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The World of Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz

Timothy Snyder
The Polish writer survived the camps yet died before he was thirty. The stories he left behind provide perhaps the most unflinching literary account we have of the Holocaust.
The selection ramp, Auschwitz, 1944

ullstein bild via Getty Images

SS men and Hungarian Jews at the selection ramp, Auschwitz, August 10, 1944


“Crematorium Esperanto.” When I first read that phrase, decades ago, I put my thumb on the page, let the book close on my hand, lay down in the grass, and stared at the sky. I knew that I would never forget it. With the words come a scene: men awaiting a train by a ramp, some assuring others, in a pidgin of Nazi terms and Indo-European monosyllables, that the work ahead was light. Nothing to offload, just people, Jews to be selected for labor or death who will walk down the ramp and into the trucks. They will give up their belongings and their clothes. The narrator has come to assist in that selection and to take a few things for himself. That was Auschwitz in 1944, the mass murder of the Jews of Europe, as mercilessly retold in the short story “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas” by Tadeusz Borowski.

In this story as in others, the narrator is a participant and shares a name with the author. As he waits for the train, a fellow prisoner buys water from an SS man on credit, to be repaid with money taken from Jews who have not yet arrived. When the train halts, a young mother, clever and pretty, separates herself from her little daughter in the hope of being selected for labor. The child runs after her, screaming “Mama!” An inmate angrily beats the woman with a shovel, then throws her into the death transport with her child.

As a young man in Poland, Tadeusz Borowski had been a gifted poet. He was never not young: in 1953, at the age of twenty-nine, he gassed himself to death. The poet began writing prose in 1945, after surviving Auschwitz and Dachau. He was not his narrators, the kapos and Vorarbeiters (foremen) who share his name in the stories, but he could see the camp from a variety of perspectives. He understood other inmates, their habits and speech; and he made friends. Borowski grew up poor in provincial Soviet Ukraine and in a tough Warsaw neighborhood, generally apart from his parents, both of whom were incarcerated for long periods. He knew about camps and about the Holocaust before he was deported to Auschwitz.

Unlike most Auschwitz writers, Borowski could not see deportation as an exceptional experience. Internment in concentration camps was a kind of family tradition: the father was imprisoned in one from 1926 to 1932, the mother from 1930 to 1934, and the son from 1943 to 1945. Borowski’s first known poem, composed when he was nine, was recorded by a hand, his father’s, that had just ceased laboring in the Gulag. When Tadeusz wrote to his parents as a young man from Auschwitz, not so very many years thereafter, he relied on shorthand: “You know what I mean.”

Although Borowski was not Jewish, the Holocaust was part of his coming of age in Warsaw. More Jews had lived in Poland than anywhere else, and most were dead before Auschwitz became a killing facility. Borowski’s milieu was partly Jewish, and he spent anxious nights worrying that his girlfriend, Maria Rundo, who was of Jewish origin, would be arrested by the Gestapo on her way home from the warehouse where he lived. He was sent to Auschwitz because Maria had tried to shelter someone fleeing the Warsaw ghetto.

From his cell in Pawiak prison, days before his deportation to Auschwitz in April 1943, Tadeusz watched the destruction of the ghetto. The Germans were going house to house with grenades and flamethrowers. “The ghetto burned,” Tadeusz recalled, “and smoke blocked out the sky.”

In Auschwitz in 1943 and 1944, Borowski was determined and brave, although he always portrayed himself as mean and cynical. A student at the time of his arrest by the Gestapo, he applied his classical education to what he saw. He worried that the literary and philosophical canon he cherished was a residue of dominion. So he turned his knowledge of the writers he loved to the creation of something new, a literature of apocalypse that would analyze power and outlast it. He was scornful of his own stories, disparaging them, ascribing them to imaginary authors, and eventually denouncing them. And yet they will last, as the Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski said, as long as Polish literature lasts. We might add, as long as the memory of the Holocaust lasts.

*

Borowski’s Auschwitz is not set apart from the world; it is a natural part of the world. It is not a mechanism but a society. Rather than straining to show the abnormality of the camp, Borowski portrays it as normal. Then comes a moment, a juxtaposition, in which the normality is too thick, and the reader’s own ability to normalize is exposed.

In “The People Who Were Walking,” the selection of Jews at the ramp and their transport to the gas chamber is in the background. In the foreground is a soccer game being played by inmates. The narrator is now the goalkeeper. Fetching a ball kicked behind him and out of bounds, he sees Jews walking to the gas chambers. Then he returns to the field and plays on. Another ball goes out of bounds, and the goalie turns around again to get it. The people who were walking are gone: “Behind my back, between one corner kick and the next, they had gassed three thousand people.”

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A typical writer seeks the exceptional in a concentration camp: the decent, the heroic, the patriotic, the revolutionary. This authorizes us to associate the camp with something we feel, or feel we ought to feel. We look away from the reality of Auschwitz and into some metaphysical middle distance. Borowski is more demanding of us, and tougher on himself. What is universal, he wants us to understand, is our capacity for degradation. Auschwitz does not ennoble anything, nor does it affirm our prior commitments. Borowski was an exceptional writer in that he sought out the typical.

In his own life, Auschwitz was a consequence of choices Borowski knowingly made. His girlfriend Maria was arrested in Warsaw while trying to help a Jewish friend, and he was caught because he followed her. Much of his poetry desired Maria; all of his prose required her. She is the imagined reader of his very first story. In “Here in Auschwitz,” he described an everyday life he knew she would understand. Unlike other imaginable readers, she knew Auschwitz as well as he. In one important sense, she knew it better: unlike Maria, Tadeusz did not have to worry about being denounced as a Jew and gassed. They both knew about the gas chambers; Tadeusz, at some risk to himself, once went to observe the selection at the ramp.

In “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas,” the narrator Tadeusz is describing the plunder of the doomed at the ramp. Prisoners might rebel internally against the horror of mass extermination, but they can only direct that rage against its victims. In raising his shovel against the young mother, the prisoner is affirming the line of power in the camp, showing how it runs through him. As a veteran inmate explains to the narrator, such a reaction is “normal, foreseen, and calculated. The ramp tortures you, you revolt, and it’s easiest to unload your rage at those who are weaker. It’s even desired that you should unload it.”

