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Poland’s Judas Holocaust

The Polish parliament seeks to ban the landscape of contiguous evil recognized by the country’s greatest postwar writers

David G. Roskies
February 08, 2018
Henryk Ross © Art Gallery of Ontario/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Ghetto police escorting residents for deportation, 1942-1944.Henryk Ross © Art Gallery of Ontario/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Henryk Ross © Art Gallery of Ontario/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Ghetto police escorting residents for deportation, 1942-1944.Henryk Ross © Art Gallery of Ontario/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
We all live here by the wall, you see, so we can hear what goes on there. Now we all know. They shoot people in the streets. Burn them in their homes. And at night, such shrieks and cries. No one can eat and sleep. We can’t stand it. You think it’s pleasant listening to all that? —Zofia Nałkowska, (1947)

On Jan. 26 the Polish Parliament passed legislation that would criminalize all slanderous mention of Polish collaboration with the German occupier in World War II. Neither the Poles as a people nor Poland as a state, the legislation reads, can be held accountable for the crimes committed on Polish soil by the Third Reich. Especially egregious is any reference to “Polish death camps,” which falsely implies that these camps were initiated or in any way supported by Poles.

Three days later, the Polish Center for Holocaust Research issued a statement decrying this amendment to the Institute of National Remembrance Act as an unprecedented “intrusion” of politics and ideology into the domain of historical inquiry. The Israeli government also weighed in, as did Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other concerned parties.

As it happens, the jury is already in and has issued its verdict. Three outstanding postwar writers, each an eyewitness to a different point on the Holocaust compass, have bequeathed a lasting literary legacy to the Polish people and those who are sympathetic to its struggle. They have done so by facing off directly with the subject of Polish collaboration, locating those precise places and times where neighbor was tormented by the fate of neighbor, where one group of victims preyed upon another, and where all moral action seemed doomed from the start, in a place of contiguous evil.

The first collaborator in the Judeo-Christian tradition was Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus to the priests of the Sanhedrin for 30 coins of silver and became the archetype of the traitor through all time to come. It is a narrative that gets replayed so often throughout Western literature and culture that it is time to give it a name and to examine its deep structure. I call it the Judas Plot and its structure is triangular. At the tip stands the Occupier—intractable, devious and cruel. The success of his rule depends on the loyalty of the Betrayer, who in turn preys upon his Victim. The Victim and Betrayer know each other well. Were it not for the occupation, they could even be lovers. This, I suspect, is the real meaning of the kiss that Judas gave Jesus.

Poland is still a predominantly Roman Catholic country, where archetypes of collaboration maintain their hold through ritual and language. When winter turns to spring in some parts of southern Poland, boys maltreat a puppet called “Judas,” which, in the end, they hurl from the church tower, burn or tear to pieces. Less fraught is the expression a “Judas-hole,” which, according to the OED, entered into English in the mid-19th century to mean a “peephole,” even though there is no reference in the Gospels to Judas peeping through the hole in a door to spy on his Master. So too in Polish, where “Judas-hole” remained the common word for peephole until Poland joined the European Union.

Perhaps what most frightens the guardians of Polish honor is that collaboration always begins at home. For every American Revolution, there is a Benedict Arnold. High profile defections by a Quisling, a Marshal Pétain and a General Andrey Vlasov, when played out on the geopolitical stage, mightily threatened the very core of Norwegian, French and Soviet identity, unity, and fealty, so much so, that it took a vast judicial and extrajudicial system of retribution to set the record straight. Most memorable in the popular mind is the image of the many French women, suspected of having sex with Germans or of living off prostitution, whose heads were shaved at the end of the war. This was a form of “national degradation,” not to be confused with the six thousand extrajudicial executions of collaborators that were carried out before the liberation of France and the four thousand or so that took place thereafter, followed by the so-called “legal purge,” when the commissions appointed by Charles de Gaulle sentenced approximately 120,000 persons—even if in the end, the number of those actually put to death was much smaller. How Stalin disposed of all those suspected of collaboration we shall not go into here.


