Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different.
Several years ago, I started posting favorite passages from prose that I am reading. I stole the title “The exemplary sentence,” from Mark Doty’s blog. It seems apt. This excerpt is from Tadeusz Borowski’s amazing book, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, which I first read in a Penguin paperback in the 70s and reread recently. The book is a collection of stories, the first stories that made the concentration camp experience seem real to me, to see how it simply became daily life for the participants, who to stay alive, necessarily became collaborators in their own imprisonment.
Here is one passage, slightly edited:
“Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step toward that world. Do you really think that, without hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity…It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world but simply for life, a life of peace and rest…We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers…
But still we continue to long for a world in which there is love between men, peace, and serene deliverance from our baser instincts…And yet, first of all, I should like to slaughter one or two men, just to throw off the concentration camp mentality, the effects of continual subservience, the effects of helplessly watching other being beaten and murdered, the effects of all this horror. I suspect though, that I will be marked for life. I do not know whether we shall survive, but I like to think that one day we shall have the courage to tell the world the whole truth and call it by its proper name.”
Borowski did survive, and the power of his work led Larry and I to find and translate his poetry years later, still the only selected poems of his in English. His survival was brief however, as like many survivors, he couldn’t stand that the world had not changed, that telling the truth made little difference. His life ended in suicide in 1951. Nonetheless, the work remains for those who care to read it.