The Druggist of Auschwitz

I’m not going to lie to you. The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel is a tough read. Not only because it was translated from German but also because the subject matter is just so very gruesome.

And yet read it I did.

Morbid curiosity? A desire to know just how cruel one set of humans can be to another? A slap in the face reminder that we all could be that persecuted group? A slap in the face reminder that we could all be that group doing the persecuting?

The Druggist of Auschwitz is a novel that is about half quoted testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial of 1963-65. The two main characters, Adam–the last Jew at Auschwitz–and Dr. Victor Capesius–an SS officer–reveal the daily life at Auschwitz from the perspective of both the prisoner and the tormenter.

Adam’s dialogue is the fictionalized portion and it is what you expect. It is what you’ve read, seen, and heard about Auschwitz and by extension all the Nazi concentration camps.

But it’s the true recorded testimony of and about Capesius that is so compelling. The author, Dieter Schlesak, wrestles with the big questions here: how could a man who had been friends with Jews before the war turn around and kill and profit off them only one or two years later.

Because there’s no mistaking that Capesius profited. As the pharmacist at Auschwitz, he was on the crew that selected those who lived from those who went to the gas chambers. And alarmingly, he often chose those who had great wealth to die, confiscating their gold teeth, bridge work, fillings, rings, necklaces, and other belongings prior to sending them into the chamber.

He kept these treasures, locked away in the attic of the camp pharmacy and then traded them in for cash after the war. And for a few years lived very well.

Until he was arrested and tried.

I kept praying that if I was in a similar situation, I would resist. Either as the captive or the tormentor. Would I stand up for the moral right, risking death? Isn’t death a small price to pay for righteousness?

Besides, it seems that a bullet through the head would be preferable to a slow death in the gas chambers.

Not a light summer read. But an important one.

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