Crematorium esperanto is a language we can all learn. Dehumanization, as Borowski shows us, is a human process. The meaning of death is that we organize our actions around it. Fascism is not limited to a certain time and place; it is a certain orientation of life toward death. Extermination does not sanctify a victim or dignify a cause. It only instructs us about human possibility.

*

When asked to write an autobiographical sketch after the war, Borowski said he lacked the balance. From a childhood amid terror in the Soviet Union, through deportation to Auschwitz at twenty, his life had no fulcrum.

His father and mother, Stanisław Borowski and Teofila (née Karpińska) Borowska, were Poles who grew up in the southwest of the Russian Empire, in Ukraine. They were married in Zhytomyr in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the three years that followed, Ukraine was the site of chaotic struggle. Five armies—Reds who wanted world revolution, Whites who wanted imperial restoration, Ukrainians who wanted national independence, anarchists who wanted anarchy in Ukraine, and Poles who wanted territory and a Ukrainian ally—fought in various configurations. All committed pogroms against Jews, for whom the year 1919 was the most murderous in all modern history up to that point.

Stanisław Borowski played a small part in the war for Ukraine. Its final act, in 1920, was an intervention by the Polish Army to support the Ukrainian government against the Red Army. The Poles were hoping to create an East European federation or alliance with an independent Ukraine; the Soviets hoped to control Ukraine, destroy the young Polish state, and spread the revolution to Germany and Europe. The Polish Army was aided in Ukraine by the Polish Military Organization, locals who served as couriers, scouts, and agitators. Stanisław Borowski was one of these.

The Polish Army got as far as Kyiv in May 1920, and the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw that August. In the end, the Poles were victorious but exhausted, and the peace treaty of 1921 did not create an independent Ukraine. It left Zhytomyr, where the Borowskis resided, on the Soviet side of a new Polish–Soviet border. The defeat of the Red Army ended Lenin’s dream of spreading revolution westward to Europe by force, and obliged the Bolsheviks to found a state on the territory they held.

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In December 1922, a few weeks after Teofila Borowska gave birth to Tadeusz, the Soviet Union was established. It was a one-party Communist regime, but it took the form of a federation of national units: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and so forth. The Borowski family found itself a member of a Polish minority in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. This was not an enviable position. Poles were among the ethnic minorities most subject to terror in the Soviet Union, and Ukraine would be among the territories most wracked by Stalin’s rule after he assumed control in the late 1920s.

In 1926, when Tadeusz was three, Stanisław was arrested by the Soviet secret police for his earlier activity in the Polish Military Organization; he was sentenced to hard labor at a concentration camp in Karelia, in the far north of European Russia. Stanisław was among the 170,000 or so prisoners who labored in the bitter cold on the first grandiose project of the Gulag, the construction of a canal from the White Sea to the Baltic Sea. Some twenty-five thousand of them perished. The canal, dug shallow by sick people with primitive tools, even spoons, was of little economic significance. In 1930, Teofila in turn was arrested and deported to Siberia. Her crime was being married to Stanisław.

Tadeusz was thus separated from both of his parents at the age of seven. This was no unusual situation for Polish children in the USSR. The expectation was that such orphans of terror would assimilate to Soviet life and forget their parents’ culture. His older brother, Juliusz, was indeed sent to an orphanage, but Tadeusz was taken in by an aunt in the town of Marchlewsk. At the time, this was part of a Polish “autonomous region” where Party pedagogues created a Sovietized version of Polish culture, including egalitarian forms of address and a simplified orthography for the Polish language. As a result, Tadeusz had two years of elementary schooling in Polish and early exposure to a form of Polish communism. The Polish cultural district was dissolved in 1935, and its activists executed. By then, the Borowski family was no longer in the Soviet Union.

In 1932, thanks to a prisoner swap, Stanisław Borowski was allowed to leave the Gulag and emigrate to Poland. The exchange was probably bad luck for the Polish Communists freed from Polish prison and sent to the Soviet Union; almost all such individuals would be executed by Soviet authorities by the end of the 1930s. It was good luck, though, for the Borowski family. With the help of the Red Cross, Tadeusz and Juliusz were able to join their father in Poland. Their mother followed in 1934.

By leaving Soviet Ukraine when they did, the boys were spared the worst of the Holodomor, the 1932–1933 political famine that took nearly four million lives. In 1932, the year the boys left, about one in a hundred of Zhytomyr region’s inhabitants died of starvation or related diseases; the next year, the figure was one in ten.

The next phase of Stalinism was the Great Terror. Had the Borowski family remained in the Soviet Union, Stanisław would almost certainly have been executed. In 1937 and 1938, some 700,000 Soviet citizens were shot to death by the authorities. More than one hundred thousand were killed in the Polish Operation, the pretext for which was a Soviet claim that Polish spies were responsible for the famine. Poles in the Gulag were tried a second time and often executed. In the Marchlewsk and Zhytomyr regions, where the Borowski family had lived, Soviet secret police units went from village to village, surrounding them at night and seizing Polish men. After a perfunctory trial, they were taken out to nearby woods and shot. Their wives and children were deported east, usually to Kazakhstan.

Although Tadeusz’s parents had between them spent ten years in the Gulag, they escaped such a fate by emigrating to Poland. Yet life in Warsaw, where they settled, was not simple. Poland was then a poor country in the depths of the Great Depression, and the Borowski family’s circumstances were extremely modest, proletarian at best. Nevertheless, the parents toiled to equip their sons for an excellent high school education. To save money, Tadeusz and Juliusz stayed in a Franciscan dormitory until 1937. After that, Tadeusz did live with his parents in Warsaw for a couple of years. Then, on September 1, 1939, the Germans invaded.

When the Luftwaffe bombed the undefended capital, the house where the Borowskis rented a room burned to the ground. Tadeusz took to his bicycle and went east, following the evacuation instructions of the Polish government. This put him right in the path of the Red Army, which invaded Poland on September 17. Tadeusz doubled back to Warsaw, to find his parents living in a tent.

