Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.
It is widely accepted that “dehumanization is arguably the most morally dangerous intergroup bias, having played a pivotal role in many wars and genocides throughout history” (Buckels and Trapnell 772). One of the most infamous instances of the 20th century was the Holocaust during World War II. Tadeusz Borowski, an Auschwitz survivor, shows us through his short stories, particularly “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” what day-to-day life was like in that time and place. Through his realistic fiction, he shows us how words and actions contribute to reducing humans to objects of scorn and apathy.
The SS soldiers, the Nazi regime’s elite guard, not only verbally express their lack of empathy toward the prisoners; they appear to enjoy doing so. When an elderly gentleman from the transports requests to see the commandant, his question is responded to by a “laughing jovially” young solder with “In a half an hour you’ll be talking with the top commandant! Only don’t forget to greet him with a Heil Hitler!” (Borowski 46) The old man, who is suffering from physical abuse the entire time we are reading about him, is seen by Hitler’s finest as nothing more than a punch line in a joke.
Whereas the Nazis choose to see the people of the transports as less than human, the prisoners forced to meet and process the transport trains, known as the "Canada men," do so as a necessity for survival and sanity. The Frenchman Henri views the “’cremo’ transports” as a source of obtaining sustenance, and states “They can’t run out of people, or we’ll starve to death…All of us live on what they bring” (31). In regards to a praying rabbi, one of the prisoners, calmly indifferent, replies “Let him rave. They’ll take him to the oven that much sooner” (32). Andrei, when throwing a woman’s child onto the truck with her, screams “take this with you” (43). Even our narrator, who is shown a number of times trying to hang on to his humanity, is not immune. He refers to those on the trains as making him “simply furious with these people…I feel no pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber” (40). Their fellow Greek prisoners he calls “Pigs!” (41), and thinks of them as “human insects” (35). He even echoes Herni’s materialist views when he requests “some shoes…the perforated kind, with a double sole” for the next transport (30).
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
The old saying goes “actions speak louder than words,” and it most certainly applies to the dehumanization that takes place. In the transports, referred to as “cattle cars” (36), the people are “inhumanly crammed” and “Monstrously squeezed together” (37). The children running on the ramps are viewed as “howling like dogs” (45); thus are treated as such by being kicked, thrown onto the trucks, or held down and shot in the back of the head. The passengers are constantly referred to as cattle throughout the story. The thousands delivered that day are simply beasts in the eyes of their receivers.
The most profound moment of the less-than-human view the Nazis hold for the newly arrived prisoners is displayed when the first train arrives. There is a solder whose duty it is to count the people “with a notebook,” and as they fill the trucks to capacity, “he enters a mark” (39). The ones sent to the work camps “will receive serial numbers 131-2,” then when referred to, “131-2, for short” (39). The people of Sosnowiec-Bedzin are deducted to being simply numbers.
One cannot dehumanize, or be dehumanized, by merely a stray word or action. It takes a constant, continuous barrage of them for days, months, even years to truly do their damage. Tadeusz Borowski, though only depicting one day in his story, does refer to what he and his fictional alter ego experienced and witnessed in these measurements of time. He becomes a victim as well as a perpetrator of it. The effects can be seen when he thinks in terms of “Sosnowiec-Bedzin was a good, rich transport” or “The Sosnowiec-Bedzin transport is already burning,” and not the “fifteen thousand” people that transport represents (49).
Borowski, Tadeusz. “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”. This Way to the Gas, Ladies And Gentlemen. Trans. Barbara Vetter. London. Penguin Books. 1976. 29-49. Print
Buckels, Erin E., and Paul D. Trapnell. "Disgust Facilitates Outgroup Dehumanization." Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 16.6 (2013): 771-780. Business Source Premier. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
© 2017 Kristen Willms
Kristen Willms (author) from Florida on April 12, 2017:
Borowski is not an easy read by any stretch. As to how the dehumanized worked their way back into society is an interesting question, and will make a great follow up essay.
As far as the those mentioned here, Borowski wrote his short stories as historical fiction, so the only person with a real life counterpart that is known would be the author himself. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1951, having lost what remaining faith he had in humanity after living in communist Poland.
threekeys on April 12, 2017:
This is hard to read. Those that survived the dehumanization process, what did they say to themselves to make it through?And what about after being back in society afterwards, how did they undo the work of dehumanization?