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The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel Hardcover – April 26, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Schlesak, in his first book in English translation, is interested in documentation, here achieved through a collage of facts and firsthand narratives of the Holocaust by victims and perpetrators alike. Centering the narrative around the 1964 Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt of Victor Capesius, the director of the Auschwitz medical dispensary, who methodically enriched himself with assets stolen from those arriving on the Hungarian transports, Schlesak contrasts the suffering of the camp survivors with the apparently conscience-free lives of those who were "obeying orders." He interviews Roland Albert, an Auschwitz guard and his mother's favorite cousin, who Schlesak knew as a young boy in Germany, and who seems to feel no real sense of responsibility for the Holocaust. To understand the survivors, Schlesak, as author-narrator, talks with Adam Salmen, the so-called "last Jew of Schässburg," whose camp diary is excerpted to heartrending effect as are his struggles with survivor guilt: "And even if you have gotten out, you never really escape..." The way testimony is collected and presented, without real narrative intervention, lends immediacy and veracity, but also feels less novelistic. Schlesak's work is relentless, sometimes too painful to read, testament to the fact that, in describing Auschwitz, no literary consolation is possible. (Apr.)
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“Like the novels of W.G. Sebald . . . [The Druggist of Auschwitz] will fill you with despair and rage and terrible shame at the infinite ingenuity of human cruelty. By steeling himself not to flinch before the hideous reality of the Holocaust, Schlesak has created a beautiful book.” —David Laskin, The Seattle Time

“That Dieter Schlesak could write this novel in what Adam calls the executioner’s language serves as some small triumph. That he could look at all of this with a clear eye and help the reader to do the same is a major triumph.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR

“A great book that hits you like a fist . . . An unforgettable tapestry of evil . . . [The Druggist of Auschwitz] shows that, as Melville said, the truth is more unthinkable than fiction.” —Claudio Magris, Corriere della Sera (Italy)

“Retracing the story of Dr. Capesius, in which appear other infamous figures—such as Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’; Fritz Klein, the ‘Assassin for Good’; and the camp commandant, Rudolf Höß—Schlesak reconstructs the terrifying history of Auschwitz: the trauma of arrival, the torture of the prisoners, the horror of the gassings and cremations. Schlesak writes with a dry style, almost with the distance of a reporter, giving us a powerful testimony on the banality of evil. The Druggist of Auschwitz is a book which confirms that sometimes the truth is more unimaginable than the most horrible fantasy.” —Gaetano Vallini, L’Osservatore Romano (Vatican City)

“Dieter Schlesak not only has created a shattering work of great literary power and authenticity . . . but also sheds light on the relationship between perpetrators and their victims.” —Claus Stephani, David: Jüdische Kulturzeitschrift (Austria)


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Thus edition (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374144060
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374144067
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,503,933 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
(Stars are not appropriate for this book) Author Dieter Schlesak was only ten years old when the Russians invaded his town of Sighisoara in German Transylvania (now Rumania) in August 1944, and he has been struggling to understand the Holocaust and how it happened ever since. Though he tried to write a novel about it once before, he says in a statement written in February, 2011, that he "threw 450 pages of an `author's text' into the wastebasket, because I, as an author, have absolutely no mandate, and could never, even stylistically or linguistically, approach such horror."

Schlesak, however, finally succeeds here in creating a monumental analysis of Auschwitz, almost paralyzing in the completeness of its horror on every possible level, by using a "collective narrator," a character he calls "Adam Salmen." Adam as narrator is a Sondercommando of the Jewish "Special Action Squad" under the Germans, a man whose agonizing job it is to report on the deaths in the gas chambers and the tallies of the cremation ovens. On his own time, however, he keeps notes in tiny handwriting on equally tiny scrolls which he hides as a permanent record of what he has seen. The Nazi point of view is represented primarily by Viktor Capesius, formerly a pharmacist in Sighisoara, someone author Schlesak knew personally and with whom he had many interviews after the war. Members of his own family were also sources--especially Roland Albert, his mother's favorite brother, who worked as a guard at Auschwitz.

Real transcripts from several Nazi war crimes trials are used for background and detail here, especially the third trial, in Frankfurt from December, 1963 - August, 1965, which convicted many of the lesser officials mentioned in this book.
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The "druggist of Auschwitz" is Victor Capesius. He was a pharmacist and German Transylvanian living in a region that, before WWII, was part of Romania. After Nazi Germany in 1943 coerced Romania into entering into a treaty with it, ethnic Germans residing in Romania were drafted to fill manpower shortages in the German Wehrmacht and the SS. Capesius ended up in the SS and in late 1943 he was assigned to Auschwitz. He was put in charge of the central SS dispensary there, where, according to many witnesses, he had control over the Zyklon B that was used in the Auschwitz gas chambers. He also participated in the spring of 1944 in many of the "selections", by which trainloads of Hungarian Jews were deemed either fit for work or immediately sent to the gas chambers. Capesius, reportedly, was particularly "good" in this role because, by his friendly demeanor and his flawless Hungarian, he was able to calm down and efficiently process the distraught and confused arrivals (some of whom he even knew personally). He also was charged with accumulating a personal fortune by way of hoarded personal effects of the Jews who had been stripped before being sent to the gas chambers and, worse, by converting gold teeth and gold fillings from the mouths of the dead into bars of gold (by one report, he had at least 15 suitcases containing extracted teeth, some with bits of flesh still adhering to them, which he then ordered prisoners to painstakingly process into gold that could be melted down into bars). Capesius denied those charges, but at a trial in 1964, he was convicted of them and sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

Author Dieter Schlesak uses the druggist Capesius as the central vehicle for exploring the horrors of Auschwitz.
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If you read "The Druggist of Auschwitz," that is a refrain you will hear a lot. It's the fact based story of the trials of Nazi war criminals, in particular, Dr. Capesius, the "druggist" of the title and another Nazi, Roland Albert, who happens to be the author's uncle.

They're not alone. When pressed, those on trial will admit that okay, maybe they did do something wrong, but being publicly denounced as Nazis is doing nothing for them or their families' reputation. One war criminal complains that he's only allowed Coke from the vending machine. If you can imagine.

Juxtaposed with such concerns are countless examples of the horrors of day-to-day life in the concentration camps. Some of those interned managed to keep written records, which survived. Unsurprisingly, there are discrepancies between what those interned recall and what the Nazis in charge do. There are small acts of heroism recorded, but most of the recollections are unrelentingly grim. (If you're like me, you may have to put the book down just to process the horrors.)

A few Nazis were disturbed by the goings-on (one committed suicide in a gas chamber); the rest did as they were told. The stories about what the Nazis did for entertainment can be more horrifying than the ones about their intentional brutalities. Their actions had a direct effect on the youngest and most vulnerable. One witness recalls seeing interned children play "Selection," imitating their jailers and culling the weak from the healthy.

This book would get five stars if it was presented as nonfiction - it's outstanding as investigative journalism. As a novel, it didn't quite work for me, although given the subject matter, I'm uncomfortable pointing out why (too unvarying in tone; lack of character development, etc., all of which can`t help but sound tasteless). Either way though, it's worth reading.
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