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Depravity, Despair In 'Druggist Of Auschwitz'

Dieter Schlesak, a poet born in Transylvania of German and Romanian descent, calls his book "a documentary novel," because much of the book is made up of testimony and evidence given in a trial of a concentration camp officer that took place in Germany in the 1960s. On trial is a pharmacist from Transylvania named Victor Capesius who served as one of the overseers of the daily "Final Selection" at Auschwitz.

Schlesak employs interviews with concentration camp survivors, letters and camp records, and statements from witnesses both for the defense and the prosecution. As his main narrator he uses the testimony of an actual survivor named Adam, one of the Jewish prisoners, who recounts with mounting horror stories about the victims whose murders he witnessed. NPR book critic Alan Cheuse has this review:

I guess it was about 40 pages in that I set the book down, unable to take much more of its horrors. Adam, our "first man," describes the events at Auschwitz as "the greatest breakdown of civilization in human history," and it was almost more than I could bear. But then I picked the book up again, and went on reading all the way through to the enormous cascade of depravity and murder at the end.

I, of course, read in translation. That Schlesak could write this novel in German, which Adam himself in his testimony 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 large triumph. All the while I was recalling Stalin's famous quip that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. Schlesak's novel gives the lie to that remark.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.

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