“The Druggist of Auschwitz” by Dieter Schlesak

Schlesak, Dieter.  The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel. (F Sch)

A harrowing novel about surviving in Auschwitz and the nature of evil.

Reader 1:

Impossible to rate.  Unbearable to read, necessary to write.  A requirement to know and not forget.

Reader 2:

Agree with above.  A vital document and piece of history.  Grateful (and yes it is hard to read) it was written.

Reader 3:

I couldn’t continue.  It must have been nigh impossible for the survivors to go on.  How could this have happened?

One thought on ““The Druggist of Auschwitz” by Dieter Schlesak

  1. ‘The Druggist of Auschwitz’: at the core of a man without conscience
    In Dieter Schlesak’s powerful “The Druggist of Auschwitz,” a “documentary novel” of the life of pharmacist Victor Capesius, the author portrays a man who believed he earned and deserved what he stole from his doomed Jewish patients.

    By by David Laskin
    Special to The Seattle Times
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    ‘The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel’

    by Dieter Schlesak, translated by John Hargraves

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 374 pp., $26

    We might think we already know more than enough about the Holocaust, but we don’t. Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands,” published earlier this year, recalculated the math of mass slaughter, revealing that more Jews were “shot over ditches and pits” in the killing fields of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania than were gassed in concentration camps.

    Now in “The Druggist of Auschwitz,” Dieter Schlesak demonstrates how much remains to be said about the minds and souls and consciences of those who died and killed at Auschwitz.

    Schlesak, a German-Romanian poet and essayist, sets his “documentary novel” in what he calls the “famous ashen gray zone” where lines blurred between jailers and prisoners, doctors and “inmates,” masters and slaves.

    Zeroing in on one cog in the “machinery of murder” named Dr. Victor Capesius, a seemingly affable German-Romanian pharmacist who manned the “selection” ramps at Auschwitz and amassed a fortune in stolen property and jewelry, Schlesak finds a way to drop us into “the very center of this hell.”

    The ashen gray zone also informs the book’s narrative, a daring and sometimes jarring hybrid of history and fiction.

    Were it not for a note from the publisher I would never have realized that Adam, a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz assigned the task of hauling fresh corpses out of the gas chambers, is the book’s only fictional character. Adam writes in a heightened elegiac style set in italics, but otherwise there is nothing to distinguish his passages from the trial transcripts, prisoner testimony, personal narratives and face-to-face interviews that Schlesak conducted after the war.

    To my mind, the uninflected testimony of survivors, both prisoners and guards, is so vivid, so haunting, so infuriating that there was really no need to invent a ghostly observer. Nothing made up can withstand the blast of this truth.

    Like the novels of W.G. Sebald, clearly a strong influence, “The Druggist of Auschwitz” is spare to the point of emaciation. There is no plot aside from the trajectory of the war, no scenes aside from the tableaus of mass death, no connective tissue between the disembodied voices, no interaction aside from the fleeting encounters between Capesius and his startled Jewish acquaintances from “before” whose fate is now in his hands.

    The shattered mirror brilliantly reflects an event that can never be processed rationally. Eschewing story, Schlesak nails atmosphere and meaning.

    “There was no secret ‘no’ inside to guide him,” writes Schlesak after one interview with Capesius, who lived until 1985. “He has no need of ideas — other people have those. He privately makes fun of them.” Auschwitz was merely a bump in this man’s career, a sudden and rather profitable transfer from a nice pharmacy with many Jewish customers to a factory where those customers and hundreds of thousands of others were reduced with remarkable efficiency to bone and ash.

    It’s worse than Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”: Capesius and his cohorts actually believed they had earned and deserved what they stole at Auschwitz — and Schlesak strongly suggests that Germany’s postwar economic miracle was funded in part with the gold teeth, wedding rings and brooches of murdered Jews.

    There are no heroes here, no saints — and even Adam’s wistful hope that “their suffering was not in vain, that death is merely a transition, a being-set-free for a world of light” is but the flicker of a match in a hurricane.

    This is not an easy narrative to read, and the truths it reveals and embodies are not easy to face. It will fill you with despair and rage and terrible shame at the infinite ingenuity of human cruelty. By steeling himself not to flinch before the hideous reality of the Holocaust, Schlesak has created a beautiful book.

    David Laskin is the Seattle-based author of “The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War,” now out in paperback.

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