truth, but capitalized on the tragedy as others were doing.

    Borowski, in his book, tells us that he played soccer on Sunday afternoons. Were prisoners arriving by train and sent to the “gas chamber” in the crematorium on Sundays? That was a day off for the guards as well as the prisoners. Did Borowski know that no prisoners were gassed in that crematorium, but after the end of the war when he was in the DP Camp everyone said they were so who was he to argue? Maybe he was angry enough at being put into a camp that he didn’t mind adding to the blame of those responsible. It probably felt good.

    But maybe by 1951 he saw the damage that had been done, but he didn’t have the courage to contradict what had already become history and his own popular writings. Maybe the birth of his child made him ashamed of the role he had played, was playing, and didn’t know how to stop playing. Maybe Borowski was an artist and a sensitive soul, but not a particularly courageous one? And so, overcome by conflict and indecision, he put an end to it.

    Maybe none of this is even close to the truth, but it is just as possible as what you and feet2thefire have come up with. True questioning – as feet2thefire would like to do – needs to be done with a mind free of dogma and politically correct, state-sanctioned beliefs.

    I look forward to more interesting posts on this blog.

    Comment by sceptic — February 6, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    • Hi sceptic

      You picked up on something that I missed. In the short story entitled “The People who Walked on,” Tadeusz Borowski wrote: “As always on Sundays, a sizeable crowd of hospital orderlies and convalescent patients had gathered to watch the game.” So it was on a Sunday that he saw 3,000 Jews put to death in the gas chambers during a soccer game. Borowski himself was a hospital orderly at that time, and he indicates that the hospital orderlies weren’t working on that Sunday afternoon. But that doesn’t mean that the SS men had a day off.

      If a train load of Jews arrived at Birkenau on a Sunday, they had to be disposed of, one way or another. They had to be deloused and shaved and showered in the Sauna building, or they had to be sent to the gas chambers. Either way, it took all day to process a transport of 3,000 Jews. There was only one real shower room with 50 shower nozzles at Birkenau. The fake showers in Krema IV and Krema V were actually gas chambers.

      According to the Auschwitz Museum, there were 437,000 Jews from Hungary processed at the Birkenau camp in only ten weeks. So the SS probably didn’t take Sundays off during those ten weeks.

      The title of this short story, “The People who Walked On,” refers to the fact that after the selection at the ramp, both groups walked in the same direction on the same two roads. The people who were selected to work and the people who were selected to be gassed walked on the same two roads. I am repeating it because Borowski repeated it. Then he says that some people had the good fortune to walk beyond the crematoria, all the way to the Sauna where they took a shower. They were “The People who Walked On.”

      On my web site, I have lots of photos of the prisoners from a transport walking in the same direction on the same two roads. Some of these photos show a mixed group of people, with children and people capable of working, in the same group. Maybe these people had volunteered to stay with the children and as a result they were not among The People who Walked On.

      Comment by furtherglory — February 7, 2010 @ 1:03 am

  6. Glad to see you making the move to blogging! I hope it gives you the chance to interact, as well as to inform. This is a good thing, this blog. I will look forward to lots of your posts.

    My thoughts on your question (likely a rhetorical one, I know):

    In France, and elsewhere, many collaborators didn’t get the chance to have consciences – people dragged them out and strung them up or shot them – or beat them to death. I wonder how many collaborators later took their own lives.

    I also wonder how many of the people who died in the gas chambers would have liked to come back and strangle a few privileged, collaborating prisoners.

    I have thought about how they could live with themselves, the kapos. Every morning when they woke up, they all could be glad for another day – but at what price? At the same time, once you’ve done it for a day, when you know others are dying, does doing it for another day make it any worse? It might be like arguing points in the Talmud on that one. Each new incoming train was a new chance to the crime of being alive anew. Is it better or worse, to do it again and again?

    I do know that once you get into a really tough situation, the people around you have a societal structure that perpetuates the idea that to survive you have to make tough choices. I would recommend “Man is Wolf to Man,” Janusz Bardach, about life in the gulag.

    …From my time in the Army on “permanent KP,” I can say that any day we could get out of it meant that someone else had to serve in our place. None of us batted an eye at being the source of someone else’s misery. KP is not the same as being gassed, though. “Let somebody else do it,” was easy to think then. If it was sending someone to his/her death, would we have done it? I honestly don’t know.

    …MANY of the kapos and privileged prisoners, I’m sure, must have believed they were justified in what they were doing, because personal survival is everything. Their argument could easily be, “Well, someone is going to be kept for labor or prisoner leadership, so it might as well be me. “Why NOT me, versus some other jamoke?”

    And how many of those who had no choice and were just shuffled off to the chambers would have chosen to be among the alive privileged – if only given the option? As I perceive it, the choice by the SS had to do mostly with gender and age. Young adult males seemed to be preferred for labor. Those who were chosen didn’t have a choice, either – it was just the luck of what time in their lives all that happened to them. If Hitler had come along 25 years later, each of those individuals would likely have not been chosen.

    In the end, we all draw the line at different places, on what we would do. And that includes the regret or shame, or conscience that comes up and bites us later. All options that are possible WILL be taken, by someone, if enough of us are put in tough situations; someone will discover every one of them.

    There is likely not one thing Borowski could have done to save any of the doomed. That may have been part of his self-castigation: that he was powerless, that none of it could be affected by him in the slightest – but he had to see it every week.

    Like some survivors of disasters, just being alive becomes a crime, in their minds. But what can you do?

    Life is the biggest drama of all.

    I do wonder why Borowski caved in right then, with the new baby. Did new life entering the world make him think more about death? More about the injustice of it all? Did it make him even more guilty about being alive, his fathering a child? Some, of course, would have seen it as an affirmation. He obviously did not.

    Those are just thoughts – no conclusions, just thoughts. Many of those thoughts you’ve probably already had.

    Comment by feet2thefire — February 5, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

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