‘The Supper’ is a dark haunting realistic short story penned by author Tadeusz Borowski. Borowski was a Polish writer who wrote primarily on themes of the German and Russian concentration camps. Borowski was a person highly affected and tormented by his past. His parents were incarcerated in Russian Labor Camps. Borowski lived a harried life in the Warsaw Underground during the German occupation. Later, he was caught and spent two terrible years devoid of hope in Auschwitz and Dachau. ‘The Supper’ is one of his ‘lighter’ stories of cannibalism that broke out in a concentration camp which was induced by the German Schutzstaffel (SS) guards for their sick sadistic enjoyment. Though the theme of this story titled ‘The Supper’ is dark, sinister, and haunting, it would be revelatory for the reader to realize that ‘The Supper’ is a significantly lighter form of Borowski’s concentration camp literature to which he dedicated his life. He believed that the only reality of life was the concentration camp. The outer world was also a concentration camp of immense proportions, and that everyone on earth was destined to enter and die in a concentration camp. One can see that his time in Auschwitz and Dachau was quite terrible, which ultimately led him to take his own life in 1951 by opening the gas valve of his room. Borowski’s fatalistic viewpoint is evident in this short story ‘The Supper’. The camp inmates were deprived of food for seventeen hours and so ultimately fed on the flesh of the twenty Russian Communists who were brutally shot by the SS guards. The deprivation was done to torture the camp inmates and induce them to eat human flesh, even though the hot soup was available. The SS men and the Kommandant purposely tried to torture the prisoners mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually in the concentration camp. Needless to say, ‘the supper’ that most camp inmates fed on that Saturday evening was the flesh of these twenty Communist prisoners. One cannot fathom the ruthless inhumanity of the SS and the German Nazis unless we realize that they got sadistic fulfillment in doing such inhumane acts. Note that most of Borowski’s prose is authentic and based on real-life experiences.
The camp inmates were kept without food for seventeen hours or so. They were filthy, starving, and cold. It was winter, and a cold wind was blowing across the concentration camp, making existence tedious. In the first part of his story, Borowski repeatedly mentions the dark colors of the area and the bleak atmosphere to paint for us the bleakness and dark nature of human beings and the dark, primordial instincts of cannibals and Nazis. The Nazis liked to create situations where cannibalism could take place. The filthiness and deterioration of humanity in the campmates and the SS guards is also stressed in the first part of the story. Here is a summary in point form of some of the key dark and gloomy images used by Borowski in an unemotional manner to depict life in a concentration camp:
- The campmates were waiting for darkness to fall, indicating that they were waiting for an inhuman dark act to be committed.
- The deepening shadows permeated the evening mist, indicating the campmates slowly rising hunger pangs and survival instincts. They were at the end of their inner strength and were now tethering on the brink of madness to which their deprivation and torture was driving them towards.
- The snow was dirty because the camp inmates lived in deplorable and unhygienic conditions.
- The sky was heavy with rain clouds, although one could see a few rose-colored streaks of sunlight. This is indicative of the fact that though everything in the lives of the campmates was depressing and cruel, they still wanted to live to see another day because a last remnant of hope still existed within them, like the pink streaks of sunlight from the setting sun.
- A dark gusty wind with the smell of the thawing sour earth cut through the frail bodies of the campmates like a blade of ice. This figuratively depicts the way they were physically tortured by the cold atmosphere and the inhuman coldness of other fellow human beings, that is, the SS guards and Nazis.
While these symbols of the weather aptly paint the mindset and physical conditions of the camp mates, a contrasting image is shown of life on the other side of the fence. On the other side of the fence, life was going on as usual like it usually did on a Saturday evening, the kickoff to a weekend. Young girls were getting ready to go with the SS young men to a Saturday night dance, cows were being led back to their stables, coachmen were driving their carts back home, and cars along the busy highway were returning for the day. Borowski is trying in these contrasting images to show how different life could be for some people by just being on the other side of the fence. The camp inmates were deprived, hungry, and desperate. The Kommandant, the SS officer leaning on the Skoda car, the Camp Elder, and Block Elders were aware of this. But they wanted to torture the campmates before they went for their Saturday night dance. They got a thrill in setting the hungry crowd on the twenty Communists they termed as criminals.
