Features » Literature


Who was Tadeusz Borowski?

Pole, concentration camp inmate, truth fanatic, Communist, cultural attache, suicide: a brief life in the 20th century. By Arno Lustiger

Tadeusz Borowski was born on 12 November 1922 in the Ukrainian town of Zhytomyr as the son of ethnic Poles. Both parents separately survived several gulags. In 1932, the family was repatriated to Poland in exchange for communist prisoners. After the outbreak of war in 1939, the 17-year-old high-school student studied Polish and English literature at conspiratorial university courses and worked as a night watchman for a builders' merchant. During this period, he wrote many poems and prose pieces for the underground press.

Borowski was arrested on 24 February 1943 and spent two months in the notorious Pawiak prison. From his barred window, he was able to observe the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. His fiancee Maria Rundo, the love of his life, was also arrested, just before him. The two of them were taken to Auschwitz at the end of April 1943, separately of course. His tattooed camp number was 119 198 and he survived pneumonia thanks to the help of fellow Poles. They were both fortunate in that a short time before their arrival, gassings of non-Jews (except for gypsies) had ceased.

On 12 August 1944, Borowski was transferred to the Dautmergen-Natzweiler concentration camp near Stuttgart, and then in early January 1945 to Dachau-Allach, where he was liberated by the U.S. Army on 1 May. The liberated Poles – among them concentration camp inmates, forced labourers and POWs – were then taken to a former SS barracks in Munich-Freimann that was transformed into a "displaced persons camp." From then on, Borowski was a "DP" – as was I from 1945 to 1948. In December 1945 he learned that his fiancee Maria Rundo had survived Auschwitz and had reached Sweden with a hospital convoy during the final days of the war. After much deliberation, Borowski decided to return home, arriving in Warsaw on 31 May 1946. On 12 November, Maria, too, returned to Poland and they were married on 18 December.

During this same period, on 4 July 1946, the mob attacked a house in Kielce in Poland where almost all of the town's surviving Jews were living (200 of the original 25,000). Forty-two Jews were brutally murdered, another 50 injured. This was followed by a chaotic mass exodus of around 150,000 Jews from across Poland to DP camps in Germany. They, too, all now became DPs. As far as I am aware, Borowski never commented on these abominable acts.

The publication of his concentration camp texts came as a shock in Poland. Catholic publishing circles accused him of nihilism, decadence and amorality. For the other side, the communists, the world was divided into heroes and traitors, communists and fascists, martyrs for the just cause and criminal enemies of the people and the state. Initially, none of these templates fitted Borowski, but he swiftly decided in favour of communism. He became part of the state and literary nomenclature and published many texts and articles. On 20 February 1948, he became a member of the party and was awarded several prizes. At the end of June 1949, Borowski was sent to Berlin where he worked until March 1950 as cultural adviser to the Polish Information Office.

It was a high point in the Cold War. In West Berlin, Borowski bought the newly published book "The God That Failed", in which six intellectuals, including Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone, explain their break with communism. Nonetheless, he later penned polemic articles against supposed enemies of communist Poland and even accepted a commission to write a biography of Feliks Dzierzynski, the blood-thirsty ethnic Polish founder of the Soviet secret service, the Cheka.

With his fanaticism for the truth, this conflict broke Borowski's spirit, probably destroying his will to live. He told one friend it was better to leave the battlefield than to make compromises with oneself. He lost his faith in the reformability of the inhuman Stalinist system, which had victimized his parents 25 years before. His indifference towards Poland's national traditions, the romantic cult of heroism and sacrifice for the fatherland, disappointed many of his friends. On 26 June 1951, his daughter Malgorzata was born; on 1 July he attempted suicide in his kitchen using gas. He died two days later, barely 29 years old. For Polish literature, decimated by war and persecution, he was the great hope.

On 6 July 1951, the openly anti-militarist Borowski was buried, of all places, in the military section of Powazki National Cemetery in Warsaw to the strains of "The Internationale", and was posthumously awarded the highest honours. An obituary notice in "Nowa Kultura" was signed by 86 writers. Soon after, a special issue of this weekly newspaper appeared with contributions from the elite of Polish literature. Since then, countless texts, poem and articles by and about Borowski have been published, as well as many books in various languages and editions.


This biography originally appeared in Die Welt on 20 January, 2007

Arno Lustiger was born in Polish Bedzin in 1924. He survived internment at the concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald and after the war founded the Jewish community at Frankfurt/Main. He has dealt with the subject of the Jewish resistance in several books. Lustiger was awarded the Prize from the Galinski Foundation (2001, together with Wolf Biermann), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Potsdam (2003). He is Visiting Professor at the Fritz Bauer Institute of Frankfurt University and speaks eight languages.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell - let's talk european