Tadeusz Borowski was a poet, prose writer, and publicist. He was born in 1922 in Żytomierz in the USSR, and died tragically in 1951 in Warsaw. He was a prisoner of Auschwitz and Dachau.
During his early childhood he survived collectivisation and starvation. His father Stanisław was taken to work on the construction of the White Sea Canal in 1926 and his mother Teofila ended up in Siberia in 1930. Tadeusz was raised by his aunt, while his older brother Juliusz went to boarding school. In 1932 Stanisław Borowski returned to Poland. His sons joined him after a journey through Kiev and Moscow. They stayed in Warsaw, where their mother returned in 1934.
Despite difficult financial conditions, Tadeusz Borowski studied in the Tadeusz Czacki Gymnasium. After the outbreak of World War 2, he continued to study at secret gatherings and passed his high school exams in the spring of 1940. In autumn he enrolled at the underground Polish literature faculty at the Warsaw University and became one of the best students. At the same time he wrote poetry and earned money as a warehouser at a sale company in Praga, on Skaryszewska street. He took part in cultural life and belonged to the leftist milieu gathered around the monthly magazine Droga. He was in a relationship with Maria Rundo, surnamed Tuśka, who became a prototype of the protagonist of the short story collection Farewell to Maria.
He debuted in 1942 with a poetry series Gdziekolwiek ziemia…/ Wherever the Earth… (copied on a duplicator, published anonymously). The poems, continuing on the path of pre-war catastrophism (Czechowicz, Miłosz, Sebyła, Zagórski) were filled with a deeply pessimistic vision of a cosmic destruction in the presence of which the individual is helpless. The catastrophe according to Borowski is inevitable and immanently inscribed in the order of the world. The poet presented his vision of the ending in poignant hexametres, drawing from biblical images, especially form The Apocalypse of John (Horsemen of Apocalypse). His next volume, Arkusz poetycki nr 2 / Poetry sheet no 2 (title translated by the editor) was published in 1944 in Droga. It contained six Borowski’s erotic poems, classical in form and underlining the role of love – the home ground of humanity in a downgraded world.
On February 25th 1943 Borowski was arrested at his friends’ apartment and taken to Pawiak (from his window he saw the liquidation of the ghetto), and then to Auschwitz. The day before, gestapo arrested Maria, who landed in the women’s camp in Birkenau. In the camp Borowski was the orderly. He wrote poems and songs appreciated by his fellow prisoners. Since the spring of 1944 he sent letters to Maria, whom he found in Birkenau, that he later used in the volume Byliśmy w Oświęcimiu / We were in Oświęcim and in the short story Among us, in Auschwitz…
In August 1944 he was taken to the camp Natzweiler-Dautmergen, and then to Dachau-Allach. After Dachau was freed by the American VII Army, he stayed in a camp for displaced persons outside of Munich. When, in September 1945, he left, he started working among the Poles in Germany, co-organising the Family Search Bureau with the Polish Red Cross (he was searching for Maria – from Birkenau she was taken to Ravensbrück, and after the liberation, to a sanatorium in Sweden). During his stay in Munich, he published a volume of poems Imiona nurtu / Names of the current (1945, title translated by the editor) and, together with Janusz Nel-Siedlecki and Krystyn Olszewski, he published the book We were in Oświęcim (1946).
In June 1946 he returned to Warsaw. In November Maria came back, and they soon married. Borowski graduated from university and was hired as an assistant in Korbutianum (the Philology Cabinet of the Warsaw Science Society), he was also a member of the editorial staff of Świat Młodych and Nurt. He collaborated with the Pokolenie bi-weekly, where he published a pamphlet on Zofia Kossak Szczucka’s novel Z otchłani / From the abyss, entitled Alicja w krainie czarów / Alice in Wonderland (1947, vol. 1; titles translated by the editor). He reproached the author for an unreliable insight on the Auschwitz camp, and especially for not taking into account the camp morality. The text started a fervent discussion among the literary milieu and was the cause of numerous attack on Borowski.
He wrote about his own experience in the collections of short stories Farewell to Maria (1948) and The World of Stone (1948). He wrote about the “lager-ed man”. The narrator of Farewell to Maria – the foreman Tadek (wrongly identified by the first critics with the author himself) – adapts himself to the conditions in the camp and agrees to play a passive role in the crime. According to Borowski, Oświęcim is a logical consequence of the development of European civilization, based on conquest and terror, and also a well-managed enterprise of human exploitation.
In the years 1948 and 1949 came a shift in Borowski’s ideals. In February 1948 he joined the Polish Workers’ Party. In June 1949 he left for Berlin for 10 months, where he was cultural attaché and worked for military intelligence. After his return he made himself noticed as a declared communist and party activist. He presented his views in the article Rozmowy / Talks (published in Odrodzenie, 1950, vol. 8), which was a social realist declaration of faith and a ruthless critique of his works up until that time. From then on Borowski mostly worked as a journalist. He was one of the main authors of Nowa Kultura and collaborated with Sztandar Młodych. In his texts he attacked Western culture, the church and Catholic circles. It must be noted that his social realist novellas are far from straightforward, filled with satire and mockery.
Tadeusz Borowski died on July 3rd 1951, only a few days after his daughter was born. The circumstances of his death are unclear, and the cause – gas poisoning – was treated as suicide. He was buried in Warsaw, in the military section of Powązki Cemetery.
Tadeusz Borowski’s poetry remains in the shadow of his prose, while it is not only a mature part of the artist’s work, but it also forecasts all the motifs that later appear in his prose. It brings an image of a fulfilled apocalypse, of a destroyed world, where the human being is just a slave and history – a cycle of hate and murder. The apogee of dehumanisation is Auschwitz, where the prisoner is confined to physiology (like in the poem Do narzeczonej / To the fiancée). In spite of this, there are values worth defending – life in the biological sense and love, which is described in his erotic poems addressed to Maria (+++[Pamiętasz słońce Oświęcimia] / +++ [Do you remember the Oświęcim sun], +++[Tak mi się twoja twarz rozpływa] / +++[Your face fades away so]). Because of the philosophy of history and ethical views of the creator, poetry provides a necessary context for Borowski’s short stories.
Bibliography in English:
- This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Proszę państwa do gazu), Penguin Books, London, 1992. 192 pages, hardcover.
- We Were in Auschwitz (Byliśmy w Oświęcimiu), Natl Book Network, 2000. 212 pages, hardcover.
- Postal indiscretions: the correspondence of Tadeusz Borowski (Niedyskrecje pocztowe: korespondencja Tadeusza Borowskiego, Northwestern University Press, 2007
In his essay Beta, the disappointed lover, published in the volume The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz gave a critical and ironic portrait of Borowski.
Author: Małgorzata Olszewska, December 2007, translated by N. Mętrak-Ruda, November 2015. This text was created for the project Anthology of Polish poetry from the Middle Ages until the 21st century, curated by Piotr Matywiecki.