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Reviving the Reputation of a Man of One Book

Postal Indiscretions: The Correspondence of Tadeusz Borowski
Edited by Tadeusz Drewnowski, translated from the Polish by Alicia Nitecki
Northwestern University Press, 384 pages, $35.

Before the war destroyed a particular pretentiousness of European literature, there was a favored Latin phrase (some say taken from Augustine, others say from Aquinas) often used to describe a believer’s relationship to the Bible: Homo unius libri, now taken to mean “a man of one book,” a writer whose reputation lies upon, and only upon, a singular achievement. Tadeusz Borowski, despite his poetry, was among the last of this rarefied breed. His unius libri, a collection of stories about Auschwitz, is known now as “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.”

Borowski was irreligious, and not a Jew. He was born in Polish Ukraine in 1922, and survived Auschwitz and Dachau, working primarily as a Sonderkommando, a prisoner tasked with the unloading of human and inhuman (and dead) cargo from the arriving cattle cars. He was, often, the first person to “welcome” prisoners to the camps. After the war, he would find employment as a journalist and minor spy in communist East Germany and Poland. He committed suicide, gassing himself, in Warsaw in 1951.

Though the history of the publication of “This Way for the Gas” is rife with bibliographic concern — the first edition was bound in cloth from camp uniforms, a number of passages were later excised or revised, Borowski’s stories in that first collective edition were to be collated with other stories from his subsequent books — all such marginalia can be subsumed in the light of what has survived: 12 stories of an uncompromisingly dark genius, styled in a disabused prose that astounds to this day:

The lights on the ramp flicker with a spectral glow, the wave of people — feverish, agitated, stupefied people — flows on and on, endlessly. They think that now they will have to face a new life in the camp, and they prepare themselves emotionally for the hard struggle ahead. They do not know that in just a few moments they will die, that the gold, money, and diamonds which they have so prudently hidden in their clothing and on their bodies are now useless to them. Experienced professionals will probe into every recess of their flesh, will pull the gold from the under the tongue and the diamonds from the uterus and the colon. They will rip out gold teeth. In tightly sealed crates they will ship them to Berlin.

In translation for the first time, “Postal Indiscretions: The Correspondence of Tadeusz Borowski” is an attempt to revive Borowski’s reputation with a complete selection of his correspondence, faithfully translated by Alicia Nitecki, and appended with extensive editorials by Tadeusz Drewnowski, Borowski’s Polish biographer. Borowski’s correspondence — at least, as it interests this book and its writer’s posterity — begins with his arrest by the Nazis on February 25, 1943, for participating in subversive literary and political activities. This book’s first section, concerned with the war, takes us through August 12, 1944, which is to say through Auschwitz (as a Pole and a Sonder, Borowski was occasionally permitted to write censored letters home from the camp, and even to receive certain packages). Following the war, Borowski writes wildly, widely: trying to find news of his family, and of his young wife, Maria Rundo, known as Tuska, who herself was in Auschwitz-Birkenau and survived, only to find postwar refuge in Sweden. The letters from summer 1946 through summer 1949 are from Warsaw. Summer 1949 finds Borowski in Berlin. In the 1950s, the book returns to Warsaw, and ends with a last and unsigned telegram to Borowski’s parents (addressees: “Borowskis, 2 Post Office St., Olsztyn”), disingenuously written, or dictated, by the writer himself, on the eve of his death, July 3, 1951: “COME IMMEDIATELY STOP TADEUSZ SERIOUSLY ILL”

Here, oppositely, is an excerpt from a letter that struggles for life, not against it: Borowski’s first from Auschwitz, a letter that, like all letters from the camp, had to be written in German (Borowski’s mother in Warsaw required a translator to read anything written during these years from her son):

If you can, please send more, and more often. Send me more well-baked breads, sliced and whole, a bit of fat and sugar, marmalade and artificial honey, if they’re well wrapped, best of all in cans. Add to each package 1-2 pieces of wrapped soap and 2 black shoe polishes. On top of that, send me frequent packages of onion and garlic, they’re good and I like them very much.

Not all of these letters deal with deceptions, or workaday lists: Despite the almost exclusively biographic or bibliographic importance of Borowski’s correspondence, a snatch of his poetry shines through, especially in the section devoted to the letters he wrote immediately after the war, attempting to find his Tuska.

Here is an excerpt of a poem he copied out for her:

I know you live. How else can
the shadow and light
of distant, cold stars, reflections
of the world’s crystal, make sense?

His prose, per convention, is more colloquial:

I’m writing you this letter Auschwitz-style — in a chain: first to a certain lady somewhere near London, that lady will send the letter to that other one whose address you gave, and that second one will probably be so good as to give it to you. I’m sending a copy to your uncle. I think that’s the safest road, and a third to that lady in Paris. At least one should reach you. [from Munich, January 1946]

We’re a pair of sick people, you and I. We suffer from some indefinable nostalgia and are weary of the world. But evil doesn’t lie in the world, it lies in us. I think it is going to be hard for me to live like this. [from Paris, April 1946]

This last letter excerpts Borowski’s essential conviction: Unlike Kafka, an earlier epistolarian of similar posthumous fame, who believed the enlightened individual to be the victim of an unknowable malevolence, of the disinterested workings of the all-powerful, or the mercilessly divine, Borowski believed that very malevolence, or evil, to be created within, or otherwise native to, every individual, regardless of power, allegiance or function.

This is the difference, perhaps, between a writer who lived under a monarchy, where judgment and injustice is imposed from the top down, and a writer who had metaphysical, and even ideological, sympathies with Marx: Borowski believed in the incarnation of evil (and good) in everyone equally, and held, in his writing, at least, that such evil was imposed upon the world by us and us only, individually, in every act — a revolution in the notion of responsibility, accomplished from the bottom up, as it were. Another manifest though private difference is that Kafka believed in his own literary gift, despite his neurotic protestations. Borowski had no such tortured confidence later in life, only torture: He could never absolve himself of his complicity with the Nazis, and so he absolved himself of his complicity with life, and died — so goes a popular interpretation of his fate. His letters are less generous than Kafka’s, more pragmatic, almost mechanistic or machined as opposed to psychological and subtle, though this, too, was true of their times, of the cleaved halves of Europe’s last century.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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