In those weeks, Poland ceased to exist: the Wehrmacht and the Red Army rushed to meet, and Nazi and Soviet leaders discussed how to divide the spoils. According to an earlier agreement between Hitler and Stalin, the secret protocol to the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, Warsaw was to fall on the Soviet side of the border, but the German–Soviet Treaty of Borders and Friendship of September 28 placed it in the German zone. This was perhaps, again, good luck for the Borowskis. Had the family come under Soviet rule, they would all likely have been deported to the Gulag, or worse. In 1940 and 1941, the Soviets deported about half a million Polish citizens and executed tens of thousands more.

At first, the German and Soviet occupations were comparable in their scale of brutality and terror. Despite different ideologies, each apparatus of power targeted Poles, especially educated elites, for deportation and murder. With time, a difference emerged, one that was particularly striking in Warsaw, Europe’s most important Jewish city. In Warsaw, where a third of the population was Jewish, a ghetto became part of everyday life, and the deportations were known to all.


The wall encircling the Jewish ghetto, Warsaw, Poland, December 1940

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One of the walls blocking off the Jewish ghetto, Warsaw, December 1940


*

Tadeusz Borowski, sixteen years old when the war began, could not return to his high school in autumn 1939, since the German plan was to exploit Poles as colonial Untermenschen. Like many young men and women in Warsaw, Tadeusz continued his studies illegally, conspiring with other students and their professors. He graduated from high school in spring 1940 by this method—on a day when the Gestapo carried out roundups in Warsaw to hunt for Polish laborers, a moment he later described in a story. He began university studies that fall.

The clandestine seminars in private apartments created intimacy between students and professors. The central figure, Professor Jerzy Krzyżanowski, taught that studying literature required history—and also that critique and mockery were part of scholarship. Tadeusz was happily absorbed by his courses in Polish literature, European intellectual history, and Shakespeare, led by outstanding scholars, people risking their own lives to teach. He read constantly, in bed, on the tram, during lectures. He found a circle of bright friends who shared a secret and a love of learning.

Tadeusz worked for a building supply firm, as a stock boy and a night watchman. He lived in its warehouse. He covered a wall with bookshelves, “nailed together clumsily out of unplaned boards,” as he later wrote in his story “Farewell to Maria.” His fellow students visited him there, argued philosophy, and read poetry. The economy under German occupation, as Tadeusz learned, was thoroughly corrupt; no building firm could function without cooperation with Germans, who were themselves stealing and breaking rules. But at least the job provided papers that made deportation to a camp less likely. Tadeusz did his own bit of trading on the black market, and distilled vodka on the site.

Tadeusz Borowski

Public domain

Tadeusz Borowski, undated

In autumn 1940, as Tadeusz Borowski and Maria Rundo began their university studies, the German authorities marked off a large section of northern Warsaw as the city’s Jewish ghetto. By November, any Jews found beyond its walls would be shot.

For the Nazis, Jewishness was defined by ancestry. For some people in Warsaw, it was a matter of personal choice: one could be of Jewish origin and regard oneself (and be regarded, at least in certain milieux) as Polish. Such people might disobey the German order to move to the ghetto and remain where they were—so long as they were not denounced. Maria Rundo was Jewish by Nazi reckonings, although her forebears had seen themselves as Poles for generations. The Rundo family did not go to the ghetto.

The following spring, the Wehrmacht massed in its occupied Polish territories. In June 1941, Hitler betrayed Stalin, and Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That summer, the Germans began the murder of entire Jewish communities in the newly conquered East. They killed Jews face-to-face by gunfire: more than 23,000 in Kamianets’ Podils’kyi, more than 33,000 in Kyiv, more than 28,000 in Riga. By the end of 1941, about a million Jews had been shot to death over pits. The Final Solution took shape as an extermination campaign.

The Holocaust took a different form in the Polish territories the Germans had occupied since in 1939. The Jews had been concentrated in ghettos in 1940, with the general aim of deporting them somewhere they could not survive. After the Holocaust by bullets began to the east, the Germans built death facilities for these ghettoized Jews. In 1942, Germans transported Polish Jews by rail to Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, where they were gassed to death with exhaust fumes. As Tadeusz and Maria fell in love that year, most of the Jews of Warsaw were deported from the Umschlagplatz in the ghetto and murdered at Treblinka.

In the story “Farewell to Maria,” Polish traders report in the warehouse on what they have seen inside the ghetto walls: “Pan Tadek, what I saw there, Pan Tadek, you wouldn’t believe. Children, women…. It’s true, they’re Jewish, but still, you know….” On February 24, 1943, the day described in the story, Irka, a schoolfriend of Maria’s, left the ghetto. Irka’s parents had been deported to Treblinka; she was alone and had nothing. Tadeusz and Maria had been saving money to rent an apartment, and Maria decided on the spot that Irka would live with them. This put their own lives at risk and rendered impossible their youthful vision of permanent intimacy. The first order of business was to get false identification papers identifying Irka as a non-Jewish Pole.

Maria had connections. She worked in a laundry, where she did favors for Czesław Mankiewicz, a good friend of hers and of Tadeusz. Just two years older, he was very active in the Communist underground, editing an illegal newspaper and helping to organize a paramilitary. He would leave packages with Maria at the laundry to be picked up by other comrades. Communists would come to the laundry to use the telephone; Maria would do the dialing, since she was the one entrusted to know the numbers. Mankiewicz had helped Jews escape from the ghetto before, and Maria knew that he could forge documents for Irka. She told Tadeusz of her plan, then went to Mankiewicz’s apartment. She did not return. Mankiewicz had been arrested a few days earlier, and the Gestapo had the place staked out. She was arrested and taken to Pawiak prison.

In “Farewell to Maria,” the narrator “hadn’t the faintest idea what to do,” and Maria is gassed. In reality, Tadeusz went after her.

Once Maria had disappeared, conspiratorial protocol dictated that Tadeusz, for his own safety, avoid the places she had been, especially clandestine meeting points. He did the opposite. The next day, he rang the bell at Mankiewicz’s apartment and was immediately arrested by the Gestapo. Anticipating this possibility, he had emptied his briefcase of any material that could compromise others. On his person the Gestapo found a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and a few poems.

Tadeusz arrived at Pawiak prison a day after Maria. When she saw him there, his head shaven, she burst into tears. He smiled and said: “Don’t worry. I wanted us to be together.”

