Authors: Tadeusz Borowski

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Polish short-story writer and poet

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Poẓegnanie zMarią, 1948

Kamienny świat, 1948

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories, 1967

Poetry:

Gdziekolwiek ziemia, 1942

Imiona nurtu, 1945

Selected Poems, 1990

Nonfiction:

Pewien ẓołnierz, 1947

Matura na Targowej, 1947 (Exams on Targowa, 1960)

Opowiadania z ksiąẓek i gazet, 1949

Miscellaneous:

Utwory zebrane w pięciu tomach, 1954 (5 volumes)

Biography

Tadeusz Borowski (boh-ROH-skee) is best known as a chronicler of the Holocaust. Both his fiction and his poetry attest the searing experiences of the concentration camps and the general horror of life under the heel of fascism. Arrested at age twenty, he came of age under terrifying conditions, witnessing starvation, brutality, suffering, and death at an age when he should have been completing his studies and beginning his career and family.{$I[AN]9810001357}{$I[A]Borowski, Tadeusz}{$I[geo]POLAND;Borowski, Tadeusz}{$I[tim]1922;Borowski, Tadeusz}

Borowski was born in Żhitomir in the Polish Ukraine in 1922. Both his parents were forced into exile for political reasons during his childhood. From the age of eight until their release, Borowski was cared for by an aunt. Following his mother’s return in 1934, the family lived in poverty in Warsaw. Growing up amid the turmoil of prewar Europe, Borowski understood the absurdity of the human condition. During the German Occupation Borowski had to attend underground classes to finish high school. The day of his final examinations, he witnessed the roundup of deportees in Warsaw, which he was to describe later in “Graduation on Market Street.”

Before his arrest on February 25, 1943, Borowski worked as a night watchman and stockboy while continuing his education through underground classes. He studied Polish language and literature and became active in a group of young poet-conspirators, publishing a mimeographed volume of poems in 1942, Gdziekolwiek ziemia (wherever the earth). When his fiancé, Maria Rundo, a colleague, was arrested by the Nazis, Borowski went in search of her and was taken prisoner at the same friend’s apartment where she had been captured. Arkusz poetycki (a folio of verse), a collection of six love poems, was published in 1944 and circulated by friends while Borowski and Rundo were at Auschwitz.

Borowski was imprisoned at Auschwitz until 1944. As the Allies advanced, he was moved with other inmates to camps in Germany. On May 1, 1945, Dachau was liberated by the Allies; Borowski, transferred to a camp for displaced persons, was finally freed in September. Unable to be reunited with Rundo, who was in Sweden, Borowski continued to write poetry and collaborated with two other released prisoners on a book called Byliśmy w Oświęcimiu (we were in Auschwitz), published in Munich in 1946. A book of verse, Imiona nurtu (names in the stream), came out in 1945.

Despite the communist takeover, Borowski persuaded Rundo to return to Poland with him. They were married, and in 1948 Borowski published two collections of short stories on his concentration camp and postwar experiences: Poẓegnanie z Marią (farewell to Maria) and Kamienny świat (world of stone). Turning his attention to journalism, Borowski accepted a post in the Press Section at the Polish Military Mission in Berlin in 1949.

Returning to Poland a year later, he devoted himself to socialist activism. On July 3, 1951, a few days after his daughter was born, he committed suicide by breathing gas. Although his suicide has not been explained, it has been suggested that the concentration camp experience finally overwhelmed him. Also, he was apparently suffering from guilt over an affair, he had been recently disillusioned when an old friend was tortured by Polish Security, and he felt trapped in a propaganda job which was wasting his talents. It is possible, however, that someone else turned on the gas, making Borowski a victim of political assassination. In any case, Borowski’s death, at age twenty-eight, was a tragic loss.

If one quality distinguishes Borowski’s work, it is his insistence on confronting evil and telling the whole truth about it. His stories of the concentration camps are marked by a cool, matter-of-fact narration; the storyteller’s lack of passion is astonishing, given the horror of the events depicted. The stories suggest that a sensitive person must abandon emotion in order to survive such experiences.

