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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

'Druggist of Auschwitz' Recounts Nazi Horrors

Schlesak mixes fact with fictional narrative in gripping tales

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For this reason and others, readers continue to seek out books recounting tales from Nazi Germany's mass extermination of Jews, the Romani (gypsies), homosexuals and other groups in Europe in the 1930s and '40s. One of the latest on the subject is an English translation of a German title from 2006 called The Druggist of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

This “documentary novel,” written by German-Romanian writer Dieter Schlesak, is a compilation of war trial transcripts, survivor interviews and fictional, first-person reflections from a camp prisoner named Adam. The transcripts consist of testimonies from the trial of pharmacist Victor Capesius, whose work involved overseeing the administration of pharmaceuticals to both prisoners and the SS, determining prisoners to be gassed because of perceived weaknesses and managing the application of the pesticide Zyklon B in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Capesius, a friend and colleague of many Jews before the war, showed no mercy in his ruthless treatment of victims at the infamous death camp. The transcripts and reflections from witnesses are spliced together with narratives from Adam, a fictional character assigned the task of preparing victims for the gas chambers.

The Druggist of Auschwitz
isn't easily consumed. The book doesn't follow a clear chronology, and the author fails to introduce carefully developed characters. The initial 40-50 pages demand a good deal of patience and guesswork, as readers sift through scattered snippets of testimony from witnesses introduced, often, by name only (short biographies of the characters appear at the back of the book). Yet despite the work required, some of the stories are so gripping that the reader is compelled to wage forth into the darkest of dark places: the Nazi gas chamber.

Though the book is primarily concerned with the trial of Capesius, The Druggist of Auschwitz also focuses on the dehumanizing qualities of the Holocaust. This theme recurs throughout the novel, as the institutionalized genocide strips all participants of their humanity: The captive is beast, the captor a mass-murdering machine. The book is filled with scarring scenes of dehumanization that will make readers shiver. It will leave readers soul-sick over the mass psychosis that occurred in the midst of a century of unrivaled human progress.

Like many other books and films before this one, The Druggist of Auschwitz indirectly teaches readers that we must never forget our humanity, and never take for granted our individuality and the precious, tenuous relationships we have with one another, within and between cultures. It is a lesson that bears repeating, especially for a new generation that may not have the opportunity to meet a World War II soldier or hear the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. The Druggist of Auschwitz serves as a fresh reminder of the events of the early 1940s and what can happen when hatred goes unchecked and groupthink reigns.