My Copy: 9780140186246 (image from bn.com)
It’s not a long book, but I had to spend some time pondering it, because I’m not certain how to feel. I feel it’s importance, and am mystified why it’s not better known when it comes to Holocaust-related works. Several of the short stories were indeed published just after the war, possibly by the same underground press he’d been working with before his arrest by the Germans.
I’m guessing that because the author died so soon after the end of the war, and was on the other side of the Iron Curtain, this work was gonna take its sweet time heading to the West.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of short stories relating to Borowski and his time in concentration camps, taking the forms of letters or “slice of life” elements. What’s surprising is the tone in these stories. You don’t get a full spectrum of emotion, like a first day in prison reaction or anything. You feel like you’ve stumbled into the middle of events with these stories. There are snippets of his previous life that he recalls in letters to his love, or in stories to other inmates. Borowski’s perspective is unique in the literature I’ve read so far–this is from a person who was not Jewish in the camps, and was an overseer with some movement and privilege in the camps, and at one point was trained to help in the infirmary.
I had to stick with the book after the title story, even as I couldn’t determine how I felt about it. That one I would call a “day in the life” story that revolved around getting people off the transport trains and herding them to the trucks that would take them to the gas chambers or down the road to the main camp. Most of the events take place at Auschwitz, or at least it’s implied, and Birkenau, the death camp next door.
It’s a strange read because you’d think you would be reading what is in most of the Holocaust-related literature (fear, uncertainty, terror, etc.). But you get the sense this person’s just trying to survive in a matter-of-fact way, without much feeling either way. There are different ways he shows emotion and for different reasons. It’s something to ponder as you go along, and though less than 150 pages, I had to stop and absorb what I’d read at the end of each story. Some are better than others. Some are dozens of pages long while others are five or less.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is definitely a book that could use more attention regarding WW2 and Holocaust studies. But it’s also a small collection of short stories that get a little introspective while being matter-of-fact much of the time. It’s an interesting read, and hard to know what to feel while doing so.