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“WOW, Auschwitz Had a Pharmacist?!”

An interview with Patricia Posner, author of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz: The Untold Story.  

Your book is the first nonfiction account of Victor Capesius, the Nazi who was the chief pharmacist at Auschwitz. Although he performed the life and death selections of arriving Jews at the camp with the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, why are we only learning of Capesius in the pages of The Pharmacist of Auschwitz?

It is easy to forget how many SS men and women served at Auschwitz. There were more than 7,000 running a death and slave labor camp the size of a small city. Fewer than 800 were ever tried for war crimes, and even most of those are unfamiliar names to the general public.

Josef Mengele became infamous not only because of his horrific medical experiments, but also because he managed to get away. He grew larger in life as the decades passed.

Capesius, on the other hand, is typical of many SS officers who were involved in terrible crimes at Auschwitz but sailed under the radar for a long time. He was one of the small cogs that allowed the Nazi killing machinery to work so efficiently.

Capesius is the quintessential ordinary man who becomes capable of extraordinary crimes, the concept that historian Hannah Arendt coined as the “banality of evil.”

How did you come across Capesius and decide to do a book about him?

It was an odd bit of serendipity related to my husband, Gerald Posner’s first book project, a biography of Dr. Josef Mengele.

When I met Gerald in 1980, he was a lawyer. It turned out he was doing a pro-bono case for some twins who had been experimented on at Auschwitz by Mengele. Gerald was trying to get the German government to pay for the medical costs that those surviving twins incurred every year as a result of what Mengele had done to them. When that lawsuit was unsuccessful, Gerald turned several years of research into a biography.

As part of his work, he had met Rolf, Mengele’s only son. Rolf ultimately provided his father’s personal letters and diaries to Gerald for use in the book. In 1986, when Gerald’s Mengele book was finally published, Rolf visited New York as part of an appearance with Gerald on the Phil Donahue talk show. (A riveting 18-minute segment of that show is on Youtube.

During his stay in NY, Rolf asked to meet me. That initially put me into a difficult position. I was raised in a conservative Jewish family in London in the 1950s. At a series of public schools, I was the victim of repeated anti-Semitic bullying. Names like “Dirty Jew,” “Go back from where you came from,” “All Jews have big noses, all Jews have big feet,” even swastikas carved into my desk. Once several kids put my head into a toilet.

Even though I knew intellectually that children are not responsible for the crimes of their parents, and even though Rolf condemned his father, I was hesitant about meeting Mengele’s only son. I was embarrassed to be seen with him. And I kept wondering, ‘What would my mother think?’

In fact, when I finally said ‘yes,’ I insisted we all meet in the darkest back corner of Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian styled restaurant that was in the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. I thought no one I knew would be at that overpriced tourist trap.

When we met, I quickly discovered that Rolf was as nervous as I was. And after a little while, my nerves and anxiety melted away. In front of me was a man who was tortured that his father was Mengele and fearful that such an evil DNA might somehow pass along the family line.

During the course of telling Gerald and me how his father escaped, Rolf mentioned that only a few months after the war had ended, his father had gotten safe haven in Munich from a pharmacist with whom he had served on the eastern front before he was transferred to Auschwitz. Rolf said that his father’s old colleague had helped despite knowing the gruesome details of what had really happened at Auschwitz.

According to Rolf, his father’s benefactor had been friends with someone called Victor Capesius, the pharmacist at Auschwitz.

I remember that moment as clearly as if it was yesterday. I didn’t say anything but I immediately thought, “WOW, Auschwitz had a pharmacist?!”

And later when Gerald and I left the restaurant, we talked about that. This was before Google so there was no chance to do a few online searches and learn more about Capesius. I stored that information in the back of my mind and resolved to look into it one day to see if there was a story there. Over the years, I collected information whenever I came across it. All of that became a growing folder on Capesius. Then in 2011, a Romanian novelist wrote The Druggist of Auschwitz, a novel in which Capesius featured prominently as a character.

That gave me some extra incentive to complete my book. It took until 2015 until I found Christopher Lascelles, who runs Crux, a small independent publisher with a great interest in WWII. It was then that I made the full commitment to complete the story that had been planted in me 31 years earlier.

Before we get to the chief protagonist in your book, Victor Capesius, what about the story you tell early on about the partnership between big German business and the Third Reich?

I tell that story through I.G. Farben. It ties to Capesius because he worked for a Farben subsidiary. The company was founded in 1925, only 8 years before Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. It was created by the merger of 6 leading chemical and pharmaceutical companies (including the world’s largest synthetic dye makers, Bayer, BASF, Afga, and Hoeschst). In the 14 years until the start of World War II, Farben boasted four Nobel prizes in medicine and chemistry. It had become the world’s biggest chemical company and the 4th largest industrial conglomerate in the world (only General Motors, US Steel and Standard Oil were bigger).

Hitler and many top Nazis disliked that Farben had so many Jewish scientists. In a famous meeting with the head of Farben (Carl Bosch) and Hitler, Bosch raised concerns about the Nazi’s exclusion of Jews from the sciences. Bosch told Hitler that chemistry and physics would be set back a hundred years if Germany forced its Jewish scientists to leave. Hitler said, “Then we’ll work a hundred years without physics and chemistry.”

