This is part of the editor’s note: “Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz is unique for the way it blends the fictional narrative with actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial [Dec 1963 – Aug 1965] and interviews with survivors, guards, and administrators [including Victor Capesius – the so-called druggist] conducted by the author himself.” While the blend might be unique, what it produces does not offer anything new. Worse, the presentation is confusing at best, mismanaged at worst and actually finds a way to muddle significant portions of the Holocaust (I only wish I was kidding).
The sub-title for the work is “A Documentary Novel” and as the old saw goes, it does neither very well. I went into the novel with a wide understanding of the subject matter and when I finished the book I was almost bewildered. I had to go back to earlier material to remind myself of what had transpired (not in Auschwitz but during and after the Frankfurt trial). Nothing in the book presented as fact is incorrect; that isn’t my complaint. What bewildered (and now angers) me is that the chosen style showed the material in such a confusing manner that what should be clear-cut conclusions about behavior and motive get muddled. I don’t think that was the intent, but if it was then it is easy to argue that it is in questionable taste.
The book covers three aspects of post-Holocaust history: the Frankfurt trial procedures, including what can only be called ham-fisted attempts by the “druggist”, Victor Capesius, to get witnesses for the defense to back up claims that he was not at Auschwitz when he actually was, eyewitness testimony and post trial interviews, and post trial interviews with the Capesiuses and a few of the other participants (defendants and witnesses) willing to go on record.
A bit of history. The Frankfurt trial was the first major attempt by the German Republic to bring the day-to-day functionaries at Auschwitz to justice. The main Nuremburg Trial took care of the major government officials and a couple of smaller Nuremberg trials were tailored specifically to judges and doctors towards the same end as the initial one. But they occurred immediately after the war and while they showed some of the horrors of the Holocaust, their proximity to the full horrors of War as a whole (plus the emotional desire to move on which is only natural) meant that Holocaust specific issues were pushed aside. To put it more plainly, this is the first trial where Germans tried other Germans for behavior during the war (from our perspective this may seem a footnote but it was a clarion horn at the time).
The style is what undoes the book as either history/documentary or as novel. As I mentioned, the structure is a hopeless muddle of topics instead of timeline. For reasons too numerous to mention (but most of which should be obvious) it is easy to lose the Holocaust in a morass of details and if you choose to present your details in a way that doesn’t allow for an audience to piece together a narrative, you wind up with a list of terrible things outside of a context. I want to try not to be preachy but I cannot leave this unsaid: context is what makes the Holocaust what it is, otherwise it is just a list of really terrible things that is far easier to push aside as the behavior of just a few bad apples than as the systematic outcome of cultural movements. The book does try to limit most of the events to the period of the influx of Hungarian Jews (early spring to late fall 1944), but the operative word is “try.”
The title. The druggist referred to is the already mentioned Victor Capesius. Of the more than twenty defendants, his name would be one of the main three remembered, but of these three (or the full cast of criminals, even), why is he singled out as significant enough to be the eponym? The author never says directly and only implies two things, neither of which made him even remotely special: that he stole items from the camp and may have used the proceeds from that to pay for post war businesses of drug store and perfumery and that he had the key to the Zyklon B tablets used in the gas chambers. If and only if he were the only person to do that would it make his crimes worse than those of his fellows. Since Mr. Capesius shared the dock with true monsters like Robert Mulka (who was essentially second in command at the camp for years) and Wilhelm Boger (who was in charge of the “political division” intended to prevent escapes and punish failed escapes and who had an actual torture device named after him), using him as the entre into the story of the trial and the camp system really cannot be excused. Therefore the only reason I can come up with for using him as the titular character is cynical: of all of the bad people, he was the only one stupid enough to try to influence witness testimony by writing letters while in custody and the only one willing to be interviewed after the fact. What makes this even worse is that the Capesius information makes up less than a quarter of the full amount. It would be like using Stalin’s barber to explain how Stalin’s many purges were orchestrated – you will get some information but it will be of little use to any but the most obsessed historian.
I could forgive this choice if the point was to illuminate something about Auschwitz that is not already known or if the point of view actually brought a different perspective on what is current canon. The most it does is further emphasize the strange philosophical position of the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt framed in her Eichmann in Jerusalem. My thumbnail: the bureaucracy was evil and needed people to run it, most of the people running the bureaucracy never killed anyone directly but their actions lead to the deaths of millions. The bureaucrats are evil; Eichmann, a bureaucrat (also called the desk murderer, which is truly a post-modern term that would require its own essay to parse) was really good at shipping trains full of people to be killed but he never killed any one in a way that most of us would immediately identify as “murder.” The most that can be said about Capesius is that he was a littler version of the little man that Ms. Arendt analyzed and the Israelis hanged in 1961 (Capesius and some of his co-defendants were already in jail awaiting trial while the Eichmann trial took place and the Frankfurt trial started over 2 years after Eichmann’s execution).
Adam. The author allowed himself some room for fiction and created a character, Adam, for this purpose. There are only a couple of reasons why a writer using parts of a well-known history would bother creating a fictional character. Perhaps witnesses are willing to testify in court but refuse to answer questions posed by a reporter or historian – that isn’t true in this case. Most of the over 500 witnesses agreed to be recorded audibly in court and many were willing to share extra details that the court did not examine. Perhaps there is a piece of the history that is still in dispute and the fictional character is used to bridge this – we are at the point now where we may well be past information overload about the entire concentration and death camp system that any “dramatized” portion would be unnecessary at best and could easily be considered an offensive lie at worst and is in either instance a poor editorial choice. The fictional character allows a “historian” or “journalist” the chance to editorialize in a way that the professions of historian and journalist do not. I believe based on the way “Adam” speaks, that this is the reason he was created and the format chosen and, again, I think it is a poor editorial choice. Adam brings nothing to the table that hasn’t already been brought before by people who either survived it or who were victims of the system but who were able to leave some documentation behind. In this, Adam isn’t just a poor editorial choice, he is an insult.
Earlier I mentioned having to go back to material to un-confuse myself. There is a documentary available on Netflix (streaming as of the date this is posted) called, Verdict on Auschwitz (it’s a about 3 hours long and covers the full trial). Generally I recommend it tepidly – it is a bit overlong but at least it is presented in a logical manner and never loses sight of the topic. However, if you opt to read the book, I highly recommend the documentary; you will need it to untie the almost hopeless morass the “novel” leaves in its sluggish wake.
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About the reviewer
Paul Savage (cyclone_march)
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.