When the Kommandant is looking at the twenty Communists, everyone else, including Borowski, has a good look at the men. Notice that everyone noticed their fleshy parts, their bulging crotches, their sagging buttocks – half sensually and half hungrily. One would think that they too were as human as everyone else; why then was it merely because of their ideological leanings that they died so terribly and were food for the rest? Through an impartial journalistic eye, the author notes how everyone observed the humanity and flesh of the twenty Communists. Note that Tadeusz Borowski was also a Polish journalist. In his prose, he often used his unemotional and unbiased reporter’s writing style to tell the stories of the Holocaust that he had witnessed for a significant part of his life. The following are what was observed by the hungry and starved camp inmates, which would tempt them further to become cannibals:
- The fold, bulge, and wrinkle in their clothing.
- Cracked soles of their worn-out boots.
- Dry lumps of clay stuck to the edges of their trousers.
- The thick seams around their crotches.
- The white and blue stripes of their prison suits.
- Their sagging buttocks.
- Their stiff hands and bloodless fingers twisted in pain with drops of dry blood at the joints.
- Swollen wrists where the skin had started turning blue from the rusty wire cutting into their flesh.
- Their naked elbows tied with another piece of wire.
You can notice in these stark descriptions an excellent eye for detail on Borowski’s part, making the tactility of the twenty Communist prisoners real for the reader. The Kommandant traveled to the camp to see what he had to do with these twenty Communists. In reality, all their fake decorum and observance of order and discipline was a farce to hide their barbaric nature and the hidden evil in them. It was inhumane on their part to encourage the campmates to resort to cannibalism even while they enjoyed themselves at their Saturday night parties with their young German girls, their manicured hands, and their well-washed uniforms. But that is what Borowski wants to focus on in this and most of his concentration camp literature: life is unfair. It is a nihilistic life of the concentration camp that is the harsh reality of humanity. There is hatred everywhere, and everyone would rather have their enemy in a concentration camp, even if that enemy is innocent and has never done anything to harm a soul. Life was unfair and was like a giant concentration camp.
Notice in the story that the Kommandant does not take the initiative but depends on the young officer leaning against his Skoda. This depicts his cruelty and cowardice, his brutality and inhumanity. But all this seems natural to Borowski because ultimately, life to him is about trying to stop everyone from putting people in concentration camps. The twenty Communists were then shot mercilessly by young SS soldiers going out that evening for their dances. They were well-dressed and looked handsome with their manicured hands. Their hands may have looked clean and neat, but they had the blood of innocents stained on them. And Borowski’s question is, who will give an account for that blood?
The moment the officers left, the campmates went berserk because they were told they would not get their soup because of these twenty Communists. They jump on the bodies of the twenty Communists and feed on their flesh. Borowski makes a very uncomfortable statement that since he was away from the actual scene of the massacre, he could not see what was happening. Was he trying to indicate that if he were closer, he, too in desperation and hunger, would have turned into a cannibal and eaten the flesh of the twenty Communists? That question crops up in the reader’s mind. The next day Borowski immediately draws our attention away from him to a half-crazed Muslimized Jew from Estonia who tells Borowski how delicious raw human brains taste. A ‘Muslim’ was the camp name for a prisoner who had been destroyed physically and spiritually and who had neither the strength nor the will to go on living – a man ripe for the gas chamber. This ‘Muslim’ Jew lends the tale a horrific pitch indicating the ultimate blasphemy. Thus, the ‘Supper’ was eaten that Saturday evening. The campmates were denied hot soup but not their comrade’s flesh. This was done purposely by the SS men to further brutalize the campmates for their pleasure and to worsen their situation, making them ready for the gas chambers.
I was edified reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘The Supper’ by Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski. I hope to read more Holocaust literature in the coming weeks and review these texts on my blog. If you are interested in reading some award-winning LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to read and review more of Tadeusz Borowski’s works soon.
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