The Nazi death camps of World War II produced some of the most horrific atrocities ever recorded. History has seen many accounts particularly from the perspective of holocaust victims. However, not much attention has been paid to the emotional effects suffered by the individuals who worked in these death camps.
These individuals were not guards of SS troopers but rather individuals considered too impure to be part of the German society. Their impurity however was not of the extent that could warranty their execution upon arrival. These people were referred to as “Canadas” and it was their job to clean up after the executions and herd those considered sub-human to gas chamber commonly referred to as “the Canada”. Tadeuzs Borowski’s short story This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is an account of a young man forced to work in the camps as a Canada.
While not directly responsible for the gassing of Jews himself, this young man definitely participated in the atrocities by helping the Nazis carry out mass murder. History is full examples of such circumstances where young men are forced to commit crimes failure to which they are either killed or bodily harm was inflicted on them. Individuals in such situations were forced to lose connection with their emotional side by ignoring humane attitudes directed towards the individuals being executed.
To stand witness to acts demeaning human life inevitably resulted in the individuals losing all compassion for their victims. To some extent, there is a possibility that these ‘handy men’ ended up hating those being exterminated. This lose of emotion got to a point where the persons involved were in a position of turning against fellow men and start viewing them as animal at the snap of a finger.
Those individuals who were constantly around killing fields had to develop adaptive measures to enable them cope with situation; this in current times is seen presented from the viewpoint of the soldiers’ involvement in the battlefields. They are constantly witnessing their comrades getting killed and maimed right in front of their eyes and hate begins to boil in their hearts directed at the individuals who inflicts these injuries.
With time, their emotional tolerance towards fellow human greatly reduces such that they find it relatively easy to kill a person they consider an enemy. It gets to a point where their sole objective is to merely survive irrespective of the means used to obtain this survival.
Such was the case with the young canada in Borowski’s story. The tolerance in this particular case develops as a result of the conditions in which he lives in as well as the rules that he is expected to follow. His task is to remove all the clothing and valuables from the Jewish prisoners and this has been clearly described in the essay. “Whoever takes gold, or anything at all besides food, will be shot for stealing Reich -property”.
In order to stay alive they must take the food from those condemned to death since the latter are allowed a few necessities required for survival. The Canadas are however forbidden from taking even the smallest article of clothing from the prisoners, as much as these could improve their living conditions and make their lives more bearable (Borowski 342).
Lack of basic essentials like shoes subjected the Canadas to painful moments that further served to enhance their resentment towards their victims. For example, the Canada’s feet developed painful sores and this further intensified their hatred to the Jews. The argument by the Canadas was that it was the Jews’ fault that they lacked shoes.
Aside from physical pain, the Canadas underwent extensive emotional pain. The Canada in Borowski’s story, had to develop ways of copping with shock occasioned by seeing hundreds of dead bloated babies on a daily basis. As Borowski describes the scene, “Naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies” (344). The sight of these dead bodies must have prompted him to develop a lot of hatred and anger. This kind of anger has to be re-channeled in order for the individuals to maintain some level of sanity.
Since it would have been imminent suicide to try and direct the anger towards Germans, that Canada instead chose to direct it towards Jewish prisoners. The Canada begins to question if he still is a good person after removing the babies in this statement to his friend, “Henri, are we good people? I am furious, simply furious with these people, furious because I must be here because of them. I feel n o pity. I am not sorry they’re going to the gas chamber. Damn them all!”(Borowski 345).
This anger, a direct result of witnessing the horrors around him, is directly attributed to his dislike for manual labor and his anger is particularly directed towards the Jews because in his eyes, it is they that get him out of bed to go and work. In reality, this anger is the direct consequence result of having to experience emotion-numbing ordeals.
The kind of emotional trauma experienced by this Canada demanded that for him to survive and still maintain some degree of mental control, he had to look at prisoners as non-humans and treat them as such. This became evident when the Canada was interacting with a certain Jewish prisoner, “I look at her without saying a word. Here, standing before me, is a girl, a girl with enchanting hair with beautiful breasts, wearing a little cotton blouse” (Borowski 348).
The Canada was in this particular instance staring at a stunningly beautiful girl but his emotional situation did not permit him to regard her as human. Instead he chose to view her as some sort of animal and treat her in the same way an astonished farmer would see one of his cows that somehow starts talking. The Canada was no longer in a position to view this girl as a human being on the mere pretext that doing so would have made her subject to humane consideration.
Unfortunately, fate demanded action when the Canada was faced with such a situation and in his case all he could do was kill the Jews irrespective of how any feelings he had towards them. this was a reasonable response and it definitely proves that no one can witness the events at death camps and still be able to sensibly live in society without viewing other people as sub-human.
When the Canada realizes that he can no longer continue working directly with the prisoners on the unloading ramp, he confides in his friend Henri of his intention to step back. It is at this instance that Henri looks at him puzzled and asks him for the reasons that force him to quit after just a few trips.
Henri cannot understand the Canada’s predicament since has worked the ramps for several months and has had millions of individuals pass through his watch. He has even witnessed some of his friends pass through the ramp, “The worst are the transports from around Paris, one is always bumping into friends” (Borowski 350).
The response that he (Henri) gave to the friends was suggested that they (the friends) would take a bath on the other side and relax. Henri however was fully aware that they were marching to their death but could not bring himself to entertain such thoughts. All senses of emotion had been suppressed to the extent that he viewed old friends as animals on their way to a slaughter house.
The atrocities of the death camps have left lasting impressions on mankind and this is more notable from individual who were forced to work in them. Both the Canada and Henri were forced to start regarding fellow humans as nothing more than animals; a consequence of having witness many people get sent to death. In order to survive without losing their minds, they had to block out all emotional feelings in the process changing how they viewed the rest of mankind.
Borowski, Tadeauzs. “This Way For The Gas, Ladies And Gentlemen.” The Mercury Reader:
Ideas That Matter: Readings For English 111. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2009. 336-352. Print.