When the Germans descended upon Poland, they conquered a multiethnic population that had been locked in a web of love-hate relationships for centuries. Most Jews dressed differently, spoke differently and worshipped differently from their Polish-Christian neighbors, but even the growing number of Jews who learned to speak, read and write Polish found their love to be unreciprocated. The envy and hatred of Poles towards Jews was extremely fertile ground for the German occupiers, who routinely divided and conquered by pitting one ethnic group against another. Under German occupation, therefore, one conquered people could profitably betray another while still retaining a semblance of solidarity amongst itself.

For six long years of occupation, they lived, suffered and perished in adjacency—the Poles and the Jews, the conquered and the condemned—with only a wall, a barbed wire fence or a barrack between them. Each of the more than thousand ghettos that the Germans established in occupied Poland; each of the killing factories that they built on Polish soil—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belżec, Chełmno, Gross-Rosen, Majdanek, Sobibór, Stutthof, and Treblinka; each block within each concentration and extermination camp—represented a site of contiguous evil. When those who managed to escape the Aktions, the transports and the final liquidation of the ghetto went into hiding—on the so-called Aryan Side; in attics, villages, barns, haystacks, forests, and even cemeteries—then the entire urban and rural landscape of occupied Poland became a potential site of contiguous evil. There, the Judas Plot got replayed in an untold number of variations.

For the celebrated Polish novelist Zofia Nałkowska, the first direct encounter with the fate of the Jews came on Apr. 25, 1943 when she visited her parents’ graves at the Powązki cemetery. From her vantage point in its gardens, she saw smoke and flames rising above the wall of the Warsaw ghetto, a child standing on the sill of a window, and heard the sound of bodies falling to the ground. Her diary entry for this day is noticeably bare: she manages only to describe the smoke, “the billows of smoke,” before surrendering to the pain of recollection. “And to hear it over there,” she concludes the entry suddenly and vacantly, “And to think of it. And to live.” Out of that impossible incongruity of a reality at once so fragmented and so immediate, out of her sense of failure to adequately record this event, would later be born Nałkowska’s masterpiece of literary testimony, Medallions (1947).

Chosen to join the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (a precursor of today’s Institute of National Remembrance) in February 1945, Nałkowska was the first civilian to systematically visit and study the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Other interviews followed, conducted in an empty apartment, a hotel room, a cemetery. One witness appeared still wearing her concentration camp uniform, the gray-and-navy-striped gabardine and matching cap. All had lived so long in a state of evil or had been so brutalized by their wartime experiences that their speech was robbed of affect. Some could no longer distinguish between right and wrong, cruelty and pity, victim and perpetrator. Others were crippled and partially blind. Their speech was punctuated by silence, fatigue, evasion, or interrupted by workers coming in to fix the sink.

Nałkowska’s subjects speak within a frame that is carefully chosen to counterpoint the story being told. “The road to the cemetery leads through the town along the wall,” reads the opening sentence, and every postwar Polish reader knows immediately that “that wall” can refer only to the Warsaw ghetto. Warsaw or not, adjacency is immediately established as the point of narrative departure. Proximity makes the presence of absence inescapable:

All the windows and balconies, once crowded with immured, watchful people, are vacant. For a long time now, one could see the same, open, second-story window and, past the crimson curtain hanging from a sagging cornice, a dried flower in its pot of crumbled clay, and the ever-open doors of a cheap credenza standing against a wall.

This is literally a naturmort, a landscape of utter abandonment, a once-crowded place of incarceration situated so close to the road that one can still see clearly the sagging, dried, crumbled and cheap interiors that lie on the other side of the crimson curtain of the ever-open windows. The town beyond the wall may have been emptied of all its inhabitants “for a long time now,” but the war continues apace, because one can also see black clouds of smoke rising above the “young greenery of the cemetery trees,” accompanied “by a long flamelike, scarlet sash flashing in the wind” and hear “the grumble of airplanes” coming from not too far away. “News of the dead,” moreover, “reaches us from all sides,” the author-narrator informs us, as she names each victim by first initial. Her actual, true-life visit to a cemetery with its carefully tended graves is an improbable exercise, an almost unbearable juxtaposition of “ordinary, private death, next to the immensity of collective death.” So great is the felt discrepancy that for the narrator “nothing of the past world seems real;” survival itself seems an impossibility. “Reality is endurable,” she tells us, in the precise wording of her wartime diary, “because it is selective. It draws near in fragmented events and tattered reports.” The mind of the bystander struggles to gather up the disparate sights, sounds, and the daily losses.

