Patricia Posner is a British-born writer who has collaborated with her husband, the bestselling author Gerald Posner, on twelve non-fiction books. Her work has also appeared in the Miami Herald, The Daily Beast and Salon.
The Pharmacist of Auschwitz is her debut book and it has been critically acclaimed as: “A harrowing, beautifully written and extremely well-researched account of a little-known aspect of the Holocaust.” … “Shocking. Revelatory. Compelling.” … “An important work.” It was Stay Thirsty Magazine’s privilege to visit with her at her home in Miami Beach for these Five Questions about her book and about the Holocaust.
STAY THIRSTY: In your new book, The Pharmacist of Auschwitz, you chronicle the life and crimes of Victor Capesius, a Bayer pharmaceutical salesman from Romania, who became the chief pharmacist at the Nazi’s largest death camp, Auschwitz. What was your purpose in writing this book?
PATRICIA POSNER: I never set out with a single purpose for this book. When I first heard the name Victor Capesius more than 30 years ago I did not immediately think I would write a book about him. In fact, how Capesius came to life for me is a rather unusual backstory that might explain why I was so fascinated the moment I learned about him.
In the early 1980s, my husband Gerald, then a lawyer, was representing some twins who had been experimented on at Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Angel of Death. Gerald was trying to get the German government and Mengele family to pay for medical costs that those twins incurred as a result of what had been done to them at the camp. When that pro bono lawsuit was unsuccessful, Gerald turned several years of research into a biography of Mengele. As part of his work, he met Rolf, Mengele’s only son. Rolf not only provided thousands of pages of his father’s personal letters and diaries to Gerald for use in the book, but in 1986 he joined Gerald in New York on the Phil Donahue talk show.
While in New York, Rolf asked to meet me. That put me in a difficult position. I was raised in a conservative Jewish family in London. And at school, I had been the victim of repeated anti-Semitic bullying. There were constant insults like “dirty Jew,” “all Jews have big noses and big feet,” and “go back from where you came from.” Once a swastika was carved into my desk and another time a gang of students put my head into a toilet. My family had all served during the war, and after it was over they never bought German goods. So it was with all that emotionally fraught background that I had to decide whether to meet the son of one of the most notorious Nazis. Mengele had played a particularly gruesome role in the Final Solution, not just through his medical experiments but by personally dispatching hundreds of thousands of arriving Jews at Auschwitz straight to their deaths in the gas chambers.
I knew intellectually that children are not responsible for the crimes of their parents. I was impressed that Rolf had condemned his father. However, I knew he had also kept his father’s whereabouts a secret and even after his father had died, had never announced it, instead forcing the survivors to continue searching futilely for a ghost. Little wonder I was so hesitant about meeting Rolf. I was embarrassed to be seen with him, and kept wondering what my mother would think if she knew.
When I finally said yes I insisted we all meet in the darkest back corner of Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian styled-restaurant in New York’s Plaza Hotel. I figured no one I knew would be at that overpriced tourist trap.
It did not take very long to discover that Rolf was as nervous as I. 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.
At one point, while discussing how his father escaped, he mentioned that only a few months after the war ended, his father got safe-haven from a married couple in Munich. The husband was a pharmacist who had served with Mengele in an SS division on the Eastern Front before Mengele’s posting to Auschwitz. And Rolf said the couple helped his father despite knowing precisely what had happened at Auschwitz.
According to Rolf, the couple knew about the horrors of the camp because they were friends with someone called Victor Capesius.
“Capesius,” said Rolf. “That’s the pharmacist of Auschwitz. My father and Capesius were friends.”
I remember that moment as if it were yesterday.
My first thought was “Auschwitz had a pharmacist?”
And when Gerald and I walked home that night we talked about it. At the time, I couldn’t imagine why the largest Nazi death camp even needed a pharmacist much less why neither Gerald or I had never heard his name. This was pre-Google, so there was no opportunity to simply do an online search and learn more. Instead, 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, between my own book projects and the many shared with Gerald, I steadily gathered some research about Capesius. My desire to write about him grew over time as I realized that his story – and the role he played at Auschwitz with some of Germany’s biggest pharmaceutical firms – was largely untold, lost mostly in the coverage of more infamous Nazis.
