Agnes Humbert’s Resistance & Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen – An Integrated & Intercontextual Comparison of Survival, with Reference to Life in The Nazi Prison & Concentration Camp Systems
By Matthew Lipscomb
11/18/10, History 3270, Fall 2010
Dr. Anthony Steinhoff
The story of the Nazi’s rule of Europe and the concentration camps that they set up are continued objects of fascination within the global historical conscience. Few events that have transpired in recorded history have been studied and debated and talked about as much as their concentration camps have. The staggering depth of drama, pain, and the stories – those both told and those lost – boggles the imagination. Within each of the ghastly grey images – haggardly marching across the documentary screen, those of bodies both dead and near death – we are exposed to an individual human story. Each one – of an encounter with the Nazis and their infernal machinery of racial idolatry and the corresponding war it spawned. While there are overarching metanarratives in common for many of these personal stories – differences abound; some sublime, whereas others – they are very stark. In this paper the author will attempt to explore the similarities and the differences between two people Tadeusz Borowski and Agnès Humbert, in terms of their survival and observations made by each, utilizing as resources the books which serve to account for their respective survival stories; Borowski’s This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, and Humbert’s Resistance, A Woman’s Journey of Struggle an Defiance in Occupied France.
Humbert’s memoir is different from Borowski’s not just in its presentation format (Humbert’s is an autobiographical narrative, while Borowski’s is a series of pseudo-historical stories bases on his actual events and experiences that he witnessed and participated in) but also that while all of Borowski’s stories occur only within the camp, Humbert’s ‘metanarrational story arch’ is one that could be thought of as being principally composed of the ideals of Resistance, Capture, Captivity and Freedom. All that we learn from Borowski is based on only on that of Captivity. For instance – all of Borowski’s stories are centered on either life in the camp, or reflections of life in the camp from a post-liberation perspective; whereas at one point, Humbert’s recalls that as a member of the Resistance they felt that while prison may seem as an eventuality – it was not yet (at that moment) an actuality, (H40). It could be argued that Borowski would see the other stages of a biographical story (pre- and post-captivity) as being distractions in his goal of imparting the full horror of his experience of his own captivity and survival. In this sense, Borowski’s account is decidedly more existential in its orientation and Humbert’s is more so of a historical orientation, while yet still retaining the crucial personal component.
There is a second difference in terms of the scope of their respective survival stories and that is that there is a difference in the scale within which each is presented. Borowski’s takes place in the claustrophobia-inducing confines of the camp, whereas Humbert’s is national in size. Her ‘fences’ extend across the whole of Europe, not just a couple of acres, because the realm within which her story is executed is essentially the whole of France, and of Europe as well. Her initial thoughts are for her country and its continuance within the context of survival (H29). Borowski’s story is, again, constrained and personal. We are not told what is happening outside the gates, other then that there is a steady stream of people coming in to be possessed, B33, B83, B89, B119)
Thirdly, there is the dynamic of the interrelations between characters detailed in both of their respective survival narratives. Borowski has a working understanding of constant mutual interrelation with his fellow prisoners because of the close confines of the camp (B130). This close confinement and the attendant proximity of each relation serves as one of the principal backdrops for all his stories. This results in a different set of relationship factors between the two survival narratives. In Humbert we are introduced to characters, which because of the size and scope of the stage of the story, are mysterious and unknown. For instance, Humbert’s does not know whom the “mysterious gentlemen” are who contribute to the writing, supply the paper, and then organize the printing (H23).
Fourthly, there are both similarities and differences between the ways that each respective author is treated. Though both Humbert and Borowski’s are herded like animals (H130), Humbert exists in a larger framework of submission and subjugation, with subtle differences. Everywhere there is death and pain in Borowski’s camp (B1), but for Humbert, a close friend is still able to still have a life-saving medical operation (H44). Even in the “justice” that is meted out by the Nazis – there is a big difference. Humbert’s arrest (H46) and imprisonment takes place before things began to get very bad. Being arrested later on in the war – Humbert explains to us – would in fact have resulted in an automatic trip to the death camp (H111). The constant scenes of people marching into the gas chambers as portrayed by Borowski, are a part of this eventuality (H36, H37). Humbert recalls the trials and subsequent sentencings of friends and other encountered individuals. One of her friends is sentenced to two years in prison (H45) whereas she and another friend receive a sentence of five years (H102). Humbert portrays the judge as a man with sympathy for those whom he is judging (H102) insofar as he can be seen as a sharp contrast to the brutish leaders of Borowski’s world, who walk around with “clenched teeth” and constantly bark orders, (B38). Borowski writes of his fellow prisoners as being “comrades” (B100), whereas Humbert writes “I can’t say I relish rubbing shoulders with women like this…” (H142), referring to a syphilitic prostitute who was found guilty of infecting her “clients” (H118), and a mother who killed her son and two nephews. There is an irony here – as this is a character presented who actually does deserve not just prison but potentially an actual, justified death sentence. Instead, she is sentenced to only 10 years of hard labor, (H142).