He had good cause to fear for her. If her Jewish background had been discovered, she would have been shot. This was the fate of an elderly aunt of Maria’s, who also bore the name Rundo and was also imprisoned at Pawiak. This aunt had been denounced as a Jew by her landlady. Not understanding the danger she presented to her young relative, she sought out Maria in the prison. The aunt was shot at the ghetto wall before she found her niece.

Later, some of Maria’s cellmates decided that she was a Jew because of the nice food packages she received from her mother. Before this could take a sinister turn, Maria was transported to Auschwitz—but as a Communist, and therefore as a Pole. Tadeusz was transported to Auschwitz at about the same time, in late April.

In their absence, Tadeusz and Maria’s friends published his love poems to her. A fragment of one reads:

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

*

Auschwitz had been founded by the Germans in 1940, in occupied southwestern Poland, as a punishment camp for Poles, and in 1942 the typical Auschwitz laborer was still Polish. Some 75,000 non-Jewish Poles lost their lives there.

In addition, about 23,000 Roma and Sinti were deported to Auschwitz, most of whom perished. Borowski describes the Gypsy camp in his stories. In 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Soviet prisoners of war were also sent to Auschwitz. About 15,000 were killed, some of them in experimental gassings. Such men, speaking Russian, also appear in Borowski’s stories. It is one of them who wields the shovel in “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas.” Another, in “Here in Our Auschwitz,” asks Tadeusz to visit his mother in Siberia to tell her how he died.

In the second half of 1943 and the first half of 1944, Auschwitz was the center of the Holocaust. Most of the Jews murdered there came from Hungary or Poland; significant numbers also came from France, the Netherlands, Greece, and the territories of Czechoslovakia.

Borowski was twenty years old and physically fit when he arrived in Auschwitz on April 29, 1943. By then, most Polish Jews were dead, and the Final Solution was shifting its scope to include all of Europe. Tadeusz and Maria, though separated in the camp, were witnesses to this transition. Just before they arrived in Auschwitz, the Germans opened two gas chambers in the Birkenau part of the complex. Assigned to labor in Birkenau, Tadeusz dug ditches and carried telegraph poles. “A Day at Harmenze” is about the period when he worked as a laborer. From where she was, in the women’s camp, Maria could see the smoke from the crematoria.

For much of his time in Birkenau, Borowski had a direct view of the ramp and the crematoria. He said after the war that he had seen a million people die. This was only a minor overstatement.

Borowski made friends, as he did at all points in his life. He caught pneumonia that fall of 1943 and was treated at the infirmary. He was popular there, befriended a doctor, and stayed on as a night watchman—a job he knew, but performed poorly, since he spent his nights thinking about Maria and composing poems. One night, a thief got in; by way of apology to his superiors, Borowski recited the poem he had composed. Tadeusz’s love for Maria became a kind of legend among the prisoners who knew him.

In March 1944, he was trained as a Pfleger, an assistant or orderly in the infirmary. This was lighter work physically, although he watched hundreds of patients die inside every day (and thousands more outside). His physician friend, cited in a biography published after Borowski’s death, remembered Borowski’s good spirits and said that he improved the mental health of his colleagues.

When Auschwitz was established, German criminal inmates, often veterans of other camps, held the positions of responsibility under the SS. The SS directed the camp, but these kapos oversaw its daily operations. With time, as Polish inmates came to outnumber Germans, they gained the upper hand in these positions, which they called “functions.” As a Pfleger, Borowski found himself occupying an intermediate stratum of what he called the “hierarchy of fear,” able to look upward toward the kapos and the SS men, and downward toward other prisoners, Gypsies, and Jews.

Even so, it was almost a year before Tadeusz found a way to make contact with Maria. One day, a German criminal inmate named Kurt, a former journalist who had been caught smuggling, arrived in the infirmary with an illness. Because he was someone with a good function, the Poles in the infirmary wanted to finish him off and claim the dead man’s position. This was the normal way to assert dominance in the camp. Tadeusz defended Kurt, even sharing his food with him. Once Kurt was well, he found Maria in the women’s camp and then, in March 1944, delivered nine letters to her.

Soon afterward, Tadeusz got himself assigned to a roofing crew that was at work in the women’s camp. In this way, he got to see Maria several times. She was living in far worse conditions than he. She was very ill, had lost her hair, and her skin was disfigured. He sent her medicine and a pair of boots. He was cheerful with her; and they sat, holding hands, talking about literature and philosophy.

Tadeusz and Maria both survived Auschwitz. Strange as it might seem, he was probably in less danger there in the late summer of 1944 than he would have been had he remained in Warsaw. The Warsaw Uprising, the struggle of the Polish Home Army against the German occupation of the city, began that August. Men and women of Tadeusz’s and Maria’s cohort, too young to have been called up in 1939, were eager to fight or felt bound by honor to do so. Many abandoned their illegal studies to die, if need be, at the barricades. The Warsaw Uprising proved to be a hecatomb for students of their generation.

In June 1944, the Red Army won a major battle in Belarus and seemed poised to sweep through Poland. German soldiers were seen in retreat through the streets of Warsaw. The Polish government-in-exile, in London, wanted to raise the flag in the capital before the Red Army arrived. Believing that the Germans would withdraw from Warsaw before the Soviet advance, the Polish government ordered an uprising for August 1. Yet the Germans managed to hold a defensive line on the Vistula River, and the Red Army halted. The insurgents fought the Germans in Warsaw for eight long weeks, while Stalin blocked American and British plans to supply the Polish fighters by air.

Beginning in October, the Germans demolished what remained of the city, dynamiting building after building. In the course of defeating the uprising, they murdered some 200,000 civilians. Himmler and Hitler’s idea was that Warsaw would never rise again. When the Red Army finally entered the city, in January 1945, it was rubble.

As for Tadeusz and Maria, the approach of the Red Army meant separation, as the Germans dispatched inmates from Auschwitz to camps farther west. In August 1944, Tadeusz was sent to the Netzweller-Dautmergen camp, near Stuttgart, where his story “The Death of an Insurgent” is set. Maria was transported from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück five months later. In early 1945, as the Germans retreated and supplies were cut off, hundreds of thousands of prisoners perished in the camps. Maria had a terrible first two weeks at the Jugendlager, the youth camp, in Ravensbrück, where all she ate was snow, and that only at the urging of her friends. Once she was admitted to the main camp, conditions were better: it was a “sanatorium,” she said, compared with Auschwitz.

