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Polish book describes horrors of life at Auschwitz

The life of prisoners in World War II concentration camps such as this unknown one is depicted in "We Were in Auschwitz"  

July 7, 2000
Web posted at: 6:30 a.m. EDT (1030 GMT)

In this story:

Copies bound in inmates' uniforms

'A memoir and elegy for the dead'

Fighting over drops of soup


WARSAW, Poland -- Concentration camp prisoners fought for drops of soup or a piece of bread; they betrayed their kin to survive and abandoned principles in the degradation wrought by their Nazi SS captors.

These are some of the views of "We Were in Auschwitz," a collection of stories written in Polish and published by three non-Jewish camp survivors. Originally published in the 1950s, the book was recently translated into English.

It has triggered controversy for depicting the less-than-heroic behavior of some prisoners. It was one of the first published accounts of World War II concentration camp life, when the Germans tortured, starved and gassed to death millions of people from many European nations.

The Nazis killed 6 million Jews and an estimated 5 million non-Jews, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The three authors were Janusz Nel Siedlecki, Krystyn Olszewski, and Tadeusz Borowski. The publisher was Anatol Girs. Now 79, Olszewski said it was "an absolutely different approach" from other Holocaust literature.

Olszewski said hunger and the desire to survive at all costs caused the inmates' behavior. "Nobody wanted to work unless you were forced to. We are very hungry and thinking every moment about how to find something to eat.

"Somewhere, try to steal food from others. It was the beginning of this terrible relationship between, among the prisoners themselves."

The book became obscure for many years and only came to light in 1998 when Alicia Nitecki, a Boston-area literature professor, unpacked a box of Polish books her husband had inherited.

She says the work predates Primo Levi's more famous "Survival in Auschwitz" that also addressed depravations by prisoners.

Copies bound in inmates' uniforms

Girs had published 10,000 copies, some of them bound in striped material from camp uniforms and at least one from a Nazi SS leather jacket with strips of barbed wire attached to the front and back covers.

He went to the United States, initially working as a janitor and babysitter. He had to destroy 9,000 copies because he could not afford to store them.

Borowski committed suicide in 1951. The book was republished in the late 1950s in Polish only.

Siedlecki and Olszewski live in Warsaw. Girs died in 1990 at the age of 84 but his daughter, Barbara Girs, of Brattleboro, Vermont, still has the first leather-bound edition in Polish.

She did not understand Polish and only read the book after she had been tracked down by Nitecki and it had been translated into English.

'A memoir and elegy for the dead'

She said the book was written partly in reaction to what the authors and publisher were hearing at a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany, in 1945 and 1946. "Everybody was the hero of their own tale."

Girs described the book as "a memoir and an elegy for the dead."

In an interview in New York she said, "They didn't always survive by being nice but they were forced to be the way they were and also that it wasn't a heroic life that you led there. You survived by finding a way to take care of yourself and your friends."

The book she held in her hands was bound in the striped material of the uniforms worn by concentration camp prisoners and embossed with the letter "P" for Polish and "6643" -- the number allotted in the camp to Siedlecki.

It was dedicated to the "VII American Army" which liberated them from concentration camp Dachau-Allach. The authors and the publisher were taken in a Nazi purge of the Polish underground and spent time in different camps, including Auschwitz.

In the preface to the book Borowski wrote, "We did not fight for the concept of nation in the camp, nor for the inner restructuring of man.

"We fought for a bowl of soup, for a place to sleep, for women, for gold and watches from the transports."

Fighting over drops of soup

The stories were written in the first person but were not individually signed. The writing style is journalistic and unsentimental about what the authors themselves suffered.

In one story entitled "Homo Sapiens and animal," two dying prisoners are lying on the ground. "From time to time one of them lunges at the other and strikes him with the bowl he holds in his hand. Between them, a couple of spoonfuls of spilled soup.

"They are fighting only about licking the valuable drops that were spilled during a brawl."

In another story, from Borowski's separately published "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen," a mother, trying to avoid being put on a truck headed for the gas chamber, hysterically denies knowing her child, who loudly wails "Mama, Mama, don't leave me!"

A Russian sailor grabs the mother and heaves her onto the truck then throws the child at her feet.

Nitecki, who was deported at the age of two along with her family to a labor camp in Germany in 1944, added that the book showed "this, in a way, was the worst of German crimes.

"This is what happens to the human spirit when placed in a situation of such total depravation and degradation."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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