Once Farben was certified in 1938 to be a “German firm,” in other words Jewish free, Hitler depended on it to produce enough synthetic rubber and oil to make Germany militarily self-sufficient. That forced Farben to build a mega plant. The spot chosen by its advance teams was in southern Poland, next door to where the Nazis had Auschwitz. In fact, the new division was called I.G. Auschwitz.

The new camp was called Monowitz Buna-Werke, a combination of the Polish village, Monowice (Monowitz in German) that was demolished to make room for it, and Buna, German for synthetic rubber. It cost a billion Reichsmarks to build (tens of billions in today’s money). It was enormous (several square miles in size), and it used more electricity than Berlin. Most critically, it ran on slave labor, about 25,000 of those forced laborers were literally worked to death, averaging a life span of only three months.

Big business and the Third Reich. Neither could have flourished without the other.

Tell us, who was Victor Capesius?

He was a Romanian of German descent who came from a middle-class family. After studying in his native country, he earned his pharmacy degree in Vienna. It was in Vienna he met his future wife, and he was not bothered by the fact she had a Jewish father. In fact, Capesius was focused on business, not politics. In the early 1930s he landed a plum job as a national sales rep with the Romanian subsidiary of Bayer Pharmaceuticals (owned by industrial conglomerate I. G Farben). In that role he crisscrossed the country and counted many Jewish clients, including doctors, pharmacists, medical clinicians, even textile manufacturers who used Bayer dyes. Some of Capesius’s friends were rabid anti-Semites, but he did not show any real hostility to Jews.

Everything changes in 1943 when he was drafted into the Waffen SS. By Christmas of 1943 he was transferred to Auschwitz. Shortly after his arrival, the chief pharmacist there was executed for spreading defeatism and Capesius was given the top pharmaceutical job.

What did Capesius do at Auschwitz, what was his role as the chief pharmacist?

He warehoused and dispensed all the medications used to treat the SS personnel, and occasionally prisoners the Nazis wanted to keep alive a while longer. As the chief pharmacist, Capesius was responsible for storing and distributing Zyklon B, the colorless and odorless insecticide that was used as the poison for the gas chambers (and, which, a Farben controlled company had the patent)

Included in his duties was to go to the railhead where the incoming cattle cars and trains packed with Jews from around Europe arrived. After they had been pulled off the trains and their personal goods collected in large piles, Capesius and a couple of aides searched for any medications or medical instruments. Over time he began looking for more than simply items to replenish his pharmacy. He started searching for and stealing valuables. Eventually he even stole from the enormous piles of gold teeth pulled from the mouths of corpses. That grisly horde was stored with the camp’s dentists and they shared the same barracks as the pharmacy. The dental gold was part of an astonishing 65 to 75 pounds of the precious metal reaped daily at Auschwitz, everything from coins, watches, cigarette cases and jewelry. Before it was sent to Berlin to be smelted into coins, Capesius assigned a Polish prisoner to oversee the melting of the gold teeth into small bars weighing between 21 and 24 ounces each. And Capesius sent dozens of small packages from Auschwitz to his sister in Vienna.

Finally, in the late spring of 1944, Capesius performed the life and death selections at the railhead of arriving Jews. SS doctors sent new arrivals to the left – death – or to the right and the horrors of what passed for life in the camp. He was unique when it came to the selections. He was the only Nazi who many of the arriving Jews recognized from having done business with him before the war. As doctors and pharmacists and others from Capesius’s native Romania arrived in the spring of 1944, they recognized him and many pleaded for help. He coldly sent most of them to their death.

What happened to Capesius after the war?

Capesius got lucky time after time and almost got away completely with his crimes. The second half of my book is about the pursuit of justice.

The British detained Capesius at the end of the war and held him for a year. But he benefited from the great chaos of millions of displaced persons after the war moving through Western Europe and Germany. They released him after a year. Only a few months later a camp survivor recognized him at the Munich train station and reported it to American MPs, who arrested him again. He spent another year in detention, but ultimately the Americans did not develop a case against him and again he was free.

His last hurdle to returning to a normal and uneventful postwar life was to make it past the Denazification proceedings, German tribunals meant to punish Nazi perpetrators. That system was overwhelmed with too few people to run it and too many Nazis moving through it. Millions of questionnaires were filled in by ex-Nazis like Capesius. The backlog in handling the cases was over a million a year after the war. All of this was coupled with the fact that there was little appetite among most Germans to fully confront the darkest part of their recent history. So the Germans cleared many through de-Nazification proceedings with less than a rigorous double check. That was certainly the case with Capesius who kept flip-flopping on different questionnaires about whether or not he had served in Auschwitz.

By 1950 he was not only free, but he used the gold he had stolen at Auschwitz to open a pharmacy in a small German town. A year later he opened a nearby beauty clinic, boasting incredibly the motto: “Be Beautiful with Treatment by Capesius.”

So was there any justice for Capesius?

