The Drug­gist of Auschwitz: A Doc­u­men­tary Novel

Dieter Schle­sak; John Har­graves, trans.
  • Review
By – September 12, 2011

Cast in an affect­less nar­ra­tive voice, The Last Jew of Tre­blin­ka, writ­ten in 1945, is one of the rare first-hand respons­es to incar­cer­a­tion in Tre­blin­ka. Because Tre­blin­ka was sole­ly designed to be a death camp, it had far few­er sur­vivors than con­cen­tra­tion camps or work camps. Its busi­ness was strict­ly anni­hi­la­tion. We learn from Rajch­man about the ruth­less effi­cien­cy of what can only be called a death fac­to­ry. The Nazi war machine engi­neered assem­bly-line tech­niques to trans­port, con­fine, tor­ture, gas, and then bury and/​or incin­er­ate its vic­tims. Those in charge reg­u­lar­ly explored refine­ments in effi­cien­cy, even as their under­lings glee­ful­ly sat­is­fied unfath­omably sadis­tic longings.

Over­whelm­ing depri­va­tion and con­stant tor­ture was the lot of the Jew­ish inmates who were forced to par­tic­i­pate as labor­ers. Rajch­man joined a team of untrained den­tists” sta­tioned along the assem­bly line to extract false teeth, gold, and oth­er valu­able mate­ri­als from the astound­ing num­ber of corpses. Oth­ers had to unpack corpses from the gas cham­bers, con­vey them to be buried in pits, or load them into ovens. In the end, the corpses were dug up and incin­er­at­ed in an attempt to oblit­er­ate traces of this grue­some enter­prise.

Rajchman’s nar­ra­tive con­cludes with a star­tling por­tray­al of the Tre­blin­ka rebel­lion that allowed him and a hand­ful of oth­ers to escape. Illus­tra­tions, maps, pref­ace. A remark­able project, Through a Nar­row Win­dow sets the his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al, esthet­ic, and sit­u­a­tion­al con­text for the amaz­ing pro­duc­tion of art by chil­dren that took place in the Terezín con­cen­tra­tion camp. Terezín, a Nazi pro­pa­gan­da show­place, was designed to show the out­side world how well its pris­on­er-guests were treat­ed. Dick­er-Bran­deis, an accom­plished Bauhaus-trained artist and the­o­rist in art ped­a­gogy, was brought to Terezín to work with the chil­dren. Make no mis­take: she and these chil­dren were Nazi pris­on­ers. Their lives were severe­ly cir­cum­scribed. And yet, Dick­er- Bran­deis had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to teach them how to express them­selves — how to find them­selves — through artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty.

Based on an exhi­bi­tion curat­ed by Lin­ney Wix for the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co Art Muse­um, the book reviews Dicker-Brandeis’s train­ing and artis­tic career, the artis­tic milieu in which she flour­ished, and her trail­blaz­ing teach­ing method­ol­o­gy. It also recounts her suc­cess­ful scheme to sequester two suit­cas­es full of her stu­dents’ art, which reached the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Prague soon after the close of World War II. The hero­ic teacher had already been relo­cat­ed to Auschwitz, where she was exe­cut­ed.

The glo­ry of Through a Nar­row Win­dow is the gen­er­ous pre­sen­ta­tion of col­or pho­tographs and plates rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s own work as well as those of the incar­cer­at­ed chil­dren whom she taught. Through their art, they are alive. Chronol­o­gy, fore­word, pref­ace.

Sub­ti­tled A Doc­u­men­tary Nov­el,” Dieter Schlesak’s achieve­ment must be mea­sured against its colos­sal­ly ambi­tious goal: to bal­ance doc­u­men­tary truth and the truth of the imag­i­na­tion. By select­ing and arrang­ing pas­sages from the Frank­furt Auschwitz Tri­al of 1963 – 65, and inter­min­gling them with less for­mal inter­view mate­r­i­al, the author has already tak­en the first step toward uncov­er­ing the real Dr. Vic­tor Cape­sius — a man con­vinced of his moral inno­cence.

Cape­sius, who rose from sorter” of new detainees to a post­war life of great wealth based on exploit­ing his upward mobil­i­ty in the Auschwitz com­mand hier­ar­chy, presents him­self as a man mak­ing the best of a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion — almost a vic­tim. He blocks all glances into his grotesque soul, includ­ing his role in uncon­scionable med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion, and thus stands for many of his con­tem­po­raries.

To uni­fy the col­lage of voic­es, of inter­roga­to­ry tran­scripts, Schle­sak invents a char­ac­ter named Adam as a kind of cen­tral con­scious­ness. Adam reflects the life of the Auschwitz inmate and is giv­en a place in the range of tes­ti­mo­ny about Cape­sius. Some­times dis­cur­sive and cere­bral, some­times stream-of-con­scious­ness, his voice is at once indi­vid­ual and chor­ic. There is yet anoth­er nar­ra­tive voice, a step removed from Adam’s, that is name­less and thus per­plex­ing. Is it a ver­sion of the a uthor’s own voice?

A chal­lenge for read­ers both in sub­stance and exper­i­men­tal style, The Drug­gist of Auschwitz is func­tion­al­ly dis­ori­ent­ing. It suc­ceeds by not play­ing it safe. Biogra­phies, sources.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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