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Literary Lessons on Auschwitz Teach Better Than History Class

January 28, 1995

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ For many young Poles, the name Auschwitz is mainly a word from the history books until they discover the stories of Tadeusz Borowski.

Under horrific commonplace titles like ``This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen″ and ``Auschwitz, Our Home,″ Borowski gives Polish students their first real knowledge of the Nazi death camp.

Students do not study the period as history until their senior year in high school. Few have visited Auschwitz, in southern Poland, or other extermination camps the Germans built in Poland during World War II.

Borowski was mistakenly arrested with Polish resistance fighters and survived 18 months at Auschwitz. Although his father had been a prisoner in a Soviet gulag, Borowski was attracted by the promises of the newly imposed Communist system and became a party propagandist after the war. He gassed himself to death in 1951 at the age of 28.

Ironically, his books _ on the required reading list for all high school literature classes _ teach students a story that the Communist Party propaganda machine twisted and suppressed in history courses for decades.

Written in a simple, very personal style, the stories depict normal daily camp routines against the backdrop of the horrors that took 1.5 million lives.

Borowski viewed the camp as a perfect model of a totalitarian society. It is described as a machine of death and terror, filled with cool and calculated work: Jews going to gas chambers, prisoners unloading transports of their doomed fellow victims, Nazi officers picking inmates as assistants. All are just objects in the system, where any sign of disobedience means death.

However, since it is the only real world for them, Borowski’s characters behave like ``normal people,″ but devoid of love, sympathy, solidarity.

The only form of sympathy, Borowski wrote, was when the prisoner-guards tried to keep the doomed from knowing, until the last moment, that they were about to be killed.

``I have read many books about concentration camps. But not one of them is as terrifying as his stories because he never moralizes, he relates,″ Polish Nobel literature laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote in 1951, the year Borowski committed suicide.

Although selections of his stories were translated into English and other languages in the 1960s, Borowski is hardly known in the West.

For teacher Anna Grajewska, learning about Auschwitz from Borowski’s stories makes sense.

``Literary works appeal to us much better than historical documents _ by referring to our emotions,″ said Grajewska, who has taught literature for 23 years.

Other sources are ``dominated by a false, pompous tone, stressing heroism and martyrdom,″ said Wiktor Rusin, 18, a student at Warsaw’s Stefan Batory High School.

He referred to decades of Communist propaganda that manipulated facts to serve Marxist ideology and play down the destruction of the Jews _ who constituted 90 percent of Auschwitz’s dead. ``Borowski just wiped out those false myths,″ Rusin said.

Under communism, Borowski’s stories, written in the 1940s, were regarded simply as reports from a surviving Polish prisoner. There were no grounds for suppressing them, even if they did not tell a tale of Communist heroes.

Malgorzata Hyc, another 18-year-old, said her childhood ideas about Auschwitz were that there had been more heroic resistance in the camp. But Borowski’s writings made her think about what really happened.

``It is not a blunt report about bloodshed. We read it and later it all comes to us, and stays, just the deep meaning of the simple words,″ said Hyc.

Borowski’s main character bears the author’s first name _ Tadeusz.

The character quickly learns the rules and succeeds in winning a ``comfortable″ position. The feeling that those who survived must take the blame for those who perished haunted the young writer until his death.

He left no suicide note. His legacy of four short story collections and two volumes of poetry convey a desolate view of mankind.

Arnold Mostowicz, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor from Warsaw, said that Borowski, a gentile, was the only one who wrote the truth about Auschwitz, ``showing the human beast, inherent in each man, in full size.″

Borowski’s Nazis are ordinary people. They just perform their jobs, like the SS officer counting the number of truckloads of people going to the ovens.

In another story, prisoners play an unusual soccer game as a trainload of new victims arrives. He bluntly observes: ``Between two corner kicks, right behind my back, 3,000 people had been put to death.″

Borowski’s characters are anonymous, without a distinction between good and bad. Just the same people, but on different sides.

``This shows you can easily cross the border between an executioner and a victim,″ said Klaudia Smoktunowicz, another student.

``Everyone had his part in it and it did not matter whether he was a Pole, a Jew or a German,″ said 18-year-old Olga Biegunska.

As Borowski wrote in ``Auschwitz, Our Home″: ``Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps on their throats? ... If our name is called, we obediently go with them to die _ and we do nothing.″

His experience of Auschwitz, first encountered at age 20, was that almost everyone went along, quietly _ the survivors, as well as the dead.

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