Yes, there was a measure of justice. Not the kind we all hope for, because unfortunately there are never fairy tale endings in true accounts from the Holocaust. Still, my book turns from the darkness of Auschwitz to an uplifting story about the pursuit of justice and two remarkable men.

The first was Herman Langbein, a political prisoner at Auschwitz for nearly 4 years. After the war, he was relentless in traveling around the world to get sworn statements from survivors and collect evidence of the crimes at the camp. He was also tireless in pushing reluctant German prosecutors to bring cases against Nazi criminals. Josef Mengele, for instance, was only indicted in 1959 because of Langbein’s nonstop efforts. And one of the names on Langbein’s list was Victor Capesius.

That is where the second major character in my book gets involved. Dr. Fritz Bauer was Germany’s first postwar Jewish prosecutor. Some might be familiar with him from a recently released German film, The People vs. Fritz Bauer. He had himself been in a concentration camp during the war for his leftwing politics and rumors he was gay, before getting safely to Sweden and Denmark. In sharp contrast to most Germans who preferred to forget about the past, Bauer would not let bygones be bygones. As the chief prosecutor in Frankfurt, Bauer’s dream was a grand war crimes trial of Auschwitz defendants, brought by German prosecutors, before German judges, and under German law. Bauer’s dream became a reality in 1964 with the start of the famous Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, in which 22 SS men were charged with war crimes. One of the defendants was none other than Victor Capesius.

What happened at the Auschwitz trial?

Not surprisingly, Capesius denied everything, claimed all the witnesses were lying as part of conspiracy against him, and suggested maybe some of them had confused him with another doctor. Overall, Capesius lied, obfuscated, tried dodging responsibility and did his best to sow confusion. To the puzzlement of everyone at the trial, even his own attorneys, he wore dark glasses in the courtroom and smiled and grinned constantly. At times, when accused of stomach wrenching crimes, his response was laughter. He seemed detached from the proceedings. And he never showed a moment of regret or sorrow for anything he had done, casting himself almost as a victim for having been drafted into the SS by the Germans in the middle of the war and then posted to Auschwitz.

Was justice served when it comes to Capesius?

Somewhat. There were 22 Auschwitz SS men on trial. Capesius was the only one of seven charged with the maximum count of what the Germans called “murder as a perpetrator” who was acquitted of that top charge. For his part in selecting arriving prisoners to live and die at the railhead, and for distributing the poisonous Zyklon B used in the gas chambers, he was found guilty of the lesser charge of aiding and abetting murder. The prosecutors were furious that he had dodged a guilty verdict on intentional murder, something that would have earned him life in prison. Instead, he got a 9-year sentence, of which he ended up serving only 2.5 years and was a free man by 1968. Making matter worse, after his release from prison, Capesius was not a pariah. In fact, he was greeted with robust applause in his hometown at his first public appearance and his pharmacy's business boomed as a result of all the notoriety.

There are so many books about the Holocaust. What makes The Pharmacist of Auschwitz different?

The problem for many people is the scope and horror of the Holocaust. The crimes are so sweeping and the number of victims so great that reading about it can be overwhelming. But in this book, I tell a fresh story, one that has not been put to print. It is the story of a single man who was not a diabolical evil genius or a sadistic Nazi henchman. Instead it is a story of an ordinary man and what he was capable of doing at Auschwitz. This is what makes his story so riveting. And the feedback I have gotten from early reviewers and readers is that they relish the story of how the relentless pursuit of a single survivor, combined with the bravery of one German prosecutor, eventually brings Capesius to stand trial for his crimes. It is in that way a little-known tale from the Holocaust that ends on a small note of justice.

April 23 is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Do you think that in a modern world of ever-shorter memories that there is a real understanding of the horrors of that genocide?

No. I think the story I tell is particularly important at a time when centuries-old anti-Semitism is once again on the rise. The short memories about the Holocaust serve to allow anti-Semitism, in all its hateful forms, to flourish. The problem is not simply that non-Jewish millennials are not interested in learning more about how a civilized German culture that gave us Beethoven and Goethe also gave us Hitler and Mengele. The problem is also that in some parts of the Jewish community there is a tendency to think the Holocaust has been discussed enough. I saw this firsthand with the publication of my book. My British publisher, Crux, sent the book to traditional reviewers and media outlets. And the response was great, starting with Kirkus concluding, “A gruesome story eloquently told.” The Dallas Morning News did a cover profile about me and the book in their Arts Section. Damien Lewis, the author of The Nazi Hunters, wrote that the book was “Shocking. Revelatory. Compelling. A truly authentic and riveting read. A milestone in WWII and Holocaust history.” And British historian Andrew Roberts called it “A harrowing, beautifully written and extremely well-researched account of a little-known aspect of the Holocaust.”

Crux also sent it advanced, uncorrected galleys to more than 50 Jewish newspapers and websites and review journals, the heart of what constitutes the Jewish press in the U.S. and the U.K. One British blog mentioned the book was published. But not a single other did a review or even mentioned its publication. That was both surprising and disappointing. Evidently, when it comes to much of the American and British Jewish press, instead of the motto, “Never Again,” it is now “Oh No, Not Again.” At least that is my discouraging experience on my own new addition to serious Holocaust history.