Tadeusz had a harder time in Dachau, where he was sent from Netzweller-Dautmergen in January 1945. When the US Army came upon the camp on May 1, 1945, soldiers found piles of skeletal corpses. Liberation is not really the word; as an American nurse remarked, the prisoners “couldn’t be liberated. What they needed was medical care, lots of it and as soon as possible.” Borowski had nearly starved to death; he weighed less than eighty pounds when the Americans arrived. Yet he wrote poetry the entire time, even when he was too weak to stand.

Immediately after the war, Borowski spent a miserable summer in an American displaced persons’ camp run in a former SS garrison. In September 1945, he was released and made his way to Munich. As a free man in the American occupation zone of Germany, he considered whether or not to return to Poland, now under the control of the Red Army. Stalin claimed the eastern half of the country for the USSR, as he had in his 1939 accord with Hitler. The new Poland, shifted westward at the expense of Germany, fell into a Soviet zone of influence. Borowski was frustrated that the Polish officers he encountered in the displaced persons’ camp had no answer for this strategic predicament.

For Borowski, though, the search for Maria Rundo was more important than politics. With the help of Anatol Girs, a charismatic editor he knew from Netzweller-Dautmergen, Tadeusz was put in charge of a Red Cross office that sought missing family members; in this way, he was able to find out that she was in Sweden. The pair began corresponding in early 1946, but they could not easily meet: he could not travel to Sweden, nor she to Germany. She wanted to emigrate to a Western European country, and he said he would follow her. In the meantime, he sent her a story.


Relief workers unloading bread, 1945

Bettmann via Getty Images

Relief workers unloading bread at Weimar Station to feed displaced persons temporarily housed at the former Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany, July 7, 1945


*

In Warsaw and in the camps, Borowski was a poet. In Warsaw, he wrote poems about catastrophe in hexameters, and about his love for Maria in loose modern verse. His catastrophist poetry of 1942, a volume of which he self-published in the warehouse just after his twentieth birthday, describes the whole world as a concentration camp. The last quatrain of “Song,” the final poem in the collection, is exemplary:

Night above us. The stars on high
A violet putrefacting sky
Our legacy is scrap iron
and the mocking laugh of generations

His poetic style was not much changed by Auschwitz; details of the apocalypse just clarified, as in “Night in Birkenau”:

Like a shield cast down in battle
blue Orion amid stars supine
Through the dark an engine rattles
And the eyes of a crematorium shine

Although most of his wartime poems were lost during transports, inspections, and disinfections, he published thirty-seven of them in Munich, thanks to Anatol Girs. It was Girs who persuaded Borowski to contribute to a collection by three Polish inmates of Auschwitz. Borowski had never published prose and had no wish to do so, but he owed Girs some favors and agreed. As the only true writer among the three, Borowski took charge of the effort, but he also learned from the other former inmates, both of whom had been in Auschwitz longer than he. Editing their texts, recording their oral accounts, he too began writing in prose.

In Munich, Borowski also gathered details from former inmates who were not participating in the writing project. One Auschwitz survivor he met was Stanisław Wygodzki, a Polish-Jewish Communist poet who had been transported with his family from Będzin in 1944. Unlike Jews from elsewhere in Europe, Polish Jews knew what a transport to Auschwitz meant. In a collective suicide attempt that went awry, Wygodzki poisoned his wife and little daughter on the train, but survived himself. In the story “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas,” Borowski is describing precisely such a transport as that from Będzin, full of Polish Jews who know what awaits them.

Maria was also on Tadeusz’s mind as he wrote. As soon as he located her in Sweden, he mailed her a draft of “A Day at Harmenze.” She was “shaken,” she recalled, “horrified by this picture of Auschwitz, even though I knew it myself. The moral side of it all, the strange form that humanity takes in those conditions.”

His renewed contact with Maria was essential to his prose—indeed, his earlier correspondence with her in Auschwitz is where it began. To write “Here in Our Auschwitz,” his first story, he reconstructed the nine letters he wrote to her in March 1944. This broke the barrier, and he wrote three more stories in Munich: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas,” “A Day at Harmenze,” and “The People Who Were Walking.”

Borowski’s first Auschwitz story takes the form of a long letter from someone called Tadeusz to someone called Maria. It is close to autobiography. The cynical narrators appear in the stories that follow. In “Here in Our Auschwitz,” Tadeusz alternates between descriptions of the camp and memories of time with Maria in Warsaw, shifting from gentle nostalgia about their lives there to the present reality of the women he sees in the camp.

Men fit enough to think about sex are bestialized by generic desire: they cannot think of a particular woman, but need “a woman” in general. They see unclothed women: those on their way to the gas chambers. The mass murder of women exposes the uniform helplessness of men. Tadeusz describes a truck full of naked women screaming for help. “And they drove past us to the profound silence of ten thousand men. Not one man moved, not one hand was raised.”

In the camps, food was a source and symbol of control. By 1943, some prisoners were permitted to receive packages from the outside. Jews could not. Many prisoners had no one on the outside to help them. As Maria later recalled, “It was really only Poles who got packages.” The Germans otherwise controlled the food supply through the kapos. In “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas,” his second story, Borowski describes a meal:

All eyes are fixed on the kapo’s face. Two more cauldrons [of soup]: seconds. Every day, the kapo delights in this moment. He is owed this complete power over people for his ten years in the camp. With the end of his ladle, he points out who has earned seconds; he never makes a mistake. The better workers, the stronger and healthier, get seconds.

Those who waste away do so in the company of those who eat. Everyone is in some way complicit.

Even gassing was a social process, opening a moral black hole at the center of everyday life. The overall German policy to kill all Jews meant that they were valued only insofar as their bodies could deliver labor or portable wealth; someone would find a way to extract both. After the Jews not selected for labor at the ramp are murdered in the gas chambers, their bodies are mined:

Professional, well-practiced people will rummage in their insides, extract the gold from under the tongue, diamonds from the womb and rectum. They’ll tear out the gold teeth. They’ll send them to Berlin in tightly sealed boxes.

