This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen
Stylistic Choices in Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”
Tadeusz Borowski is an inherently tragic author. His life as a guard in a German concentration camp is something to be pitied at best. While Borowski writes about his horrible experiences as a guard in his collection of short stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, he seems to retain a sort of dissociation throughout his writing. This deflection of tragedy and treating of guards as ‘cogs in a machine’ enhances the horror of the concentration camp and the idea of the industrial nature of the Holocaust. In addition to this, Borowski breaks up the descriptions of menial tasks performed with horrific descriptions of the brutal mistreatment of the Jews by the Germans, using these scenes to shatter our hope that there can be anything intrinsically good in such a situation.
Borowski’s opening story begins with what almost seems to be a joke: “Our striped suits are back from the tanks of Cyclone B solution, an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.” (Borowski 1) While this statement is obviously horrific, the author places it at the very beginning of the story, in almost a conversational manner, to expose the horrible acts committed in this camp by the Germans, while also implicating all the men in the camp as accomplices in the atrocities. Borowski paints these men as human beings, however – complicit in the murder caused by the Germans but only out of necessity. The men are friendly to each other, sharing food and drink and telling each other stories in a sort of hodge-podge of all of their languages. This feeling of friendship does make them seem more sympathetic as characters, as compared to the cold and robotic feeling we get from the German soldiers. This dichotomy of characterization makes these guards feel as imprisoned as the group on the train, if less lethally so.
In addition to the stylistic choice that Borowski makes in making these guards, especially the main character, seem human, he also uses vivid imagery to drive home the vile jobs that these guards must do in order to survive. After the first train of the day is cleared, they are ordered to clean the train. Upon climbing inside they find “amid human excrement… squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies” (Borowski 8). As the situation almost escalates into a standoff, more senseless murder is postponed by an elderly woman, who takes these disgusting corpses. In this story of violence and hatred, Borowski makes it a point to show truly sympathetic, possibly heroic characters, those who do not allow themselves to be beaten down or broken by the Nazis. This elderly woman is one of a handful of such characters in this story. The guards, while they are forced into this situation by powers greater than their own, are not heroic. Their complicity to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany is far too great to be deemed heroic, and Borowski knows this. Borowski instead focuses on acts of genuine selflessness from the people least able to be selfless. This woman knows much more than she lets on about what is about to happen, even going so far as to comfort the main character, and yet she still will deal with these mutilated corpses simply to give her fellow prisoners a few more minutes of hope. These small acts of heroism are idealized in this story, but they also are shown to be few and far between in a horrifying situation.
Borowski also seems to take this imagery in a wholly different direction when it comes to describing the Germans. The Germans in this story, when they are more than shadowy figures with all the power, are painted as disgusting, unattractive, loathsome people. The commandant of the F.K.L., a woman’s concentration camp, is described as:Withered, flat‐chested, bony, her thin, colourless hair pulled back and tied in a “Nordic” knot; her hands are in the pockets of her wide skirt. With a rat‐like, resolute smile glued on her thin lips she sniffs around the corners of the ramp. She detests feminine beauty with the hatred of a woman who is herself repulsive, and knows it. (Borowski 9)This loathing of the Germans who put them in this situation is understandable, and makes even more sense when you realize that this story was written by a disillusioned Borowski after he has survived the concentration camp.
The entirety of this story is morally grey, and almost nihilistic in the way it is told. By the midway point of the story, the main character seems to lose all sympathy for the Jewish prisoners due to exhaustion, saying;”It is impossible to control oneself any longer. Brutally we tear suitcases from their hands, impatiently pull off their coats. Go on, go on, vanish! They go, they vanish. Men, women, children. Some of them know.” (Borowski 10) One of the individuals who “know” is a woman, who attempts to abandon her own child in order to have a chance at survival. The Russian sailor who deals with the woman is commended by the Germans for his brutality, which was fueled by exhaustion and drunkenness. Borowski manages to accurately portray the vicious cycle of being a guard in a concentration camp through this passage. The guards are made to work in the sun, with no breaks for water or food, except for what you can scavenge out of the cars. As such, the guards move at a quick, brutal pace through each of the Jewish people on the train, trying desperately for a moment’s rest. The German officers praise this brutality, and as the guards are powerless to speak out against the Germans, their anger is inevitably taken out even more harshly on the Jewish and other ‘undesirables’ on the trains. This cycle reaches a breaking point with our protagonist, however, who grows more and more sickened and disillusioned by this job throughout the entire story, finally snapping and giving in to the “mounting, uncontrollable terror” (Borowski 12) of the ramp. In his escape to the more privileged group of prisoners, we finally get to see the entirety of the action on the ramp. In this moment, and for the rest of the passage, Borowski’s voice finally gets to come through. As the main character mentally breaks under the strain of coping with the thousands of people dying in front of him, Borowski describes the horror of the concentration camp with no detraction. This horrific imagery is no longer diluted with interactions, as it was when the main character was on the ramp. As the story takes a step backwards, we see everything from men and women dying on the ramp to a young girl with only one leg being carried off by the guards. She is thrown “on the truck on top of the corpses. She will burn alive along with them.” (Borowski 12) This shift comes unexpectedly, taking the reader by surprise and almost assaulting them with the true horror of the situation. However, this view of the ramp as it truly is only lasts for a moment before Borowski goes back to the guardsmen eating together. This constant shifting between showing the guards as human beings and showing the guards as agents of German oppression keeps the reader off balance, and Borowski’s ultimate goal in doing so is to create an ambiguous state. The reader is never quite sure whether to condemn or sympathize with the guards, and Borowski seems to cultivate this duality because he is not sure whether to condemn himself or not. The voice of the narrator is unequivocally Borowski’s own, and the hatred and self-loathing the narrator feels is directly linked to Borowski’s feelings about his life.
Near the end of the story, the main character, after literally becoming fevered and nauseous from the work he has to do, dreams about going back to camp and lying on his bunk. He now sees the camp as a “haven of peace. It is true, others may be dying, but one is somehow still alive, one has enough food, enough strength to work…” (Borowski 14) This method of coping by dissociation is perhaps the main flaw of guards at Birkenau. The guards block out their sympathy to the millions of people dying near them simply because they are the ones who need to survive. The food that they loot from the Jewish sent off to die, and the fact that they can continue to survive in this horrific situation, is more important to them than the people they see who they cannot save. Borowski seems to write this story both to explain and condemn this way of thinking. While the guards could not have done anything to save the millions of Jews who were killed or worked to death, Borowski seems to feel a cutting amount of survivor’s guilt, and this guilt is prevalent in the way the story is told. Borowski wishes to make it apparent to his audience that there was no hope of being a moral individual and surviving in a concentration camp. Many of the people in his story seem to be ‘nice’ characters, or at least not inherently evil, and yet all of them are too constrained by forces beyond their control to show any mercy at all. Borowski writes this story very nihilistically, and leaves the reader with a profound sense of hopelessness, as though nothing could have been changed, and nothing is going to make up for the horrific acts committed. The author seems to intentionally cultivate this feeling in order to express to the audience the magnitude of the Germans’ slaughtering.
In “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Borowski uses vivid imagery and an almost detached writing style to convey the horrifying scene of the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition to this, he uses his own experiences as a guard to color the writing with a brush of nihilism, letting his own guilt as a survivor of the Holocaust paint a picture of the hopelessness that any guard posted would have to cope with and survive.