Although Borowski was a common prisoner and acted with courage, he tells his stories through a narrator who is in a position to benefit by others’ sufferings and who becomes dehumanized as ordinary feelings and values are pushed out by the camp mentality. Watching the Kapo distribute second helpings of soup in “A Day at Harmenz,” he repeats an unwritten rule of the camp: “The sick, the weaklings, the emaciated, have no right to an extra bowl of water with nettles. Food must not be wasted on people who are about to go to the gas chamber.” Readers are shocked at this reversal of humane values, but the prisoner has become hardened by what he has seen.

Borowski’s poetry deals with love and intimacy, separation, fear, loss, and nature’s tender indifference to human suffering. One poem describes the deportees’ view of blooming apple trees, fields and cottages, clouds and birds: “It’s a quiet land, I said–again my old mistake.” Another expresses the longing of the displaced person for the beloved: “Maybe we’ll meet–and know joy? . . . Listen: Read this poem,/ if somewhere/ you’re living.”

Borowski’s place in world literature is growing as more of his writing becomes available to non-Polish readers through translation. The work best known to English readers is This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories. In Poland, Borowski is more highly regarded for his poetry than for his fiction, but in both genres his work is marked by vivid imagery, emotional precision, and understated narration of unthinkable realities. His work is valuable not only as a record and reminder of the Holocaust but also as a unique contribution to the art of written expression.

BibliographyBarańczak, Stanisław. Introduction to Selected Poems. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Hit and Run Press, 1990. Barańczak, himself a prominent critic and Polish poet, concisely sketches Borowski’s career. He points out that, while those familiar only with Borowski’s stories sometimes accuse him of moral indifference or cynicism, the poems reveal him to have been a highly moral writer for whom the indifferent narrator was only a literary device.Kott, Jan. Introduction to This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Kott’s biographical section is both detailed and factual. In discussing the stories, he focuses on the manner in which “Borowski describes Auschwitz like an entomologist.”Kuhiwczak, Piotr. “Beyond Self: A Lesson from the Concentration Camps.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 19 (September, 1993): 395-405. Discusses Borowski’s treatment of Nazi concentration camps; compares his work with that of Italian writer Primo Levi.Miłosz, Czesław. The Captive Mind. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. The chapter “Beta, the Disappointed Lover” is devoted to Borowski. Miłosz provides a sensitive analysis of the manner in which the stories on the camps achieve their effect and also, taking advantage of his firsthand acquaintance with “Beta” (as Borowski is called throughout the chapter), tries to find the causes for his evolution from writer to journalist.Miłosz, Czesław. The History of Polish Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Miłosz condenses his assessment of Borowski as both a person and a writer. Writing some years after his first account, he concludes that Borowski’s life and work, despite the contradictions, were motivated by a search for moral values.Stylinski, Andrezej. “Auschwitz Horrors Shared in Polish Schools.” The Ottawa Citizen, January 29, 1995, p. A2. Discusses the fact that Borowski’s books are on the required reading lists of high school literature classes in Poland; comments briefly on Borowski’s life and fiction.Walc, Jan. “When the Earth Is No Longer a Dream and Cannot Be Dreamed Through to the End.” The Polish Review 32 (1987): 181-194. The analytic sections are devoted to Borowski’s poetry, but Walc discusses the manner in which Borowski’s life before the war may have affected him as a writer and examines quotations from the late essays that are not otherwise available in English.Wirth, Andrzej. “A Discovery of Tragedy: The Incomplete Account of Tadeusz Borowski.” The Polish Review 12, no. 3 (1967): 43-52. Wirth examines the narrators in Borowski’s concentration camp stories, emphasizing the disjunction between what is being described and the narrator’s response. Borowski created a new type of tragedy, “a tragedy without alternative, without choice, without competing values.”Woroszylski, Wiktor. “The Prosecutor Within.” Polish Perspectives 3, no. 6 (1960): 27-30. Woroszylski briefly discusses Borowski’s career. He notes that Borowski stressed the necessity of prisoners to “adjust” to the unspeakable nightmare that surrounded them and thus raised uncomfortable questions about the morality of survival. Translations of three short works by Borowski follow this article.
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