In Borowski’s wartime poetry, all the world is a camp. In his postwar stories, characters imagine Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto as models for the future condition of all humanity. In “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Gas” the narrator fantasizes about a vast concentration camp covering half of Poland, holding millions of prisoners. In “Farewell to Maria,” young people in occupied Warsaw discuss what the future holds. By that point, three hundred thousand Warsaw Jews have been murdered at Treblinka. In the story, a Jewish woman who has escaped the ghetto predicts that “there’ll be a ghetto on the Aryan side, too.” And then: “Only there will be no way out of it.”

All these stories, though set in 1943, 1944, or 1945, were written after the Nazis had been defeated. Yet they offer a vision of total Nazi triumph. In “Here in Our Auschwitz,” Tadeusz asks:

What will the world know about us if the Nazis are victorious? Gigantic edifices will arise, highways, factories, towering monuments. Our hands will be placed beneath every brick, the railroad ties and concrete slabs will be carried on our backs. They will slaughter our families, the sick, the old. They will slaughter the children. And no one will know about us. The poets, lawyers, philosophers, priests will drown out our voices. They will create beauty, goodness, and truth.

For Borowski, the specter of a universal Nazi victory was a special case of a general problem, one that surfaces throughout his work. Perhaps the values in which we are raised, our senses of beauty, goodness, and truth, are just an echo of earlier violence. If this is true, a writer chooses between defiance now and significance later. If he sides with power, he is inhuman; if he resists it, he is irrelevant. In “Farewell to Maria,” as Gestapo raids take place outside, and as the hours pass since Maria’s departure, her friends debate the issue. One position: what we call the classics is a record of extermination. Nothing honorable can endure, and nothing enduring can be honorable. The other: the writer should labor on despite war, because literature will survive and transcend.

Though he was haunted by this dilemma, Borowski’s position as a writer in 1945 seems clear. He chose explication over adaptation, resisting power’s thrust into the future by creating something absolutely new. Embedded in “Here in Our Auschwitz” are the mottos: “I do not know if we will survive, but I wish that some day we will be able to call things by their proper names, as courageous people do.” That will enable people to “disentangle from daily events their quotidian essence, discard revulsion, disgust, and contempt, and find a philosophical formula for all of this.” He was enacting this aim when he wrote that “we will have to give the living a report from this camp, from the time of deceptions, and stand up in defense of the dead.”

This meant neither sentimentalizing death nor attaching to it a significance beyond its immanent one. On the contrary, defending the dead meant recording the truth about their lives, down to the end: “I don’t know why later on people in the camp said that the Jews on the way to the gas sang a heartrending Hebrew song that no one could understand.”

*


Bettmann via Getty Images

A boy among the ruins of Warsaw, Poland, April 1946


Borowski returned to Poland in May 1946. He knew what the Red Army would mean for his country’s future. His childhood had been shattered by Soviet terror. On the other hand, he had no faith in European civilization, of which he understood Auschwitz to be a part. He wanted a renaissance and expected none from the West. He liked seeing Germany in ruins. He found Paris, which he visited from Munich, to be louche and depressing. As some of these stories suggest, he seems to have despised the Americans whom he encountered in the displaced persons’ camp.

He missed Poland. From Munich, he wrote to his mother that homesickness was worse than hunger. This is a strong sentiment from someone who had nearly starved to death, or from one survivor of the Ukrainian famine to another, or from one former camp inmate to another.

Tadeusz wrote Maria one last letter from Munich to apologize for breaking his word; he could no longer stay away from Poland. The only place he really knew in Poland was Warsaw, which had been destroyed. In 1946, though, Warsaw was a city in reconstruction, a mood Borowski relished. He wrote to Maria that the ruins, “also the moral ones,” were a chance for a new Poland. He told her, in very patriotic terms, that reconstruction was an expression of love for country—and he pleaded with her to join him.

Maria was discouraged that none of her plans to find work in Western Europe were working out. She gave in, returning to Poland that November to marry Tadeusz. She told an uncle that the return was “humiliating.” Exhausted and traumatized as she was, Maria was concerned about Tadeusz’s mental health and wanted to take care of him.

He wanted to do “good things,” he told her. From his peers he demanded a new form of writing: “The apocalypse has come and gone, and nothing changed in literature.” He dedicated stories—sarcastically—to writers who sentimentalized the camps. In January 1947, he started a debate about the meaning of Auschwitz by attacking another such writer.

Zofia Kossak-Szczucka was a famous Polish Catholic novelist of an older generation who had been in Auschwitz for a few months; one of her sons died there. In Warsaw, she had founded an organization to support Jews in hiding. Borowski was nevertheless ruthless with her, reviewing her book about the camp under the heading “Alice in Wonderland.” Chroniclers who survived Auschwitz, he said, must explain how they had done so. Kossak-Szczucka had failed to do this, and so was not to be trusted.

Borowski’s view was that everyone who lived through Auschwitz bore some responsibility for its crimes. No one was exempted: not by class, nor by nationality, nor by piety, nor by artistry. And if responsibility was shared in Auschwitz, it is also shared everywhere else. Regardless of her conduct during the war, it mattered that Kossak-Szczucka had earlier expressed antisemitic views and belonged to antisemitic milieux.

An underlying issue between the writers was Polish romanticism. Were Poles ennobled by their suffering? Did they have a right to define themselves as innocent because of their wartime experience? In “Here in Our Auschwitz,” Tadeusz describes “the usual path of human thought” as “the birth of messianism amid all this destruction and death.” He wanted to break the grip of violence upon values. He wanted to cast aside the Polish writer’s traditional role as an alchemist who transforms others’ wrongs into Polish rights. The killers and the victims, the killing and the dying, should be denied metaphysical status. In stories about Auschwitz, SS men should be described as human, as should the Jews, as should the Poles, as should everyone else.

Borowski was not a nihilist, as his Catholic critics claimed; he was a moralist. He was a man of mercurial emotions, who his whole life long found equilibrium only in Auschwitz. “In the camp,” as Maria remembered, “he was psychologically mobilized, he had no black thoughts, none of the depressions he experienced both before and after. Just courage.” He imagined that in politics, as in literature, a complete renewal was possible. Destruction and death had not made Poland holy; but they had, he thought, created the possibility for a revolution. In early 1948, when he was twenty-five and just finishing “The World of Stone,” he joined the Communist Party.

