I am trying to read a book from every country in the world.
BOOK: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski
IN SHORT: This is a harrowing, fictionalized account of life as a prisoner at Auschwitz.
THE BEST BIT: It is hard to use the word “best bit” to describe any passage in this book, because “best” implies an enjoyment that is difficult to come by here. Have I already used the word harrowing? In some ways there are similarities — in the setting, in the precision of the prose — to Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, though Borowski’s characters jockey more openly for positions of, and the spoils of, relative privilege. In the opening account, the narrator and Henri, a French prisoner, quarrel over the allocations of “the bacon, the onion … a can of evaporated milk” — even a loaf of bread baked by his mother. From the book’s introduction:
“[Borowski and his fiancée] were both ‘lucky.’ Three weeks earlier ‘Aryans’ had stopped being sent to the gas chambers — except for special cases. From then on only Jews were gassed en masse.”
The cruelty is everywhere, and offhand — not just between the guards and the prisoners but among the prisoners themselves. He and Henri decide not to interrupt a rabbi “wailing loudly” — not in a show of solidarity but because his keening means that “they’ll take him to the oven that much sooner.” This opening story is the story of the arrival of a transport from Sosnowiec-Bedzin; the narrator and Henri, and the rest of their crew, are entrusted with the task of unloading it. It is more horrifying than any horror story:
“In the corners [of the transport train] amid human excrement and abandoned wrist-watches lie squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens.”
It is never-ending. Says Henri:
“Since Christmas, at least two million people have passed through my hands.The worst of all are the transports from Paris — one is always bumping into friends.”
Bumping into friends on their way to the gas chambers.
After the dead infants, the condemned prisoners, the filth and the excrement have been dispatched with, all that remains is its spoils: “[We are] weighed down under a load of bread, marmalade, and sugar, and smelling of perfume and fresh linen. For days the entire camp will talk about ‘Sosnowiec-Bedzin.’ ‘Sosnowiec-Bedzin’ was a good, rich transport.”
It made me think many times of “Son of Saul,” the Oscar-winning Hungarian film about a Sonderkommando — Jewish prisoners forced to work in the crematoria. An incident similar to what occurs in the film is referenced in “The People Who Walked On,” which is somehow about the construction of a soccer pitch at the camp: [SPOILER for “Son of Saul”]: “Other important events were taking place: the escape of a Sonderkommando that ended in the execution of all the escapees.”
That is just a footnote, though. The entire book is a sort of relentless footnote: The narrator survives, and in the footnotes, thousands of people lose their lives. It is best illustrated in this sentence, also from “The People Who Walked On”: “Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.”
I went to a college with a core curriculum and strong ideas about the cruciality of a universal education. We should all have to read this book.
More Around the World in Books:
Why I’m reading these books
Norway: The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Europe: The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Portugal: Blindness by Jose Saramago
Spain: The Infatuations by Javier Marías
Germany: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous