In spring 1943, a few weeks before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a teenaged girl named Irka left the ghetto. Most of the Jews of the city, including her parents, had been deported to Treblinka and murdered. Irka had no family left and nothing of her own, aside from the clothes she was wearing and an extra sweater.
She did have a friend. A few thousand Jews, or Poles of Jewish origin, had not followed the German order to resettle in the ghetto, and had remained on what people called "the Aryan side." Irka sought out a classmate, Maria Rundo, who was herself of Jewish origin, but whose family had not gone to the ghetto. Maria was studying literature an underground university, where she met and fell in love with a working-class Polish teenager named Tadeusz Borowski. The two of them were trying to build something like a life together.
By spring 1943, Warsaw had been occupied by the Germans for more than three years. The bombing that killed some twenty-five thousand people, the mass murder of educated Poles, the establishment of the ghetto, the deportations to Treblinka: for people of Maria and Tadeusz's generation, this was the setting in which they came of age. He was homeless, and slept in the warehouse where he worked. Her parents were unenthusiastic about the relationship, and opposed their having sex. This was the only youth Maria and Tadeusz had, and they wanted to be together.
Maria and Tadeusz had been saving money, some of which he earned by distilling liquor in the warehouse, so that they could afford to rent a place of their own. Until Irka appeared, this plan was the center of their lives. We know more than might be expected about their relationship: Tadeusz was a poet, and his erotica about Maria was quite mature. As a very young man he was able to express the realization that intimacy deepens our sense of the otherness of the other person, that love is a recognition of difference.
Will you come back to me? A wave
in the dark catches legs from below,
heavy sky abreast. You are like that:
like my shadow beside me,
as real as my body; elusive
and as deep as the reflection
of my unlit face in a pane already
black from night
As soon as Maria saw Irka, she changed her plans: Irka would come and live with her and Tadeusz in their new place. This was generous in two ways: she was setting aside life, and she was risking death. She was giving up the prospect of having a place with her boyfriend, of making love in peace, of having something like a quiet corner in a city of horror. Maria was already living a life of great risk. If anyone denounced her as a Jew, she would be murdered in prison or deported to Treblinka to be gassed. Now she was choosing to add to the danger she faced every day. In occupied Poland, sheltering a Jew was a crime punishable by death.
Maria did not hesitate. She was active in the left-wing resistance. She worked in a laundry, a place where people enter and exit carrying bundles. She passed things on for friends in the communist underground, and made conspiratorial telephone calls from work. She had the connections she needed, or so she thought, to help Irka start a life beyond the ghetto. The first necessity would be to establish a non-Jewish identity for Irka, which meant arranging false papers that would identify her as a Catholic Pole. Maria rushed to see a friend who she knew had arranged such matters in the past. The friend, however, had just been arrested, and the Gestapo had staked out his apartment. When Maria rang the bell, she was arrested by the Gestapo in her turn and taken to prison.
Just a moment before, Tadeusz could dream of living with the woman he loved. Now she had disappeared. It was he who now undertook an act of generosity and courage. Suspecting what had happened, he chose to follow her. He went to the same apartment, rang the bell, and was also arrested. When Maria saw him in prison, his head shaven, she burst into tears. She particularly liked the way he wore his hair, combed back and bushy on the top. "Don't worry," he told her when they crossed paths, "I wanted us to be together." It was an impulsive act, perhaps a gesture of youth. And yet, like Maria's decision to try to help Irka, it demonstrated a firm sense of what life was about, of how life was to be lived.
Maria nearly lost her life. An elderly aunt who bore the same last name had been denounced as a Jew and also sent to prison. Not grasping the situation, the aunt sought out Maria. The aunt was shot, but Maria survived. She and Tadeusz were both sent to Auschwitz as Poles. Unlike people deported to Auschwitz as Jews, they would not be selected at the platform for murder or labor. As Poles they would automatically be sent to labor. Auschwitz had been founded by the Germans as a punishment camp for Poles, and about seventy-five thousand non-Jewish Poles lost their lives there. In 1943 and 1944, however, Auschwitz was becoming the central site of the Jewish Holocaust, a place where about a million Jews were gassed.
Tadeusz found ways to support Maria in Auschwitz, and both survived. After the war, he wrote a few stories about the camp and about the murder of Jews. In his stories, which are now being published in English, the protagonist usually a character called "Tadeusz" who behaved much worse in the camp than the author himself did. This method allowed him to present the social dynamics of the camp with a persuasive ruthlessness. Auschwitz in his account is the intensification of normal, predictable human behavior. Unlike other writers who survived the camp, he seeks no meaning in the death and suffering, and supplies no positive characters or moments that would allow the reader a sense of redemption. Taken together, his stories are perhaps the most important chronicle of the camp.
And yet his Auschwitz prose arose from human contact, from love. Tadeusz would not have been in Auschwitz had he not chosen Maria. His very first story, "Here in Our Auschwitz," arose from letters he wrote to her in the camp. The story for which he is best known in Poland, "Farewell to Maria," is about the day she was arrested in Warsaw. In it, a character called Tadeusz does not know what to do, and Maria is murdered. In life, Tadeusz Borowski chose to follow her. And from that choice arose some stories that we all should know.
In postwar Poland, Borowski joined the communist party and renounced his own prior fiction in a Stalinist self-criticism. At the very height of Polish Stalinism, in 1951, at the age of twenty-nine, he took his own life. Or, as his fellow poet Czesław Miłosz put it in a poem, "he escaped where he could." The prose that Borowski wrote after Auschwitz will last, as the Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski put it, "as long as Polish literature will last." That might be an understatement. These stories will be read so long as anyone seeks to understand the Holocaust.