This very story, in short, is just such an attempt at deconstructing the present moment, breaking it down into its manageable parts; implicitly, the author herself is a kind of cemetery lady. While it’s easy enough for her to decipher the epitaphs inscribed on the bronze memorials, their flowery, transcendental language no longer makes any sense. There, on the other side of the wall, all is silence and vacancy, while here, in the carefully tended burial ground of the Christian dead, nature is awash in color, and “graves lie like dwarfed beds of indigo and yellow pansies,” where “fragrant lilies bloom; [and] soon the lilacs will also be in bloom.” Is there any escape from this incongruous landscape of contiguous evil?

No, there isn’t, for even here the dead do not rest in peace. When finally we are introduced to the Cemetery Lady, “who carries the emblems of her station: the broom and the pitcher,” she tells a bizarre tale about a birth mother’s body that was exhumed, of her suicide, as she jumped out the window of the maternity ward, and not too long thereafter, of her grief-stricken husband, who also put an end to his life. Once, when shells dropped on the cemetery, “shattered statues and medallions lay along the avenue. Opened graves displayed their dead.” Yet it is not the Christian cadavers that disturb the peace of the Cemetery Lady. “Nothing will happen to them,” she says nonchalantly. “They can’t die twice.” It is for another reason altogether that she seems so agitated today and has decided not to live here anymore:

“We all live here by the wall, you see, so we can hear what goes on there. Now we all know. They shoot people in the streets. Burn them in their homes. And at night, such shrieks and cries. No one can eat and sleep. We can’t stand it. You think it’s pleasant listening to all that?”

Adjacency means being forced to listen, not only being forced to see. The Cemetery Lady is as uncritical of the anti-Semitic propaganda that she hears on the radio as she is unaware of the discrepancy between the private death of the young mother who jumped out the hospital window and the relentless sight of Jewish mothers and fathers jumping from the balconies of their ghetto apartments, some with children in their arms, some after throwing the children out first. “Even when we don’t see it,” she explains, “we hear it. … It’s like something soft smacking down. Thwack, thwack … each time they jump—and they’d rather jump than be burned to death.” What is driving her mad is that these Jews, so close and yet so far, cannot be saved, and even now, when there are none left to jump from the burning balconies, she can still hear the sound of their shrieks and cries, and the thwack, thwack of their falling bodies hitting the ground. That is why she must move somewhere else.

Contiguous evil is the narration of self-betrayal. While the narrator just barely manages to maintain a hold on reality by collecting broken medallions, assembling bits and pieces of testimony, the Cemetery Lady has been driven mad by the daily sights and sounds of people jumping to their deaths.


No, the clash that pitted authorized memory and political correctness against historical inquiry and Holocaust testimony did not begin in January of this year. It has been going on in Poland ever since the Soviets consolidated power, either directly or by proxy, and the new political order proclaimed a classless society in which it was forbidden to divide the victims of Fascism, i.e., to single out the annihilation of the Jews. On the literary front, the battle lines were drawn over the new mode of Holocaust writing that the new regime branded as “naturalism.” Naturalism was the natural enemy of Socialist realism, where at the end of the day the protagonist achieved correct class consciousness; the triumph of communism mandated a happy tomorrow. “Shortsighted naturalism,” one Polish-Yiddish writer proclaimed at a writer’s conference in 1949, was the breeding ground of fatalism. A semi-autonomous Jewish cultural presence was the next target. What the Kielce pogrom on July 4, 1946—the catalyst for more than 100,000 Polish Jewish survivors to quit the country—did not accomplish was completed by the forcible expulsion of 47,000 Jewish citizens from the Polish People’s Republic in March 1968, for being a Zionist Fifth Column. (What is the “Fifth Column” anyway, if not a secular reincarnation of Judas?) That left it to works of the literary and cinematic imagination to ensure that the triangulation of Occupier, Betrayer and (Jewish) Victim would remain a living, painful, necessary part of Polish collective memory. But who still remembered and could bear compelling witness?

