Two new books, The Druggist of Auschwitz and Reluctant Accomplice, offer true stories of average citizens’ divergent responses to Nazi rule. They help us examine our own rationalization of genocide.
In the spring of 2002, with the September 11 attacks not far in the past and the Second Intifada still ongoing, New York magazine published a remarkable story by Amy Wilentz heralding the revival of Jewish fear. What made the piece remarkable, and telling, is that while all the concrete fears Wilentz mentioned had to do with Israel—the unending string of Palestinian suicide bombings, the demonization of Israel’s response by the world media, the sense that the Jewish state was still not existentially secure—the American Jews quoted in the piece had all appropriated and internalized this sense of threat. “This is the catastrophe now, we say; here comes the Holocaust again, we say,” Wilentz wrote, and Nat Hentoff, the longtime Village Voice journalist, memorably confirmed the feeling: “If a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, ‘All Jews gather in Times Square,’ it could never surprise me.”
Two years later, this desperate and confused mood was given powerful literary expression in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. There had indeed been a plot against America not long before; but in Roth’s historical novel, the plot in question was not hatched by Muslim terrorists. It was the work of isolationists, right-wingers, and anti-Semites, led by Charles Lindbergh, whom Roth imagined winning the election of 1940 and launching America on a path to fascism and a domestic Holocaust. By rights, the book ought to have been called The Plot Against the Jews. But Roth, like Hentoff, had performed a strange inner displacement. The actual present threat to Jews, from Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East, had been translated into the old historic threat to Jews—the fear of Nazis and the Holocaust.
That fear was not reasoned or reasonable, and it received a timely rebuke from Leon Wieseltier, who noted in the New Republic that the only Jews actually gathered in Times Square were there to buy tickets to The Producers—that is, to laugh at farce Nazis. But the readiness of otherwise levelheaded people, in that post-9/11 world, to give in to the instinct of fear made clear just how deeply rooted that instinct remains in contemporary Jewish life.
Memories of that strange time came back recently as I read several new books dealing with the experience of “ordinary Germans” in the Holocaust. Reading about the Holocaust always involves a conscious patrolling of the inner boundary between fear and reason; that’s one reason why it is so taxing. Reading history of any kind requires a negotiation between the duty of empathy and the instinct of self-preservative withdrawal, all the more so when it is tragic history (and, as the celebrated British historian Edward Gibbon said, the history that gets written down is usually “the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”).
But when the history in question is as recent as the Holocaust, and as threatening, and as overwhelmingly, unimaginably cruel, the negotiation can turn into a panicky tug-of-war. The claim of the dead on the remembrance and grief of the living is so vast that it puts us permanently in the wrong: Not only can we never rectify the past, we can never sufficiently attend to it or atone for it. One way of dealing with this guilt is to elide the difference between the Jewish situation today and in the past: to say that Times Square is a potential Drancy or Westerbork.
Yet simply to dismiss the possibility of a “second Holocaust,” to say confidently that it can’t happen here, is to court inner doubts and reproaches. What could be more shameful than to follow in the footsteps of those German Jews we read about so often, with their super-patriotism and super-assimilation—attempts at camouflage that were doubly disgraceful for being so totally ineffective? This dialectic of fear and guilt and suspicion makes it very difficult to see the Holocaust objectively—which is one reason, perhaps, why many Jewish scholars have devoted their careers to doing exactly that.
For American Jews, the problem of the “ordinary German” is especially troubling, because it brings us directly to the darkest, most unassuageable suspicions about Jewish vulnerability. The most controversial books about the Holocaust, from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, have been the ones that try to explain how the Germans—citizens of an advanced society, famous for its culture and education—could be led in the space of a few years to commit a genocide of the Jews. For if this people could do it, the strong implication is that under the right (or, better, the wrong) circumstances, any people could. And the history of the world since 1945 seems to bear out this implication. Cambodians, Serbs, and Rwandans have all shown that people do not have to be Nazis, or anti-Semites, in order to slaughter their neighbors.
Yet nobody looks into his heart and sees an Eichmann lurking there. And this inability to match up our self-knowledge with our historical knowledge is the most disconcerting thing of all. Are we genuinely different from those millions of people, in the past and in other places, who did and do engage in mass murder? What justifies this moral self-confidence, and can we be sure that a majority of our fellow-citizens share it? And if not, if we are as blind to our own capabilities as any ordinary German, then might we ourselves, in the right circumstances, engage in exactly the same behaviors that we condemn in the Germans—their indifference, complicity, active participation in evil? In that case, how can any of us be guiltless, or safe?
The most concise and insidious way to pose this question is with a photograph. In The Druggist of Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27), Dieter Schlesak reproduces a snapshot taken at a swimming pool in the Romanian city of Sighisoara in 1928. It shows a group of five people in bathing suits, including a stocky man named Victor Capesius and, sitting right next to him, a smiling, round-faced young girl named Ella Boehm, both of them there for swimming lessons. They knew each other slightly: Capesius, a pharmacist, was a sales representative for the pharmaceutical company Bayer, in which capacity he would call on Ella’s father, a doctor. Sometimes he would give the girl little presents: “Capesius was sweet to me,” she recalled later.
In May 1944, Ella and her mother Gisela were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews deported from Hungary to Auschwitz, after the previously safe country was occupied by German troops. When they reached the camp, having survived a four-day journey in a cattle car with no food or water, they saw that a group of SS officers was standing on the ramp making selections among the prisoners. Ostensibly, they were asking the prisoners “whether they could walk or not, in which case they would then go by car.” Of course, the selections were really for the gas chambers, and anyone who claimed to be too weak to walk was immediately killed. “Among the commission members,” Ella testified later, “I recognized Dr. Capesius, the pharmacist from Sighisoara, and I was so surprised to see him there.”
The Boehms were not the only ones to find their neighbor on the ramp at Auschwitz. Another prisoner, Adrienne Krausz, was another daughter of a doctor who recognized Capesius. “When my mother saw the officer carrying out the selection process,” she remembered, “she said, ‘Well, that’s Dr. Capesius … ’ I think he recognized my mother as well, because he waved at her. My mother and sister were sent to the left by him, into the gas, but I went to the right and I survived. Later I met a friend who had been with my father during the selection. He told me that father had said hello to Capesius and asked him where his own wife and 11-year-old daughter were. Capesius supposedly answered: ‘I’m sending you to the same place where your wife and daughter are, it’s a good place.’ ”
Stories like this suggest why Schlesak made a minor figure like Victor Capesius the focus of his “documentary novel” about the Holocaust. In order to be willing to send human beings to their deaths, it would seem necessary first to dehumanize them, to see them as enemies or statistics—or a problem requiring a final solution. That was the attitude of another doctor at Auschwitz, a fanatical Nazi named Fritz Klein. When asked how he could reconcile his actions at the camp with his Hippocratic oath, Klein replied, “Out of respect for human life I excise an ulcerated appendix; the Jews are the ulcerated appendix in the body of Europe.”
Ammiel Alcalay’s new book—a challenging collection of notes, photographs, and diary entries he wrote in the 1970s—shows the young scholar and experimental poet through the eyes of his older self