Posted by: Ele Quigan | May 22, 2010

‘This way for the gas ladies and gentlemen’ Tadeusz Borowsk

Leading on from the last incredibly depressing book I read, and also from the post before that about books I bought in a bookshop in Poland – One of my insomniac nights on the couch struggling withsleep was devoted to this small novel of short stories.

I’ve been to Auschwitz, it was both an incredible and horrible experience.  So reading this book after being there, walking through the camp on a bleak, snowy day in January brings the content almost closer to home in a way.

I couldn’t handle walking through the gas chamber and ovens.  I started to sob and was shocked when I looked at other peoples faces and saw that I was the only person crying, but I guess everyone deals with an experience like that their own way…

The author of these short stories was in both Dachau and Auschwitz, living a life that he possibly regretted.  I can imagine that camp life the will to survive becomes so strong that your behaviours change.  You do things and say things and fight for things that you would never do.  You see the worst things that could happen to people and become numb to it.  Or if in a position where you’re better off than others (Canada of Auschwitz comes to mind…) you cherish it lest it get away from you.

The short stories in this book break out some of those situations baldly and honestly.  From in one story a particular off the cuff calculation of how many people have been gassed by viewing a line grow ever smaller with new trains and more people arriving… To people sending friends and family to the gas chambers, to Canada and a sense of what an extra bowl of soup must have been, but also the disdain directed towards anyone who decided to give up. It’s a harrowing read, and feels autobiographical rather than fictional storytelling.

I have often wondered if since writing the books he did, that this was supposed to be cathartic, getting the stories and memories on to paper and then out of his system – which ended up keeping his ghosts and thoughts much more alive than dead.

It’s not a book to be read lightly, and I found it difficult to get past the awkward irony that only to avoid the gas chambers himself, Tadeusz killed himself by putting his head in his gas oven at 28. With this ‘survivor guilt’ almost at top of mind while I was reading – it made each of the stories some how hit a little harder each one I finished.

There’s never a moralistic tone to the novel, but thoughts springing from reading have caught me out in the days after.  If you have read any Holocaust novels – from Sophie’s Choice, to Schindler’s Ark, to The book thief, to Anne Frank’s Diarythis book of short stories deserves a place in the must reads, for an honest and what feels like true perspective – even given how difficult the content is to digest.

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