Michał Głowiński, a renowned scholar of Polish literature, revealed his Jewish origins for the first time in a carefully crafted memoir called Black Seasons (1999). It was as if Northrop Frye had let it be known that he was a child survivor. The memoir is written from two points of view—that of the 58-year-old narrator, testing and constantly challenging his fragmented memories, and that of the 8-year-old protagonist, living day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour in mortal terror. One of the most suspenseful episodes, set “in January 1943 Anno Domini” and aptly titled “The Black Hour,” tells of his face-to-face encounter with a szmalcownik, described by the adult narrator as “a kind of empirical archetype of an occupation-era hyena,” who makes his abhorrent livelihood by blackmailing “those condemned to extermination.” A szmalcownik, in other words, is a connoisseur of victimhood. To do his job, he must be able to read his prey: whether her hair is dyed too blond, her lipstick is too thick, or her eyes give her away. In civilian life, these well-heeled Jews would be completely unreachable.

The szmalcownik appears in two different guises: one mythic, the other, real. The adult looking back hesitated for many years whether to tell his story at all, for it would read like an age-old topos depicting man’s contest with Death. “In fact, I played chess, and not with Death himself, but with a young man who had come to the decision to condemn me to death.” For the 8-year-old, hiding with his mother and Aunt Teodora on the Aryan Side of Warsaw, he was “a young man dressed elegantly in accordance with occupation-era fashion,” i.e., he came straight out of central casting, complete with the closely trimmed mustache of a Polish gangster. Indelibly etched in the child’s memory is the man’s overcoat, “heavy and gray and made of material in a herringbone pattern.”

As surely as the “well-versed Jewish child” knows his catechism and other obligatory Catholic prayers, he knows the meaning of the word szmalcownik, but there’s no way of knowing whether this one is an outright criminal or an ideological szmalcownik, “someone who saw the unmasking and persecution of Jews in hiding on the Aryan Side as his mission.” If the latter, then the three of them are doomed, even if the ransom money is paid. Meanwhile, to kill time, the boy and the blackmailer play a game of chess. Will winning the game stay the execution?

The plotting of collaboration in literature is different from that in life. In literature, one thing routinely represents another, as in the case of young Michał’s chess set, the only personal possession that he salvages from the ghetto, a lieu-de-mémoire, or memory-site, as the adult narrator would say, of a prewar civilization where it was still possible to play by the rules and to memorize all the most famous moves, but under wartime conditions, the child is either forced to play chess against himself for hours on end, or ends up playing a high stakes game with a blackmailer, where keeping him preoccupied is literally a matter of life-and-death, for “at a certain moment, something unforeseen happened: the bored szmalcownik proposed that we play a game of chess.”

No less inexplicably, those small wooden pieces, which he kept in a tattered cardboard box—to this day he remembers its faded blue color—this talisman disappeared shortly after he abandoned “that attic of ill omen.” Literature, or at least a professor of literature, has the power to render palpable “a time when the most extraordinarily diabolical things could happen;” to arrange and reassemble twenty fragmented memories of a Jewish childhood in support of the audacious proposition that “Even the cruelest episodes of the Bible bear no comparison to the stories comprising the Holocaust.” As often as the Judas Plot gets replayed in an untold number of variations, Głowiński’s is the most terrifying because it is told from the 8-year-old victim’s point-of-view.

Shall the sz-word, for szmalcownik, henceforth be excised from public discourse, made an actionable offense? This would be more difficult to accomplish than Polish parliamentarians might imagine, for the word has taken on a life of its own. Whether or not Polish readers are likelier than others to understand the Harry Potter novels as political allegory I do not know, but I do know that their “actual,” historical, timeline, give and take a year, begins … in 1943. I wonder, then, to what extent the Polish translator of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had the Holocaust in mind when she called the wizards who hunt Muggle-born wizards or mudblood-friendly wizards—blackmailers responsible for catching people who utter the name of the Dark Lord, Lord Voldemort, out loud—szmalcownicy. I wonder if, in the current political climate, Polish parents will explain to their children that then, as now, szmalcownicy hunt down and betray carriers of light and people of faith.


