The Death of Schillenger: Auschwitz and Tadeusz Borowski

   Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz prison camp, just to the east of Krakow in Poland, January 27, 1945, now Holocaust Remembrance day. I had been reading Mr. Borowski for the past couple days anyway, having found the Jan Kott edition of “This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” in the library sale for a dollar.

   In one story, called the “Death of Schillenger,” there is a brief revolt at the gas chamber. Schillenger was a first sergeant, in charge of Labor Sector D at Birkenau, just across the tracks from Auschwitz. There was a transport of Polish Jews, from Bedzin, and unlike the foreign Jews, the Polish Jews knew that they were about to be gassed. Schillenger selected one outstanding woman from the group of naked Jews being loaded into the crematorium. As he went to lead her away, she threw gravel into his face, took his drawn gun as he shrieked in agony, and shot him twice in the stomach, before also shooting the chief of the crematorium workers. The SS officers then fled the room, leaving the Polish workers to deal with the uprising. These workers had of course been selected for being the most cruel and calloused among the imprisoned Pols. The man telling the story describes how these selected Polish workers were successful, using clubs and driving the Jews into the gas chamber. Borowski heard this description from the gas Chamber foreman: Schillinger…

…walked up to the woman and took her by the hand. But the naked woman bent down suddenly, scooped up a handful of gravel and threw it in his face, and when Schillenger cried out in pain and dropped his revolver, the woman snatched it up and fired several shots into his abdomen The whole place went wild. The naked crowd turned on us screaming. The woman fired once again, this time at the chief, wounding his face. Then the chief and as well as the SS men made off, leaving us quite alone…

As they lifted Schillenger to a car, he groaned through clenched teeth,  “O Gott, mein Gott, was hab’ ich getan, dass ich so leiden muss? That is, “What have I done to deserve such suffering?” Borowski said to the man telling the story,  the Polish camp commander: “That man didn’t understand even to the very end. What strange irony of fate.”

   The reader is left to realize that it is these workers who might have joined the Jews and, applying the same principles that the woman had used, turned the crematoriums on the SS, taken their weapons from them, and liberated the camp. But escape was impossible. The prisoners would first have needed to take or destroy the guard towers. Just before the camp was to be evacuated, as the Russians approached, the same camp commander, realizing that the Polish workers would be killed, led a revolt which failed when, after breaking through the barbed wire, the escapees were machine gunned down from these guard towers.

   It may be possible for some of the survivors from the Bedzin region to piece together the name of this woman, and who she might be: This beautiful and heroic woman from among the Polish Jews of Bedzin, deported in 1943 or 44. There was one great uprising burning crematorium III at Birkenau on October 7, 1944, and it is likely to have been a few months before this that she rebelled.

   Mr. Borowski died in 1951, of an apparent suicide, at the age of 31. It is likely that he feared torture by the communists, given that his friend had recently been tortured. The same friend to whose apartment Borowsky had gone to look for his fiance when he was seized by the Nazis was tortured just two weeks before the suicide of Borowski, and when Borowski interceded for the friend, he was told that “”the people’s justice was never mistaken” (Kott, p. 19). Mr. Borowski was a communist, or thought himself so. He is one of those who somehow think that what is essential to the West is that thing called “capitalism.” He had a chance to escape with his fiance, now his wife, and spent a year in Berlin. But then he made the fatal choice of remaining in Poland. He returned to Warsaw to write as a “socialist” party activist. Which is better for the human soul and spirit, individualism, every man for himself, or holding hands, sharing things and working together? Borowski was just 31, the age of many silly young men who are college philosophy students. This thing, “capitalism,” is a literary fiction of Karl Marx, who taught us to contrast east and west in terms of his theories about history and economic classes. It is because of the spiritual and human emptiness of this “capitalism” that Borowski thinks himself a “communist.” The most fundamental statement of Borowski is a view of man permanently calloused by a world we hope to never see, in the story called The January Offensive: “There is nothing men will not do to save themselves…the world is ruled by power,and power is obtained with money.” Survival will “tear away a man’s freedom like a suit of clothing.” He had seen plenty of that in the camps.

   What is rather more essential to the West is that we are quite allowed to read Mr. Borowski, and even glory with him in the Russian January offensive that directly led to the liberation. Had Mr. Borowsky realized this, he might have saved his life. Yet it is questionable: What would have occurred had he come to live in America, believing himself to be a communist? He would have endured the blacklisting, etc. of the McCarthy era, and it is the realization that in the West this sort of thing does occur that seems to have led him to take his chances with a communist Poland.

   And not only are we allowed to read Borowski. Had he come to read with us, he may have been transported far beyond the ridiculous contrast of the free and totalitarian methods of dealing with the economy, to the roots of political liberty in Ancient Greece, to ancient Greek Socratic philosophy, and through the great political philosophers and thinkers, to read the American founding fathers. What would Marx make of a statement like that of Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (XVII), when he worries that with the passing of the founding generation, the Americans will forget the principle of liberty of the Revolutionary era, and be lost in the more mundane concerns of moneymaking?

The time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for their support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. 

Marx never read Jefferson, and moneymaking is not mentioned at all in our Declaration of Independence. Jefferson believed in industry, and did not believe in slavery, but had things he considered more important to do, and Jefferson does not translate well into German. Indeed, a strange irony of fate.

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