Thursday, February 15, 2007

Surviving Auschwitz...

Dante's catalogue of horrors in the "Inferno" "pales in comparison" to a new collection of stories by Tadeusz Borowski , an Polish Auschwitz susvivor who put an end to his life six years after liberation. The stories are told in a morally-neutral manner, bereft of both empathy or an attempt to affect the reader.

Arno Lustiger, Borowski's Auschwitz comrade No. A 5592, reviews the book in a somewhat similar attempt to keep it free of sentiment or judgement:

Every day, the Kapos played football on a pitch surrounded by flowers within sight of the unloading ramp where Jews were constantly arriving by train. Borowski, who played in goal, writes: "I walked back with the ball and passed it to the corner. Between two corners, three thousand people had been gassed behind my back."

To see his fiancee more often, he had himself assigned to the roofing unit, whose members were able to move freely within the whole of the camp, including the women's section. Tadeusz Borowski and Maria Rundo saw each other every day, often even able to be alone together. As a roofer, he also worked in the section of the camp known as "Canada" where articles taken from murdered Jews were kept, including clothes, jewellery, and other valuables, including 7.7 tons of human hair. Here he had contact with the prisoners who belonged to the Sonderkommandos or Special Units, whose horrific tasks included moving the dead from the gas chambers to the ovens of the crematoria. He enjoyed privileges which normal, insignificant inmates could not even dream of.

This review joins a list of enquiries I've been meditating upon for a long time now. On what it meant, how possible it was, to maintain a moral infrastructure in the brutally shrunken universe of Auschwitz, which was stripped of morally-viable choices. What is the function of hope in such a universe?

"It is hope that makes people walk apathetically into the gas chamber, makes them shrink back from uprising ... Hope that tears apart family bonds, makes mothers reject their children, makes women sell themselves for a piece of bread and turns men into killers. Hope makes them fight for each day of life, for maybe the next day will bring liberation ... We did not learn to renounce hope, and that is why we died in the gas."

Hope, says Borowski, in Auschwitz translated directly into corruption of proper feeling and reason.

I was thinking about the concept of hope when reading A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM by Edgar Allan Poe . Poe in his oeuvre tried to grapple with imaginary moments of sheer terror as Dante did in his "Inferno". And seems to have accepted that the way to redemption, any sort of redemption, is only through ""Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" or "Abandon all hope, you who enter here" .

Viktor Frankl , also a susrvivor of the death camps, seems to have come face to face with the inverse universe Borowski narrates for our benefit. He saw morality turned inside out, like some obscene creature which nature did not intend, and still he could say this:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Borrowski, in fact, did not survive Auschwitz.

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