Those few words thirty-one years ago from Rolf Mengele planted a seed. I was, in part, motivated to complete a book by the knowledge that the surviving eyewitnesses are dying off and that the memory of the Holocaust might seem like ancient history to millennials. The rise in the last few years, once again, of anti-Semitism, gave me some extra impetus. All this passion is realized in my book, the first non-fiction account of Capesius.
STAY THIRSTY: An Introduction to your book was written by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization. Wiesenthal’s famous credo was: “Justice, not vengeance” as he hunted down over 1,100 Nazi war criminals after World War II. At this point, 72 years since the conclusion of that war, has justice been served against those who perpetrated the Holocaust?
PATRICIA POSNER: In general, no. That might surprise many who recall the high-profile Nuremberg war crimes trials or hear today about a handful of continuing investigations against nonagenarians, ranging from Auschwitz guards in Germany to naturalized American citizens charged with having lied about their murderous roles during the war. There is no doubt that the United States and Britain tried their best after World War II to bring some semblance of justice to the Nazis responsible for war crimes. However, their efforts were stymied by the massive numbers of Germans who had been involved. More than 7,000 SS served at Auschwitz alone. Another 40,000 played roles at other concentration camps or in administering the bureaucracy of death. Thousands more served in the Einsatzgruppen, mobile execution squads that murdered more than two million people, including 1.3 million Jews, in German conquered territories in the East. Poland had a list of 15,000 Germans it wanted for murder and plunder.
In fact, the Allied victors quickly decided they could only put to trial some of the higher profile and most notorious criminals. In the four years after the war, the Allies convicted 4,419 Nazis. While that might seem an impressive number, full justice in most cases was aborted when in 1949 the Allies embarked on a comprehensive amnesty and clemency program. The pressure of the Cold War between the Soviets and the West encouraged many U.S. and British leaders to conclude that showing mercy to convicted Nazis would somehow bolster West Germany’s role as a bulwark against the Soviets. The result was that most pending death sentences were cancelled and prison terms for convicted war criminals was slashed dramatically. The Americans and British commuted about 70% of all Nazi war crimes sentences.
The pursuit of justice took further blows once the Allies returned full control of the judiciary back to the Germans in 1955. The German public had no desire to revisit the darkest chapter in their country’s history and merely wanted to bury the past. It was not surprising that one of the first legal directives from the West Germans was to release all Nazis convicted and serving sentences of less than three years. The number of open investigations into war crimes dropped from nearly 2,000 in 1950 to fewer than 200 by the mid-1950s. In those few instances in which charges were finally brought, the acquittal rate under the Germans was about 80%.
I’m not even talking about the lack of justice from the economic fallout of the Nazi plunder of Europe’s Jews, the many shortfalls in restitution, stolen real and personal property having never been returned or found, and still missing art, such as Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Young Man.” Little wonder I feel that justice was largely not served.
STAY THIRSTY: Have any of the pharmaceutical corporations that aided Capesius and the Nazi’s in their efforts to experiment on or to exterminate the Jews been punished? Have any of the executives of those corporations stood trial as accessories to crimes against humanity?
PATRICIA POSNER: The parent company for Bayer – yes, that Bayer, Bayer aspirin – was a German conglomerate, I. G. Farben. It was a chemical and pharmaceutical giant formed only eight years before Hitler came to power. In less than a decade it had become the fourth largest company in the world and the most profitable firm in German history. Farben built an enormous plant only four miles from Auschwitz. Called Monowitz – after a nearby town – it was renamed Auschwitz III and utilized more than 100,000 concentration camp slave laborers to produce critical war materials for the Nazis. More than 25,000 slave laborers literally were worked to death.
And Farben, and its pharma subsidiaries like Bayer, played an even more culpable role in Auschwitz’s death factory. Farben controlled the German company that had a patent on the colorless, odorless insecticide, Zyklon B. It was initially used at Auschwitz to fumigate the barracks of lice. Starting in 1942, Zyklon B was deployed as the chemical agent in the gas chambers to kill Jews. One longtime Bayer employee-turned-SS Major oversaw the company’s programs that used prisoners as human guinea pigs for testing unproven drugs. Another Farben director personally approved payments for Josef Mengele’s medical experiments.
In 1947, American prosecutors charged twenty-four senior Farben and Bayer executives with four counts of war crimes in a chilling sixty-page indictment. That trial lasted a year and included more than 200 witnesses, 3,000 affidavits, and 6,000 court exhibits. The trial transcript was a damning 16,000 pages. The heart of the incredulous defense by the Farben/Bayer executives was that they essentially had not known anything. Not only did they claim ignorance of the worst crimes, but they asserted that in any case, they had acted out of “legal necessity,” since they feared the Nazis would have punished them if they had not followed directives.