At that time, Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union—just as he had when Borowski had left the USSR at the age of nine—and Stalin now controlled Poland through a client Communist regime. Borowski was a working-class writer, but that provided him no special status or protection. The neophyte Party member was quickly trapped by Stalinism. According to the Leninist interpretation of Marxism, which Stalin inherited, the working class is represented exclusively by the Party, which speaks scientific truth through its politburo. The Party line is objectively correct—even as it contradicts the line of yesterday, and even though it will be changed tomorrow. Communist discipline, framed as dutiful subservience to the Party’s historic mission, meant the willingness to denounce comrades and issue public self-criticism.

On August 31, 1948, the Central Committee plenum pronounced socialist realism the now obligatory style for all cultural production: didactic descriptions of class conflict told by moralizing narrators—everything that Borowski’s work was not. His descriptions of Auschwitz were irreconcilable with a myth of Polish national virtue because they resisted the metaphysical undertow: that death confirms the values of the living. For the same reason, they were incompatible with socialist realist blood redemption, in which death in the camps heralds the coming revolution. His stories had not changed, but the line had. He was now a deviationist; he was in trouble.

Just as socialist realism became mandatory, Stalinism became anti-Semitic. This turn also began in summer 1948, after the establishment of the state of Israel. Once Israel had disappointed Stalin by refusing to become a Soviet ally, he initiated an “anti-cosmopolitan campaign” against comrades and writers of Jewish origin.

The Holocaust itself was a problem for Soviet ideology. It was impossible to explain as class struggle; its victims extended beyond the borders of the USSR; and many of the collaborators, especially in the shootings, had been Soviet citizens. Portrayals of the Holocaust were treated as disloyal particularism, a sort of special pleading disrespectful to the suffering of other civilians. In Poland, Stalinist antisemitism reinforced pressure from below to present the war as national martyrdom. Since communism was seen as an external imposition, Poland’s ruling Party members had good reason to make compromises with national feeling.

Jakub Berman, as the politburo member responsible for culture, would try to guide Borowski as a writer. As a Polish Jew—one of his brothers had been murdered at Treblinka, the other would soon depart for Israel—Berman’s own power was threatened by ethnic Polish comrades. Conscious of the risk that he and other Jewish comrades might be cast out as “cosmopolitan,” Berman worked to help construct the national victimhood consensus—the myth, still current in Poland today, that Poles and Jews suffered equally in the war. And thus Borowski, though not himself a Jew, was deviating from the line in another way: his stories were too Judeocentric. In them, Poles suffer and die in the camps, but the Holocaust is an unmistakably distinct reality.

In January 1949, Borowski was denounced. But because his talent was deemed worth salvaging for the communist cause, he was offered the chance to earn his living as an apparatchik. He went to Berlin that June to work as a press officer for the military mission of the Polish embassy—and, it seems, as a spy. As his job required him to pass between the Soviet and American sectors of Berlin, Borowski suddenly found himself part of the greater game of the cold war and the division of Europe. While he and Maria lived in Berlin, the Soviet occupation zone of Germany became a new country, the German Democratic Republic.

And it was from there, in Berlin, that Borowski issued his Stalinist self-criticism, casting aside his Auschwitz stories:

I wasn’t able to parse the camp in class terms; even as I experienced the camp, I did not really know what I was experiencing. I was playing around in narrow empiricism, in behaviorism, or whatever it’s called. I had the ambition of showing the truth, but I ended up in an objective alliance with fascist ideology.

Thus, in Hitler’s former capital, a Polish survivor of Nazi camps took a share of the blame for fascism.

Borowski’s work always revolved around a painful question: If the truthful is always transient and the timeless is always tainted, how can a writer be both honest and significant? Stalinism offered a kindred analysis—that all culture was scarred by capitalism—and it proposed a solution. The way forward to socialism, visible alone to the Party, is the only meaningful truth. Writers who serve the Party need not choose between truth and power, because truth is whatever allows Communists to take power. Just follow the line.

For a few months after his return to Warsaw, in March 1950, Borowski was euphoric. He worked as a regime journalist, calling himself “a little propaganda factory.” Still in his twenties, he presented himself as a member of a young generation that had everything to learn from the Party. His last major writing project, in early 1951, was a commemoration of Feliks Dzierżyński, the founder of the Soviet secret police, on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.

It was also the twenty-fifth anniversary of Borowski’s father’s Gulag sentence, carried out by Dzierżyński’s secret police. Borowski’s father pleaded with him not to abuse his “divine spark” and not to trust his new friends.

A Warsaw street scene, Poland, April 1946

Bettmann via Getty Images

A Warsaw street scene, Poland, April 1946

In spite of these new commitments, Borowski’s mind was not entirely in captivity. Nor had he forgotten his old friends. In spring 1951, the Polish secret police arrested Czesław Mankiewicz on suspicions of espionage. Mankiewicz was not only a friend but a pivotal figure in Borowski’s life. In 1943, it had been Mankiewicz’s arrest by the Gestapo that led to Maria’s arrest, and thus to Tadeusz’s arrest. In 1946, when Borowski was trying to persuade Rundo to return to Poland, he sent her greetings from Mankiewicz, as one of their closest friends.

Mankiewicz was a communist, and had become a colonel in the postwar Polish army, but now comrades were insinuating that he had somehow collaborated with the Nazis. In the Stalinist struggle for power, mere survival of the German occupation could be grounds for suspicion—and this was, in effect, the charge against Mankiewicz (in fact, he spent the war underground in Warsaw and then imprisoned in Auschwitz and Majdanek).

Borowski had been willing to say that his own writing was fascist, but the idea that Mankiewicz had been working for the Nazis and not against them was too much. Borowski sought a meeting with Jakub Berman, who was responsible for security as well as culture in the Polish politburo. Borowski got his interview with Berman and spoke up for his friend. Berman replied that the security services would take Borowski’s position under advisement and summon him for questioning if necessary. This may have been intended as a threat.