Fifthly, Another motif that is different between the survival narratives of Humbert and Borowski is the aspect of the process and characterization of entry into the camps. For Humbert, the camp/prison is a place where, at times, silence reigns (H86). There is a stark qualitative difference between this and that, which is portrayed by Borowski. Borowski portrays the camps as a seemingly cacophony-filled sustained state of chaos, filled with dread and pain. Everyone knows that something terrible is happening – but often there is just too much confusion to know exactly what that is, as personified in the little girl who begs Borowski to tell her of her impeding fate. “Listen. Tell me, where are they talking us?” (B44).
Humbert’s experience is not to be taken lightly – however. The motif of alluded to violence is included – by observation of blood on the wall of one of the rooms, at the level of her forehead (H70) which – like an old-style horror movie -invites the reader of her words to fire up their own imaginations and to conjure up the dread of what must have happened and was not directly observed or reported by her narrative. There is the ongoing humiliation of bathing while under observation of her guards (H170) and the arrival of new prisoners and their subsequent delousing and having their hair shaved off and thrown in a furnace (H170).
Sexuality strongly factors into the survival narratives as related by each author. Because of the existential centrality of sexuality, it serves as a critical dimension of the humanity of those living and existing within the confines of the Nazi prison system. It does not cease to be a part of one’s existence just because one has been imprisoned in a cell or a death camp. Borowski relates that there was essentially a house of prostitution that existed within his concentration camp and that it was referred to as ‘The Puff’ (B106), and that in the same camp women are also held (albeit, in a very different way) inside a section of the camp that was used for medical experimentation, where gruesome and mad scientist-like fertilization experiments were conducted. He relates how sometimes other prisoners would break in and often inseminate the women – much to the frustration of the professor in charge (B108). Borowski relates that even in the center of such a painful and oppressive atmosphere, the prisoners are not “maniacs or perverts” and that “Every man in the camp dreams of women. Every man in the camp tries to get a hold of a woman” (B108). And so there is a constant effort at the achievement thereof – even in light of terrible punishment (B109). Nonetheless – sexuality remains a vibrant enterprise in both worlds. Borowski relates how there are almost always women hanging around who can be “had” for no greater price then “a piece of bright silk or a shiny trinket” (93). Humbert recalls how two women – one who looked like a “Louis XV girl” and the other, a “natural platinum blond” – are caught “making love” to a couple of Belgian factory workers under the machines that they operated (H198). There is an unmistakably erotic nuance to Humbert’s words when she describes looking forward to the cloak room “with its ingenious round basins, filled with lovely, naked female bodies. How beautiful they are, these girls….” (H160). Elsewhere she also remarks how the toilet area had earned the nickname the ‘kissodrome,’ because of a hole and the many “hurried kisses” that were exchanged through it (H214).
In light of the long shadow of Eugenics that pervades much of the reason why the Germans set up the camps to begin with – there is a bit of subtle irony in a list of comments that Humbert makes regarding her observations of the Polish people after they have been liberated. There is arguably an extant racial overtone to them. She ruminates in regards to how they are “threatening to burn down the whole town” (H235) and that she urges putting up posters all over town stating that looters will be shot. She insinuates that it might be a good thing if the most troublesome poles were shot in the feet (H235). Elsewhere, she describes them as being “primitive people” (H226). Having seen so much violence and random shootings, it is doubtful that Borowski would have made such comments.
Lastly, we are left with very different feelings in the end of each narrative. In the case of Humbert, her last chapter is entitled “Hunting the Nazis,” and she finishes the chapter with a quote from the Old Testament from Isaiah 2:4; ‘They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,’ and then she appends the quote with the ecstatic utterance of their Parisian taxi driver; ‘Allez, on your feet, you lot! Jump to it – we’re in France!’ (H270). For Humbert, this is an expression of her survival as expressed in the last component of the metanarrational arc of her story: Freedom. The essence of which, she seeks to impress upon us is one of hope and excitement. Borowski’s approach, as mentioned previously – is much more subdued, if not altogether melancholy. Borowski seems to almost still be trapped inside a concentration camp in his head. Borowski describes himself as essentially stained by his experience, in terms of his being possessed by a “concentration-camp mentality” (B176). For him, survival is less about a hope for the future, and more so a hope that he will be able to find a way to summon the “tremendous intellectual effort” that he knows it will take to “grasp the true significance of the events, things, and people I have seen,” (B180).
Each of the stories that Humbert and Borowski provide gives just a degree of insight into the tremendous amount of pain, destruction, bondage, and loss that the Nazis exerted upon their self-perceived enemies. Humbert provides us with a sweeping biography of her life experience, before, in, and after imprisonment. Borowski lacks such a sweeping story in his own account. It tells less about a story – and more about an intensity. It is less about resistance and more about survival itself. There is not really any freedom to be found in his narration, because in the end, he tells us that he is still locked away in a prison, not of his own making, in his mind. However expansive, varied and telling each of their accounts are, and no matter how much about survival we can learn from them – this much is true: many more stories have been lost; stories of those who did not survive. It is those people, who comprise the heaps of bodies in documentary films who perhaps remind us that everything that Borowski and Humbert have to say about survival is really just scratching the surface. Even so as it may be, the stories that they have provided will hopefully allow future generations to dig that scratch – just a bit deeper.