It seems obligatory to open any review of yet another Holocaust book with the disclaimer that compassion fatigue and déjà vu might set in simultaneously. As Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, noted last year while reviewing—what else?—yet another Holocaust tome, “I could easily fill every column inch of our book coverage with titles about the Holocaust…”
So why did Kirsch assign yet another Holocaust book — “The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel” by Dieter Schlesak, translated from the German by John Hargraves (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) — for me to review? Only he knows for sure. My educated guess: Kirsch realizes that Dieter Schlesak is featuring a real-life Nazi collaborator who despite the massive Auschwitz opus has almost never been mentioned in English language books. His name is Victor Capesius, known alternately as “the druggist of Auschwitz.” My search of the Amazon.com “Inside the book” feature, which covers a massive number of titles in multiple languages, found only two books with references to Capesius—one book written in German and the other a collection of essays published in English.
That collection carries the overall title “Truth Claims: Representation and Human Rights,” edited by Mark Philip Bradley and Patricia Petro. The essay with the brief reference to Capesius is titled “Law, Not Vengeance: Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and the Claims of Memory in German Holocaust Trials,” by Devin O. Pendas, a professor of German history at Boston College.
Schlesak’s documentary novel (a term intended to carry an oxymoronic implication) is much more about vengeance than about law. The main purpose of the books seems to be an unmasking of Capesius, who during formal testimony in a trial setting and less formal testimony in a variety of forums tries to explain away his role in the Nazi killing machine known as Auschwitz.
Through a character named Adam Salmen, a captive at Auschwitz who kept what comes across as a realistic diary of horrors, Schlesak—as sometimes narrator, sometimes listener—unravels the lies of Capesius. The form of the documentary novel is complex, because Schlesak does not follow strict chronology, does not always indicate when he is conveying undisputed fact and when he is convey realistic fiction. It might sound cruel to say that the novel does not so much offer a complex form as it does a formless manuscript. “Formless” as in a mess of words. The structure does not offer easy understanding, and it is possible that the translator complicates matters, because quite a few sentences rendered in English sound forced, artificial. (A German edition of the book appeared during 2006.) Furthermore, the repetition of information is inexcusable; a talented editor could have cut the number of pages by at least one quarter without losing anything significant.
But enough carping about the book’s structural and stylistic failures. The key for most readers who can stomach the grim accounts of the death camp is surely learning about Capesius. Here is some of what the author reveals about the villain: born during 1907 in the territory then known as Austria-Hungary, today a region of Romania. Studied pharmacology and later became a drug sales representative. During World War II, served as a druggist in the Romanian army until that nation’s military became part of the Nazi war apparatus. Posted to Auschwitz as a druggist in the autumn of 1943, and remained there until the evacuation of the death camp. After the war, arrested for crimes against humanity and served prison time, but eventually won release and lived more or less well until his death in 1985 in Germany.
In an Appendix to the novel labeled “the most significant figures,” Schlesak lists 36 individuals other than Capesius. Those 36 (and numerous more minor individuals from real life) rotate in and out of the book in an often bewildering manner. Many of the 36 label Capesius a ruthless war criminal. Some of the rest defend him as doing his best to survive and even help at least a few Jews in Auschwitz survive by offering them “safe” jobs in the death camp’s pharmacy.
The Jews of Auschwitz most often chronicled in the novel arrived at the death camp from Hungary and Transylvania. They remained mostly secure in their homeland until March 1944, when Adolph Hitler decided he could no longer trust the political leaders in that region. As a result, the previously safe Jews were herded onto death camp trains with special alacrity, and faced the most extreme hardships imaginable because of the sheer numbers involved.
Schlesak himself is described as a German-Romanian poet and essayist born in Transylvania during 1934. Since 1973, he has split his time between Germany and Italy. He was too young for World War II, but obviously has lived the horrors vicariously for many decades since.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.