A Dreambook for Our Time
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
“You see what our earth is like. No matter where you tread, there are graves everywhere.” A character in Dreambook for Our Time is speaking, in the remote forested valley where the main action of this novel is set. It has many graves: mounds covering the bones of insurrectionaries from the Polish rising of 1863, the dead partisans of the Home Army which fought against the German occupation in the last war, the unknown Russian prisoners slaughtered as they tried to escape from the Nazis. A wanderer in the woods stumbles into ancient bunkers, hiding places for armed bands who fought the Germans or, in the civil war which ensued in the forests, fought the communist militia of their own people.
The people of the valley are themselves mysterious, families from the lost territories in the east absorbed into the Soviet Union after the war, orphans and wanderers with their own secrets and memories who were deposited there like settling leaves after the cyclone of Polish history in the mid-twentieth century died down. Across the river, men are beginning to work on a dam which will eventually flood the whole valley, its dilapidated houses, dusty roads, and graves.
Polish literature—in which this novel, first published in 1963, can be placed as a major work—itself has aspects of the catacomb. Nearly two hundred years have passed since the independence of Poland was first extinguished. Since then, the experience of most generations has been that of foreign occupation or repression, of conspiracy and insurrection, of labyrinthine moral confusion. There have been few times at which the truth could openly be told: censors played their part in that, but so did the complexity of personal fates, the difficulty of identifying truth itself after years in which loyalty could be fratricidal and compromise seem a bold stroke of rebellion. In the catacomb, where the living seek their way among the bones of their dead, the twilight makes a human face unreadable. Only the grasp of another hand is sure.
And the place echoes. Of all literatures, Polish is the most continuous. “Forefathers’ Eve,” the colossal poetic drama written by Mickiewicz in the 1820s and 1830s, is still intensely alive in national consciousness, not because of any predilection for native classics but because, simply, its themes are basic themes of Polish life today. For anybody over forty, and many younger, the experiences of resistance, compromise, treachery, the themes of Messianic hope and bitter humiliation which Mickiewicz drew from the early decades of Tsarist domination, are literally accurate descriptions of episodes and states of mind which they have passed through. Later literature—the work of Wyspianski in the theater, especially, at the turn of the century—varied the same themes and the modes of their expression.
Polish writing of the last two centuries has a coherence and relevance that are without parallel elsewhere. In consequence, it is for the foreigner both difficult and private, intricately traced with historical and literary allusions. There is no comparison with the lucid humanism of the modern Czech novels. With the exception of the experimental theater of Witkiewicz and Mrozek—and not all of that—there are very few first-class works of Polish literature that do not require an explanatory introduction.
Dreambook is given such an introduction by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. While it is not autobiographical in a precise way, its themes are the themes of Konwicki’s own life, and Kolakowski summarizes them. The author came from near Wilno, now the capital of Soviet Lithuania but historically, though in a largely Lithuanian countryside, a center of Polish cultural and religious life, and a focus of Polish patriotism. In the German occupation, the main partisan resistance came from the Home Army under the remote control of a conservative and anti-Russian exile government in London. When the Red Army entered eastern Poland, relations between the two forces rapidly broke down, and Home Army detachments returned to the forests to carry on a suicidal struggle against the new power in the land. Most Poles living in these places were transported westward across the new frontier, but surviving Home Army bands continued to fight the forces of the emerging communist regime in Poland itself for another two years after the end of the war. Konwicki, who shared many of these experiences, eventually joined the Communist Party (which he left some three years after Dreambook was written).
His narrator awakens after a suicide attempt, surrounded by inquisitive faces in the remote village to which he has drifted. We understand that he is a solitary, crushed and bewildered by memories of the war and the postwar years to which, although some fifteen years in the past, he can still give no meaning. But the other inhabitants are in the same pass. Nothing is happening in this somnolent place, malarial with sinister memories of violence and mystery. From the forests, an occasional shot resounds. The legend is that “Huniady,” a last survivor of the anticommunist bands, still wanders there with his rain-rusted weapon. (This background—the forest which harbors a mythical partisan, partmenace and part-savior—is a Polish convention: it is, for example, the setting of Kazimierz Brandys’s marvelous novella “The Bear.”)