It took the judges two months to reach a stunning verdict. Ten defendants walked out scot-free. The directors of the company that manufactured Zyklon B and the executive who approved the payments for Mengele’s experiments did not even get a reprimand. Only five were found guilty of the most serious charge, their roles in slave labor and mass murder. And the prosecutors were dealt another body blow at the sentencing. They had argued for life in prison but instead the longest sentence was eight years and the others averaged two years.
What happened next is the final insult. The convicted Farben/Bayer executives had their sentences commuted by 1951. They simply returned to running the industry in which they had committed their war crimes. Two of the Zyklon B directors joined Bayer’s board. The Farben director who had been convicted of running the deadly operations at the company’s slave labor camp next to Auschwitz, was appointed the chairman of Bayer’s supervisory board in 1956.
Although I know this sorry history all too well, every time I think about how these titans of German industry and pharma essentially got away with their crimes, it’s both depressing and infuriating.
STAY THIRSTY: In researching your book, what did you learn that shocked you the most? What brought you to tears? What memories still haunt you?
PATRICIA POSNER: The research for this book was at times very difficult. That was particularly true in the first half when I found myself deep into the darkness of Auschwitz. At the end of many days, I just needed to take a long walk, to try and clear my head of the dystopian death factory the Nazis had created in an unhospitable corner of Poland.
As much as I knew about the Holocaust and the horrors of what happened at the camps, delving back into it in such detail for this book made me marvel time and again at how anyone survived. There was one incident that brought me to tears. The impact is in reading about it for the first time, but let me say it involves something that only happened once in the history of Auschwitz. It involved a young teen girl who survived a gassing and was found barely alive at the twisted pile of corpses inside the gas chamber. What happened after she was discovered by the Jewish prisoners assigned to dispose of the corpses is one of the most riveting and emotionally powerful stories I encountered. Many readers who write to me say they had to put the book down for a while at that point, it was the only way to think about and fully appreciate the powerful drama of that girl’s tale.
As for what I think surprised me the most was the indispensable marriage between German industry and the Nazis. Auschwitz is a place I had always considered a giant graveyard, a tribute to the efficient murder machine the Nazis implemented there as part of the Final Solution. What I had underestimated was the remarkable extent to which Auschwitz was also about money and profit, how business ran in seamless concert with murder.
By the way, the darkness of the concentration camp research lifted in the second half of the book, as it does for the reader. My protagonist, Victor Capesius, is pursued relentlessly by a single camp survivor and Germany’s first postwar Jewish prosecutor. There is a dose of some justice delivered in the second part of this story, and it served me as the writer, and now my readers, with an uplifting and satisfying antidote to the grim tale in Auschwitz.
STAY THIRSTY: Will there come a time, after all the World War II veterans and their immediate family members have passed away, when the horrors of the Holocaust will fade in history and make room for the next genocide?
PATRICIA POSNER: As with any event, no matter how terrible, there is some inevitable fading as time passes. However, I also think that the Holocaust will linger longer and stay more vivid than many other historical horrors. It is in some ways unique. Part of the reason is that it was a singular, unprecedented effort by a State to eliminate an entire religion. And what keeps it a special and enduring focus for many Western historians, scholars and readers is that the perpetrators are us. They are Europeans, Germans with a storied history, the same people who gave us Bach, Beethoven, and Nietzsche also gave us Hitler, Himmler and Mengele. And they carried out the Final Solution with typical German efficiency and dispassion, providing along the way copious documentation of their descent into evil. That detailed paperwork is missing from other modern genocides such as Stalin and Russia, Mao and China or Pol Pot and Cambodia. So it is true that the World War II veterans and their immediate family members will one day have passed away. The same will be the case for concentration camp survivors and their families. The horrors of the Holocaust, however, will live on in the millions of Third Reich documents. Those papers allowed me to learn about and write the first non-fiction account of Victor Capesius, Auschwitz’s chief pharmacist, more than 70 years after the end of the war. There are other untold stories like that of Capesius buried in the Nazi documentation. As those emerge over the coming decades, the memory of the Holocaust will stay strong. Documenting their heinous crimes; it is the one thing for which we must be grateful to the Third Reich’s record-keeping bureaucrats.