There is good reason for the Polish Parliament to be so sensitive to the term “Polish death camps,” because the major site of contiguity between the conquered and the condemned were death factories like Auschwitz. Among the first to chronicle this adjacency were three former Polish inmates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose volume of reportage was published in Munich, the administrative center of the American Zone, in 1946. To help the postwar reader negotiate Auschwitz-Birkenau, the anonymous editor, who was the 24-year-old poet Tadeusz Borowski, appended a glossary of “Auschwitz Terms.” Some—like Appel, Kapo, Kommando, Krankenbau, Lager, Muselmann, Sonderkommando, and Zyklon—were obviously words of German provenance, while others were idiolects, innocent enough terms in any other context: Block, Canada, Chimney, Old Number, Organizing, Selection, Stripes, Zigeuner (i.e., the Gypsy camp). Situated “At the Juncture of the Sola and the Vistula,” Auschwitz was created at first as an extermination camp only for Poles, later, for Soviet POWs, but the purpose of Borowski’s anthology was to chronicle “Auschwitz’s fantastic career,” when an “internal” Polish camp known to nobody changed “into an enormous international extermination camp for many millions of European Jews.” This all-European and multicultural landscape demanded its own vocabulary and spatial coordinates. 6643, the lowest number among them, with four years’ experience, opened the volume with a “Baedeker among the Wires.”

Before Marshal Pétain gave the term “collaboration” a bad name, its primary meaning was “working together.” In the context of Auschwitz, it meant: to steal, forage, hide, or in the lingo, to “organize,” which was the only way to survive. In Auschwitz, the high numbers had to learn from the low numbers; they alone could teach you the rules of survival. Most experienced in the business of mass annihilation were the thousand-member Sonderkommando: men of powerful build, who oversaw the murder of their own people, gave them instructions about where to undress and where to leave their belongings, shaved their heads and led them to the fake showers; whose job it was to pull the dead from the gas chambers, pry open their mouths to extract their gold teeth and feed their bodies into the ovens. In Auschwitz, then, the triangulation of Occupier, Betrayer, Victim did not neatly map onto German, Pole, Jew, because the Sonderkommando was almost entirely Jewish. According to Borowski, the Polish inmates considered them the scum of the Auschwitz earth, but since many of them spoke Polish, they did provide useful information.

The speaker and center of consciousness in Borowski’s tales, both in We Were in Auschwitz and the single-authored volumes that he published upon his repatriation to Poland, is deputy Kapo Vorarbeiter Tadek, Auschwitz No. 119198. As a high number, a latecomer to the camp and a Christian Pole no longer in danger of being sent to the gas, Tadek’s position of privilege is that of adjacency. Adjacent to the men’s camp is the women’s camp, where his beloved Maria is also interned; he can even correspond with her. Adjacent to Auschwitz and its satellite camps is the home front, the source of letters and occasional food packages. But also adjacent to his work brigade are “The People Who Walked On,” the endless transports of the last remaining Jews of Europe. Never for a moment does Tadek remain unaware of the unique fate of the Jews.

“The Death of Schillinger” is the talk of the camp; it is the most celebrated act of spontaneous resistance in the annals of Auschwitz, and remains so until this very day. On Oct. 23, 1943, according to the most reliable testimonies, a Jewish dancer, naked and at the entrance to the gas chambers, grabbed a revolver from Josef Schillinger, one of the most hated and sadistic of the SS officers, and mortally wounded him. Tadek describes Schillinger as “a short, stocky man” and as unexceptionally Teutonic: “He had a full round face and very light blond hair, brushed flat against his head. His eyes were blue, always slightly narrowed, his lips tight, and his face was usually set in an impatient grimace.” Schillinger is well known for his incorruptibility, his total dedication to the cause of plunder and mass murder, and camp lore is replete with his legendary feats of manslaughter. The story proper begins as a foreman of the Sonderkommando is taking a breather “while waiting for a shipment of evaporated milk to come in from the gypsy camp warehouse,” and as he gets himself ready to recount the latest news, he props a pillow under his ass and lights a cigarette. Tadek and the foreman, in other words, speak the same language; they both feed off the dead.