Gradually, the narrator begins to associate with the people of the village. He meets a partisan with an artificial arm, angry and confused, unable to accept that he is growing old and that his heroism no longer interests those around him. Big Regina fends off the partisan’s lust and leaves for the outside world, only to return in defeat and marry for security. The narrator lives in the house of old Ildefons Korsak from Lithuania, who has served in so many armies that they are muddled in his memory. In Korsak’s place, these and a multitude of other characters gather for long nights of drowsy vodka-drinking, nostalgia, and hysterical quarreling. Three personalities stand apart from them. One is Szafir, the silent and contemplative party secretary, who lives ostracized in his own house and broods on the coming fate of the valley. The others are Joseph Car and his wife Justine. From his house down by the river, Car brings the people of the village together in a strange redemptionist cult.
We begin to learn more about the unnamed narrator, as he is drawn close to Car and attracted to Justine, herself an orphan from forgotten massacres. His own past, hideously vivid and yet meaningless as a dream which cannot be banished, is materialized by flashbacks, disordered and out of sequence but slowly coming together as the novel develops. We see the arrest of his mother by collaborators during the occupation. The hearing of his application to join the Party, well after the war, when he is challenged to explain his time with the anticommunist bands and cannot make himself denounce those he fought and suffered with. His first act of “resistance,” an absurd, punching assault on a German officer walking in the street. A moment in the postwar band, men and women hiding like wild beasts in bunkers dug under the snow, when he is sent to kill a “traitor” and only wounds him. Wartime: he leads a Home Army detachment in a bloody and successful attack on a German train, only to be stripped of his insignia and expelled from the partisans for insubordinate bravado.
Still poisoned by guilt and hatred, he is searching. He is obsessed by one man, one swarthy face: the face of a man whose arrest during the occupation he failed to prevent, of the man whose execution after the war he failed to carry through. The narrator is still fighting in these dead struggles, like Huniady. It comes to him that the mythical Huniady is perhaps one Korvin, his sergeant in the Home Army and then his commander in the anticommunist guerrillas. And it comes to him that Joseph Car is that swarthy man, his victim and his betrayer, the man who must be confronted if his own torment is to be resolved. Delicately, Konwicki indicates that this man—or two, or three men: the dream is never explicit—is a Jew. The appearance, the persecution, the detachment converge with Joseph Car’s remark: “It isn’t easy to be an alien among your own people.” But in fact all the villagers, and the narrator, have become such aliens, and Car through his cult seeks to release them from the original sin of the past.
Soon, the waters will cover everything. Since the fall of Stalinism after the war, the Poles have had the longest period of stability that the nation has been granted since the First Partition. Men and women born since the occupation are entering their thirties. The generation of those who survived the apocalypse, for whom all was decided by which forest you fought in, what color of brother-Pole you fired on, whether your exile was in Russia or the West, is beginning to pass away. At a party in Warsaw last year, one of that generation said to me: “At last, the age of biographies is over.” Konwicki was in the room, his sharp face closed behind heavy spectacles, offering no comment. But his many novels, of which I believe this to be the best, are helping to terminate that age with the mercy and ceremony he allotted to Joseph Car.
Tadeusz Borowski killed himself before he was thirty, the most astonishing young writer in Poland to emerge after the war. He seems to have killed himself for several possible reasons—a love affair and its guilt, political doubts perhaps, anxiety about his writing—but, like Konwicki’s anonymous narrator, he also found it hard to live. Borowski had been in Auschwitz. His stories about the world of the death camps, published shortly after the war, made him instantly and deservedly famous but also—as Jan Kott observes in his brilliant introduction to this collection—prevented his final escape from that world. He was born in Russia; his father and mother were both sent to labor camps while he was a child, and the family was not reunited in Warsaw until the early Thirties. A few years of poverty intervened before the German invasion, and Borowski narrowly escaped a street roundup of hostages on the day of his graduation examination: as Kott puts it, this was a fitting exam in the “European education” of those years. In the resistance, he published a book of poems. He and his fiancée were caught in 1943. Both went to Auschwitz.
