I fear this will not be my only post on Auschwitz. Living in Krakow for five or six weeks now, I know that I am getting closer to my inevitable visit to the nearby extermination camp. It is hard to walk through the center of the city without noticing many advertisements for tours of Auschwitz, although I doubt the Poles are particularly happy that so many visitors use the beautiful city of Krakow as a stepping stone to something they didn’t want in the first place.
People are used to hearing stories of heroism and victimization surrounding Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Everyone knows about Anne Frank- after two years, her hiding spot was discovered and she was sent to Belsen where she died of typhus. Most people have also seen Schindler’s List, which chronicles the story of Oskar Schindler who rescued around 1,200 jews by employing them in his enamel factory. In fact, many tourists look for locations from the movie around Kazimierz (former Jewish neighborhood in Krakow pre-WWII) and Krakow. There was also Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz. He was canonized as patron saint of “Our Difficult Century” by Pope John Paul II in 1982 for his extraordinary heroic and selfless deed. Also unique is the story of Witold Pilecki, the only known person to volunteer to go to Auschwitz. Once a prisoner, he sent invaluable information to the West and organized resistance.
This list is in no way complete; there are countless heroes of the holocaust and Auschwitz. In retrospect, people like to hear these stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary deeds in the midst of the biggest disaster of the twentieth century. It provides some hope that “good” really does conquer “evil.” However, as I read the book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski, I see a completely new perspective. After publishing in underground circles, Borowski walked into a trap and spent 1943-1945 in Auschwitz until the Red Army’s “liberation.” His experiences are reflected in this book, which is in first person narrated by a fictional character named Tadek. Sometimes he has the “privileged” job of helping to unload the new arrivals to the camp from their crowded trains, directing them onto trucks to extermination. Afterwards, he and the other workers take their food from the abandoned suitcases on the tracks for means of survival. Tadek also works with groups doing heavy labor around the camps, and discusses the hierarchy of prisoners. He talks about daily life with an incredible amount of distance. Every person discussed has the dual role of the executioner and a victim, as they try to make it through the day. No one is innocent. And when the work is done for the day, Tadek describes the camp as a “haven of peace.” People are dying but one has enough food and the ability to work…
Of course, the impact of this book cannot be summed up into a few paragraphs and I digress. However the stories are unique in many ways. Often, we hear the Auschwitz perspective of the Jewish people and usually heroic tales of solidarity. Instead, Borowski unabashedly recounts ordinary days in Auschwitz. Although a collection of his personal experiences, the perspective of a narrator allows the stories to be those of many, instead of just Borowski’s. These stories could be those of the ordinary days of many people, and Borowski identifies himself with millions in the writing of this book.