In Borowski’s retelling, the woman who killed Schillinger arrived in the transport of Jews not from Warsaw (or from Warsaw via Bergen-Belsen, by some accounts), but from Będzin. This detail is consequential, because, as it happens, some of the members of the Sonderkommando hail from there, which made them very nervous, and the foreman, too, was afraid of recognizing someone from home. Tadek is puzzled by this personal connection to the transport because there’s nothing in the foreman’s Polish that is suggestive of that region. “I once took a teacher’s training course in Warsaw,” the foreman explains, and he taught for a while at the Będzin school. He might have gone abroad to teach, had family reasons not prevented him. So the foreman is a schoolteacher, a Jewish member of the Polish intelligentsia, no less, and a family man to boot. Why, Auschwitz is one big family, where acts of collaboration have never been more at home.

Within this family romance, the foreman must not betray any empathy for his fellow Będziners, however. He, like Schillinger and the SS, has a job to do; and in fact, when the SS scatter after Schillinger is shot, it is the men of the Sonderkommando who are left to drive the Jews into the gas chamber with clubs, bolt the doors and call the SS to administer the Zyklon B. “After all,” he brags to Tadek, “we’ve had time to acquire some experience.”

What is most surprising in this replay of the Judas Plot is the intimation of desire between Schillinger—the incorruptible serial killer who cares little about his own physical appearance—and the Jewish woman. This, at any rate, is how the foreman sees it, describing how Schillinger was so drawn to her naked body that he took her by the hand. (By some accounts, it was through her seductive behavior that she drew him to her.) Then, suddenly, she scooped up some gravel, threw it in his face, grabbed his revolver, and shot him in the abdomen.

In the first of the story’s three endings, Schillinger dies with an operatic flourish: “On the way he kept groaning through clenched teeth: ‘O Gott, mein Gott, was hab’ ich getan, dass ich so leiden muss?’ which means—O God, my God, what have I done to deserve such suffering?’ ”

Were this the original Judas Plot, then Pontius Pilate would acknowledge in his death throes the inscrutable hand of God, and a whole new religion might have been born then and there. Everything in Borowski’s retelling, however, militates against reading this story in a heroic, let alone, martyrological, light. However courageous her agency, this is not a story about the “Revenge of a Dancer,” as Sara Nomberg-Przytyk retold it in Auschwitz: True Tales in a Grotesque Land, but rather, about “The Death of Schillinger.” Nor is the story over. “That man didn’t understand until the very end,” says Tadek of Schillinger, shaking his head. “What strange irony of fate.” “What strange irony of fate,” the foreman repeats thoughtfully. In the story’s second ending, Tadek and the foreman are in complete agreement. They accept the received notions of “irony” and “fate” as the story’s richly ambiguous moral summary. Because the Pole and the Jew speak as one, the joke is on Schillinger, who is never less Teutonic, less Wagnerian, less Christian, than in the moment of his death.

To accept this reading as valid, we must be willing to hold two opposite sets of truth simultaneously. Yet how credible is this ironic perspective, coming as it does from Tadek, with the consent of the foreman of the Sonderkommando? And what about this repartee over “fate,” which presupposes a world of agency, of meaningful choice, where human action is fraught with moral implications? Do Tadek and the foreman really “understand”? This second ending is nothing but intellectual banter, the mouthing of empty, prewar categories, stock phrases. Tadek and the foreman are as laughable as Schillinger, and as morally impeachable.

But there’s one more ending to go:

True, what strange irony of fate. When, shortly before the camp was evacuated, the same Sonderkommando, anticipating liquidation, staged a revolt in the crematoria, set fire to the buildings and, snipping the barbed wire, ran for the open fields, several SS guards turned the machine guns on them and killed every one—without exception.