*

In 1943, in the infirmary of the women’s camp in Birkenau, Maria Rundo listened as a Jewish woman gave birth. The mother was separated from her child immediately. The infant lay in the bed long enough to get lice. When it was time for the collection of corpses from the infirmary, the baby was thrown alive into the crematorium.

In 1951, in a Warsaw hospital, Maria (then Borowska) gave birth. Her doctor was troubled that she seemed unable to sleep. She was having visions at night: “I am looking at the door the entire time and thinking: what would happen if an SS-man in a green uniform came in now and took my child away.”

Tadeusz visited every day. On July 1, six days after the birth, he left the hospital in the evening, promising Maria that he would bring diapers on his next visit. She never saw him again. Their housekeeper found him the next morning, unconscious. He had apparently left the gas on. Barbiturates were found in his bloodstream. He died the following day. He was twenty-nine years old.

Those who associate Borowski with Auschwitz might be drawn by the ironic symmetry: the author of stories about the gassing of others gasses himself. Surely he meant to tell us something; surely he wanted us to know that he was killing himself from survivor’s guilt. Of course, domestic gas was a common method of committing suicide in postwar Europe; it need not have the meaning that suggests itself to us.

Borowski was a wounded man, whose great talent and frenetic activity made him hard to see, judge, or diagnose. There were perhaps revealing moments. Not long before his death, Borowski had paid a visit to Aleksander Wat, a Polish poet of Jewish origin of an older generation. Wat had abandoned communism and played the role of confessor to those doubting the Party. They were joined by the poet Stanisław Wygodzki, the survivor of the Będzin transport, now working for Polish radio. Wygodzki was distraught: a friend of his, another Auschwitz survivor, had just committed suicide in Wygodzki’s apartment. Borowski yelled at Wygodzki to pull himself together: “If we’re here now together, it’s only because there in Auschwitz we took bread from the dying.” There was more in that vein, and worse.

Screaming about Auschwitz to a grieving Jewish survivor might reveal more about the pressures of Stalinism than about survivor’s guilt. Borowski’s Stalinist euphoria was giving way to its opposite. Aleksander Wat’s wife, the perceptive and wise Ola Watowa, remembered Borowski as “defeated.”

If we heed the strictures of the earlier Borowski, the chronicler of the camp, we hesitate to separate life under totalitarianism from life in general. Borowski’s reaction to fascism was to emphasize individual responsibility, beginning with his own. His participation in Stalinism was of another quality: self-criticism demanded by a Party line that, once accepted, demanded the condemnation of others. Hysterical conformism can feel like participation in a grand transformation, at least for a time. But if he had misunderstood Auschwitz, as his self-criticism indicated, what about his own decision to go there? Auschwitz, Stalinism, and love were all connected.

Around the same time that Borowski was screaming at Wygodzki, he was having an affair with one of Wygodzki’s employees. Before he visited Maria in the hospital on July 1, Tadeusz had spent the afternoon with his lover, Dżennet Połtorzycka. Perhaps he was trapped between promises to two women. He had already tried to kill himself once during the affair and the pregnancy. Maria knew about Dżennet and had given him permission to leave. She needed the kind of husband he wasn’t just then.

Not being needed by Maria nullified the sense of going to Auschwitz. To follow her had been the central decision of his life. Meanwhile, their friend Mankiewicz was being interrogated and tortured, despite his time in Auschwitz—indeed, in some sense, because of his time in Auschwitz. This nullified the sense of another major decision, that of joining the Party. Borowski had not passed through Auschwitz to a new world by embracing communism.

All his decisions had once had a clear line: Maria, Auschwitz, communism. Now the clarity was fading.

Of course, these meditations are only pertinent if Borowski’s death was a suicide. Perhaps it was an accident; his lover thought so. Dżennet had stood outside his apartment building that night and saw the light on, but she decided not to ring the bell. He had an article due the next day, he had put on water for tea, and he fell asleep. That was it.

In Dżennet’s recollection, Borowski was neither disenchanted with communism nor wracked by guilt. She believed that he was planning to leave his family for her. Right or wrong, she made a telling point by calling his suicide a “legend.” She understood the narrative weight of death. Of course, the lover does not want the death to be deliberate. But is it not equally predictable that we, the readers, do want the death to be a suicide? A dramatic ending to a writer’s life empowers us to drown his work in the flush of our own emotions. As Borowski put it in “Here in Our Auschwitz,” “the living are always in the right as opposed to the dead.”

Maria agreed with Dżennet that Tadeusz’s death was not caused by the circumstances. She believed that he did kill himself, but not in connection with challenges in his public or private life. He had not, thought Maria, drawn any conclusions about the system from his failure to protect Mankiewicz. He was manic-depressive, she said later, and his dark thoughts had their own logic. Only in Auschwitz was his mood calm, his courage directed. Afterward, he had tried to take his own life at least twice; the difference this time was that he succeeded. He had tried drugs; he had tried gas; this time he tried both. That was it.  

If we heed Borowski’s better writing, we will not seize upon his death to anchor our own prior commitments. When we ballast our worldview with the weight of another’s death, we invite more death to supply more gravity. The ability to kill then becomes the ability to signify, and the clouds of human smoke fill our heaven. That was Borowski’s aching fear about civilization: that all we hold to be beautiful, good, and true is nothing more than an echo of earlier violence: the mocking laugh of generations.

There is an exit from Borowski’s dilemma, a way to marry truth with endurance. He was able to write about Auschwitz thanks to his love for Maria and the sense of responsibility he felt for her. He followed her to the camp because he loved her. In “Here in Our Auschwitz,” he says he would do it again. His letters to her cleared the passage from poetry into prose. He was true to her in the camp; he told the truth about the camp. Love may not last, but it is an honorable source of art that does.

I first read Borowski long ago, when I was a student of twenty, his own age when the Gestapo cut short his studies. His words reached me then not through some matrix of power, not because of the way things turned out: in the war, in the cold war, for the Nazis, for the Stalinists, or for Borowski himself. They reached me then, and reach me still, because he puts us inside that matrix of power, shows how we can normalize anything, how fascism becomes everyday life—and then shakes us free from the spell.


This essay is adapted from the author’s foreword to Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories by Tadeusz Borowski, translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine and published by Yale University Press on September 14.

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