Another book review repost. This one was written May 27, 2017. It appears here as/is.
For some reason, I often read about the Holocaust during the late spring months. It was definitely true when we lived in Germany the last time. It’s been true this year, too. Maybe there’s something about the sunny weather and warmer temperatures that make me want to read about the grotesque history of Naziism and Hitler’s Final Solution. I don’t know.
I just finished Patricia Posner’s fascinating book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story, which is the remarkable tale of Victor Capesius, a Romanian man who served as the chief pharmacist at Auschwitz during World War II. Posner’s book, published in January of 2017, apparently breaks new ground with a story that, until now, had not been widely reported. Having finished reading it this morning, I feel like I learned a lot by reading this well-written and solidly researched book. It was particularly interesting because I happen to live not too far from where Victor Capesius eventually settled after the war.
Dr. Victor Capesius was an ethnic German who was born and raised in Transylvania. He studied pharmacology, married his wife, Fritzi, who was also from Romania, and had three daughters. Eventually, he started working for Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company. Capesius dispensed medications, but he also sold them. He did business with people throughout Europe and was well-liked and regarded. Then, in 1943, when he was 35 years old, Capesius joined the Nazi SS. He was sent to work at Auschwitz, where he quickly rose the ranks in power to become the chief pharmacist.
As chief pharmacist, Capesius had many duties. Some of his work involved providing medications to people who were sick– those people being other officers and their families. He was also in charge of procuring and dispensing Zyklon B, the deadly cyanide based pesticide that was used to murder Jews in gas chambers at death camps around Europe. Another one of Capesius’ duties was to help select Jews arriving at Auschwitz for the gas chambers. Apparently, Capesius wasn’t happy about having to participate in selections, not because he was morally opposed to it, but because he didn’t want the extra duty. Like Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” who capriciously chose who lived or died, Capesius decided whose lives would be spared and who would be gassed within an hour or two of arrival at the death camp.
Because of his work as a salesman and pharmacist, it wasn’t unusual for Capesius to see people he knew arriving at Auschwitz. These were former friends, colleagues, and customers who had known him as a kind, friendly person. When the prisoners saw Capesius’ familiar face, they trusted him. They had no way of knowing that this man they had once regarded as a friend, or at least someone worthy of respect, was making the decision to exterminate Jews. Sometimes Capesius would spare people he knew and send their families off to be gassed.
Capesius was also notorious for stealing. He stole the belongings of the arriving prisoners, many of whom had stashed their valuables in their luggage, thinking they were simply going to be working for awhile. The pharmacist also stole dental gold from the corpses. He stockpiled these treasures and, once the war was over, used the booty to establish a comfortable life for himself. After World War II, Capesius moved to Göppingen, a town not far from Stuttgart, and started a successful pharmacy. Eventually, his wife, Fritzi, and daughters Melitta, Ingrid, and Christa, were able to leave Romania and join him in Germany. Capesius and his colleagues had pretty much reintegrated into German society after the war and the government seemed content to simply whitewash the past.
Twenty years after the war ended, Capesius and his cronies were brought to justice by a very determined prosecutor. Against the odds, the men were tried and most were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Sadly, the sentences they received for their crimes were ridiculously light.
Patricia Posner’s book is a very interesting read. But more than that, it’s a cautionary tale that Americans should expose themselves to, especially given our current government situation. Victor Capesius was once a fairly decent person. Once he was given unconditional power, he underwent a metamorphosis into a monster. And then, when the war was over and he went back to his regular life, he wanted to bury the past and not be held accountable for his crimes. It seems that many Germans were content with simply forgetting about the horrors of the Holocaust. The same thing could happen in the United States if we’re not careful.
Capesius died in 1985. He was stripped of his pharmacy degree, but he still owned his home and his business, which he ran even after he was convicted of war crimes and served some time in a German prison. His wife, Fritzi, died in 1998. His three daughters went on to earn high level degrees and launched successful careers in Germany, attending schools very close to where I’m currently living.
Another aspect of this book that I found interesting is Posner’s discussion of the company I.G. Farben, which was a conglomerate of several German chemical and pharmaceutical companies, a few of which are still operating today. I.G. Farben consisted of Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, Agfa, Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron, and Chemische Fabrik vorm. Weiler Ter Meer. At the beginning of the 20th century, German chemical companies led the world in the production of synthetic dyes. The word “Farben” in German means colors.
I.G. Farben had a pretty dirty history. The company used slave labor provided by prisoners from Auschwitz to produce its products. In fact, when it became clear that there was a need for more prison labor, the company was even responsible for the construction of the Monowitz concentration camp, which was a sub-camp of the Auschwitz concentration camp system. It was named after the Polish town where it was located. Prisoners at Monowitz were used at I.G. Farben’s Buna Werke industrial complex, where synthetic rubber was made. The prisoners were starved and sickened and they could not work as hard or as efficiently as the regular employees, despite being threatened with beatings. Prisoners who died while working were dragged back to the camp at night by their colleagues so they could be properly accounted for. Female prisoners were forced to work as sex slaves at Monowitz’s bordello.
I.G. Farben cooperated closely with Nazi officials, producing goods used by the Nazi regime. The conglomerate also owned the patent for Zyklon B, which was invented by a Jewish-German Nobel Prize Winner named Fritz Haber. Zyklon B was originally intended to be an insecticide, but it was very effective for killing people, as well. I.G. Farben profited directly from its use as a murder agent in the gas chambers.
After the war, the Allies considered I.G. Farben to be too morally corrupt to continue operating. Indeed, since 1952, the conglomerate ceased any real activity and remained a shell of a business. However, legally, the conglomerate still existed until just fourteen years ago. And most of the individual companies that were involved with the conglomerate are still operating today.
I highly recommend Patricia Posner’s book for many reasons. I think it’s a good reminder of what can happen when good countries fall victim to bad leadership. Greed, corruption, and hatred can cause a decent society to fall into moral bankruptcy.
Certainly, anyone interested in the history of the Holocaust will find Ms. Posner’s book a great read. She provides plenty of sources for additional reading, so the especially curious will find a rich supply of information. Yes, the subject matter of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz is horrifying and depressing, but it’s a cautionary tale to which we should all pay heed.
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