Though far beyond the practical matters of survival for those incarcerated in the Birkenau concentration camp during the Nazi regime, Tadeusz Borowski studies and dissects the notion of friendship in “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” jarringly outlining the constrictive boundaries and rigid conditions of human camaraderie.
This limit to friendship is perhaps best demonstrated through the character Henri, a “fat Frenchman” of Communist persuasion, with whom the narrator shares food and conversation (697).
At the near end of the story, after the narrator and Henri have finished their job of stripping two transports of death-destined Jews of their valuable belongings, Henri recollects how awful it is to encounter the “transports from around Paris” because “one is always bumping into friends” (706), friends, who perhaps look like those pictured below, whom we know as readers that he sends, unwillingly, to the gas chambers.
“These Jewish prisoners have just arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau at the end of their journey from Hungary. They disembark from the train not knowing where they are. Very soon they will be subjected to the selection process.” © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
However, Henri seems to demonstrate his humanity in that he always promises his friends who ask him what’s happening to them that “first they will have a bath, and later [they’ll] meet at the camp,” (706), thus gracing them with a lie that constitutes as the only “permissible form of charity” (700) in their camp.
But man’s standard of friendship is jarringly contemptible when it separates grace from truth.
Please note, I do not suggest Henri is repugnant in his efforts to live, and we know he will die at the hands of the SS if he tells the transports of their fate. No, instead, Henri has been reduced to glazed eyes and falsely-cheerful lies by the horror of the Reich, and that is not inherently his fault.
What I do suggest, however, is that Borowski challenges the transcendental notion of pure friendship and sacrifice that we who live in secure and far-off places love to boast about.
Henri, who promises and never delivers the narrator something as basic as shoes(696); Henri, who censures and condemns those crying out to God(697); Henri, who calls it “healthy” to “relieve hate” by “turning against someone weaker,” (702) whose very last name his dear ami does not know (696), embodies and personifies the limitations of man’s friendship and charity.
It is through Henri, then, that Borowski forwards this damning truth about man: that he is so frail and so weak that he cannot maintain something beautiful like selflessness when he is condemned to earthly hell. No, man’s benevolence towards others comes at a dear price.
And Borowski describes this price perfectly through the descriptions of the soldiers of the Reich, “bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy… with shiny… faces.” These men “shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families” (699). They “march briskly, in step, shoulder to shoulder, one mass, one will.” They “sing at the top of their lungs” in joyful unity, in camaraderie, in friendship (707).
But their friendship comes at the expense of human lives, which they send by the thousands to be massacred and maimed.
And insofar as Borowski describes the world, there exists no other kind of “friendship.”
Borowski, Tadeusz. “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” Trans. Barbara Vedder. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. III ed. Vol. F. London, New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 695-707. Print.