He survived because he was made a Kapo, one of the privileged cogs in the vast machine of extermination and captivity which to a horrifying extent ran itself. Those who were to die later had to service and sometimes—as with the Sonderkommandos—actually administer the death of those who were to die now. Kapo Borowski, who worked as a hospital orderly and a building laborer, lived on the bread and sausage and canned milk brought by Jews on the incoming transports. Sometimes, as in the appalling title story, he actually served on the “ramp” with the gangs which unloaded the boxcars of suffocating victims and helped the SS guards to shepherd them to the gas chambers.
More often, he worked at other tasks, almost oblivious in the end to the dense files of human beings making their way from the trains to the crematoria. Once he was playing soccer: at a “throw-in,” he saw the ramp crowded with people, and at the next pause, noticed that it was empty again. “Out of the whole colorful summer procession, not one person remained. The train too was gone…. Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.”
It was this indifference, this preoccupation with the hourly bargaining and maneuvering of survival, that Borowski wanted to get across. Individual pity dwindled and was replaced by an almost impersonal horror and anger: the wish to survive, as he wrote, could also be the wish to tell the world. Through the summer of 1944 he worked on jobs like roofing the huts of women block leaders—which they paid for “with gold, food, the women of their own blocks, or with their own bodies.” Near him, there swarmed tens of thousands of shaven-headed women, his own fiancée among them, their only possession a prison shift. When de-lousing was being carried out, the swarm was naked. Borowski and his mates discussed the progress of the war, or flirted with the pretty girl in charge of the latrines. A few hundred yards away, over the little row of trees, the smoke rose. At night, from the crematoria or the open pits where corpses and living children were burned, there came dazzling outbreaks of flame.
Later, he was moved from Birkenau, the vast pattern of hutments and wire enclosures around the ramp, to the “Stammlager,” the older part of Auschwitz a few miles across the camp where the prisoners lived in brick buildings with several floors. From here he was able to write secret letters to his fiancée. Here was a senior world of veteran inmates, immensely conceited about the fact of their own survival. Here was the brothel of the “Puff girls,” and the wards in which doctors made experiments on living women, and where there were boxing matches for the trusties, and an orchestra. Borowski asked himself in these letters why it was all being allowed to happen, why nobody revolted, why people let themselves be led away and queued patiently to be loaded into trucks for gassing after a “selection.” He thought the answer was hope, “…not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and that is why today we perish in gas chambers.”
Borowski ended up in Dachau, after the Germans evacuated the Auschwitz prisoners westward, and after his release played for a time with the idea of staying in the West and becoming a millionaire. All around him and especially in nearby Munich, released inmates who had trampled to death those of their overseers whom they could catch were engaged in making black market fortunes. This is the world of Wajda’s film Landscape After the Battle, based on Borowski’s own stories from this period. The survivors thought they understood the human race now as no one had before: “the whole world is really like the concentration camp; the weak work for the strong, and if they have no strength or will to work—then let them steal, or let them die.”
There are three stories with postwar settings in the collection here. They show Tadeusz Borowski failing to maintain what was, after all, quite precisely the philosophy of those who planned and commanded Auschwitz. He went back to Poland, to its poverty and ruins, to a life which seemed to him both relentless and insubstantial. He called it “the world of stone,” and, as Kott explains in his introduction, he never escaped from it. ” ‘The living,’ he wrote, ‘are always right, the dead are always wrong’—an optimistic statement. If the dead are wrong and the living are always right, everything is finally justified; but the story of Borowski’s life and that which he wrote about Auschwitz show that the dead are right, and not the living.”