Were the point of this story to valorize “The Woman Who Killed Schillinger,” then we could say that the cycle of contiguous evil ends here, with the one-day revolt of the Sonderkommando on October 7, 1944. The woman’s spontaneous act of resistance did reverberate, after all, and the condemned rose up against their oppressors. Except that Borowski’s three endings are essentially one and the same, and the dramatic death of Schillinger is broken down, disassembled, deconstructed into a sequence of failed performative acts: (1) Schillinger’s deathbed scene is obviously a farce. (2) The foreman’s monologue, like his provincial dialect that he manages to cover up, is no more credible, coming as it does from an accomplice to the crime, who even brags of his know-how. (3) Offstage, the same foreman, as it turns out, took part in an abortive uprising, in which everyone perished, and had as little impact on the machinery of death as the killing of Schillinger. (4) Tadek’s retelling, moreover, is robbed of significance; seductions of the flesh, deathbed scenes, heroic deeds, collective action, are leveled and swallowed up into a world of stone. (“The World of Stone” is the title of the last story anthologized in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and are its concluding words.) His version of the story makes a complete mockery of solidarity among the conquered and the condemned, who speak the same language and are imbued with the same moral categories. The language they speak is Auschwitzspeak, and the moral categories they invoke—in the intermission between one transport and another—have been rendered obsolete, if not obscene.

There is no gainsaying Borowski’s extraordinary artistry—his stark realism, his ability to present a threefold narrative and to draw such finely wrought characters with so few words. I stand in awe of his anatomy of contiguous evil, his fearless honesty, his total commitment to the truth as he saw it, but I refuse to accept Borowski’s moral nihilism. I will not go with him to the very end. I insist on granting courageous agency to the woman who killed Josef Schillinger, to those who took part in the failed revolt of the Sonderkommando and will leave open the ledger on the ethical behavior of Vorarbeiter Tadek, Auschwitz No. 119198.

But I do know this. In 1951, at the height of the Stalinist period, when Borowski was losing faith in the Communist system by which he had been used, after visiting his newborn daughter in the maternity ward, he went home, closed all the windows and opened the gas.


Governments come and go. Institutes of National Remembrance come and go, and their members are quickly forgotten. What shall not be forgotten, because it lies in the moral and aesthetic bedrock of Holocaust writing, is the realism introduced by such author-eyewitnesses as Zofia Nałkowska, Michał Głowiński, and Tadeusz Borowski, the hallmarks of which are: the adoption of a new calendar and a terrible new lexicon; the verisimilitude of testimony; brevity; a sober, understated, deadpan style, stripped of metaphor; and a sensibility that routinely juxtaposes the mundane with the horrific.

I would advise the Polish parliamentarians to go back to school, to brush up on their own contemporary classics, and also to bone up on how narration can be used as a stand-in for the contiguity of evil. This sounds like a mouthful, but in the stories by Borowski and Nałkowska, it works quite simply through the contiguity of narrator and informant. We, the readers, are eavesdropping on a perfectly credible conversation between two casual acquaintances, one of whom has a more studied, sober, global perspective on the problem of evil than the other. There is Nałkowska, the author-narrator, who has her salvage operation to rescue her from despair, and there is the Cemetery Lady, who can no longer tend the graves of the dead with the thwack, thwack of the falling dead still reverberating in her ears. Borowski, by contrast, offers no choice at all, for once the reader chooses Tadek, the callous narrator who has the cynical veneer of a hardened member of the Auschwitz family, the listener-reader becomes his moral accomplice. Głowiński’s aim, for himself and for the reader, is to somehow bridge the temporal divide: The narrator and protagonist are one and the same person, thus collapsing and complicating the huge temporal gap between Then and Now. We are at once the 8-year-old boy trapped in the attic on the Aryan Side of Warsaw, and the adult survivor having trouble believing his own story.

I would also suggest that wherever there are believers and readers, they be guided by the perception that the Judas plot of Occupier-Betrayer-and-Victim, a plot of contiguous evil and a triangular structure of deceit and desire, extends to our own time and place. After such knowledge must come understanding.

David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair emeritus in Yiddish Literature and Culture and a professor emeritus of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.