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The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary…

The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel (2006)

by Dieter Schlesak

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I agree with calmclam that this documentary novel is hard to follow and perhaps the narrator would not have been missed. Nevertheless, the story of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963-1964 is fascinating. ( )
  bhowell | Apr 20, 2013 |
Well researched and well written, but I found the narrative hard to follow and I'm honestly not sure what the conceit of the fictional Adam's interspersed narration actually added. ( )
  calmclam | Apr 24, 2012 |
"A human being, like a dog, can get used to anything!"

So says Adam Salmen, a fictional narrator in Dieter Schlesak's The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel. But what Salmen and others imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II got "used to" is staggering, so much so that it continues to shock the world decades later. Children grabbed by their legs and smashed into walls. Infants catapulted alive into trenches in which dozens of corpses have been set afire. Mussulmen, inmates so emaciated and starved they are a sort of an "undead creature, ... a human being past tense."

Sadly, that is not the imagination of fiction. Schlesak takes a unique approach to literary nonfiction. The vast majority of the book consists of excerpts from actual trial transcripts and interviews. Salmen, "the last Jew of Schlossberg," Romania, serves as a somewhat ubiquitous witness, personifying various details. As in the original German edition, his and other fictional narration appear in italic while roman type is used for material taken from the second Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965 and interviews.

Adam is a member of the Sonderkommando, prisoners forced to dispose of the mountains of corpses, as well as an inmate resistance group. But Adam is not the real focus of The Druggist of Auschwitz. Instead, the book is built upon the 1944 deportations of thousands upon thousands of Romanian and Hungarian Jews to Auschitz and Capesius, a drug salesman from Transylvania before the war. Once Romania joined the Axis, ethnic Germans in the Romanian army like Capesius were transferred to the Waffen-SS. Capesius eventually became the camp pharmacist at Auschwitz and was present when his fellow countrymen arrived at the camp. These focal points allow Schlesak to provide the perspective of both the persecutors and the persecuted.

Many of the details of what occurred at the camp are, as would be expected, appalling. In addition to storing drugs and some of the Zyklon B used in the gas chambers, Capesius' workplace contained trunks with thousands of gold teeth pulled from victims, many with bits of flesh still attached. There was widespread belief that his post-war wealth stemmed from his access to these teeth. Yet what is perhaps most shocking is the capacity Capesius and others have to feel no guilt or blame for what transpired. Dozens of witnesses testified that during the Hungarian transports, Capesius was among the SS officers involved in the "selection process" on the loading ramps, directing people either toward the labor camp or the gas chambers. Both at trial and later, Capesius vehemently denies this, just as he denies having any role in handling the Zyklon B. For him, the trials are simply about saving his own life. The suffering, the victims, the inhumanity are lost, secondary details in a miasma of dates, data and denial.

Capesius is far from alone in possessing that inability to feel guilt or be bothered by his conscience. And this goes far beyond the claim that "I was just following orders." Thus, some involved in the selection process would claim they actually "saved" the Jews they pointed toward the labor camp instead of the crematoria. Auschwitz also was where Dr. Josef Mengele and others performed experiments on prisoners. Yet within weeks of the end of the war, the chief of the Auschwitz doctors wrote that "we can stand before God and man with the clearest consciences. ... What crime have I committed? I really do not know."

Translated by John Hargraves, The Druggist of Auschwitz was first published in German in 2006. It made its initial U.S. appearance this year and is now out in a paperback edition. It can feel a bit choppy, jumping in time and location and occasionally more meandering than linear. This is magnified by at times almost abrupt transitions from trial transcripts to Schlesak's interviews to his own observations. Although initially a bit distracting, the reader will adapt to the use of italic and roman text in the narration. In fact, there are a couple literary nonfiction books over the last year or so where I wish the author had been required to distinguish between fact and invention.

Ultimately, these flaws are inconsequential in the context of the work and what it reveals about the human ability to absolve one's conscience or oneself. In fact, Adam observes, that may be almost as bad as the crimes themselves -- "it was precisely this ability that made Auschwitz possible in the first place!"

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
  PrairieProgressive | Mar 2, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dieter Schlesakprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cavallo, TomasoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Magris, ClaudioPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374144060, Hardcover)

Dieter Schlesak’s haunting novel The Druggist of Auschwitz—beautifully translated from the German by John Hargraves—is a frighteningly vivid portrayal of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of criminal and victim alike.

Adam, known as “the last Jew of Schäßburg,” recounts with disturbing clarity his imprisonment at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Through Adam’s fictional narrative and excerpts of actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963–65, we come to learn of the true-life story of Dr. Victor Capesius, who, despite strong friendships with Jews before the war, quickly aided in and profited from their tragedy once the Nazis came to power. Interspersed with historical research and the author’s face-to-face interviews with survivors, the novel follows Capesius from his assignment as the “sorter” of new arrivals at Auschwitz—deciding who will go directly to the gas chamber and who will be used for labor—through his life of lavish wealth after the war to his arrest and eventual trial.

Schlesak’s seamless incorporation of factual data and testimony—woven into Adam’s dreamlike remembrance of a world turned upside down—makes The Druggist of Auschwitz a vital and unique addition to our understanding of the Holocaust.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:25 -0400)

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

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