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Ordinary People

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.

Adam Kirsch
July 26, 2011
Pharmacist Victor Capesius, at far left, and Ella Boehm next to him, at a swimming pool in Sighisoara, Romania, 1928.(Private collection; property of Gisela Böhm)
Pharmacist Victor Capesius, at far left, and Ella Boehm next to him, at a swimming pool in Sighisoara, Romania, 1928.(Private collection; property of Gisela Böhm)

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.”

Continue reading: The Reluctant Accomplice. Or view as a single page.
But Capesius could not even claim to be blinded by ideological anti-Semitism. He was friends with Jews and happy to exchange pleasantries with them, even on the ramp at Auschwitz. When he was finally put on trial, in 1964, Capesius’ prosecutor held this to be especially damning: “The unique and monstrous part of this situation for Capesius was that it wasn’t just about the nameless masses, but that all of a sudden he was confronted with people whom he had earlier known personally or professionally, people who were completely unsuspecting, who saw in meeting him a lucky sign, and trusted him. … How much emotional brutality, what diabolical sadism, what pitiless cynicism must it take to act in the way that this monster acted!”

Perhaps the prosecutor was driven to such rhetorical extremes by the insidiousness of Capesius’ crime, which was not just cruelty or greed, but above all detachment. It is relatively uncomplicated to guard oneself against cruelty and greed—if one wants to. But detachment, a half-willed blindness to the suffering of others, is one of the inescapable conditions of life on earth. Between 1998 and 2003, for instance, about as many people were killed in the Congo War as died in the Holocaust. Our ability to live placidly through this and so many other atrocities lies in a combination of ignorance and helplessness: This happened far away, we didn’t pay attention as it happened, and even if we rent our clothes over it, there was nothing we could do to stop it.

Capesius could not claim the excuse of ignorance. Yet he, like so many other Nazis up to and including Adolf Eichmann, did claim to be helpless in the face of his own crimes. Such men did not make the decisions in the Nazi empire, they only carried them out; and if they had not obeyed their evil orders, someone else would have. Ordinary criminals are seen to deserve punishment because, without their actions, their crimes would not have occurred: If Levi Aron had never been born, Leiby Kletzky would still be alive. But if Victor Capesius had never been born, or if he had refused to take part in the selections at Auschwitz, just as many Jews would have died there. Among the many documents and interviews Schlesak quotes is a letter Capesius wrote from his jail cell while awaiting trial, to a fellow SS pharmacist. In the letter, he explains, “I am … defending myself because the prosecution has said that I am under suspicion of having killed people of my own free will, that I killed for pleasure, and other base motivations.”

In fact, Schlesak, following the trial records, makes a convincing case that Capesius did have a “base motivation,” personal greed. He emerged from the war a suspiciously wealthy man, able to buy a business and pay bribes to Romania’s Communist government to get passports for his relatives. The money for all this, the prosecution argued, could only have come from the valuables Capesius looted from the dead at Auschwitz—including their gold teeth, which he collected and had melted down into ingots. But even this was clearly a crime of opportunity: Before the war, Capesius had not been breaking into people’s houses to rob them.

What damns Capesius most, in Schlesak’s eyes, is his absolute refusal to admit any feelings of guilt or remorse during his trial. “This pathetic excuse for a human being!” he writes. “The only thing guiding him—this is plain from his whole defense and the trial documentation—is this attempt to extricate himself, to talk himself out of his crimes with lies, inventions, and exculpatory witnesses, if necessary. … Over and over again, nothing but dates and numbers for a defense, never an awakening, never any self-reflection: morality, guilt, conscience. Just like Auschwitz itself, a void. Can you learn anything from a void?”

To Arendt, famously, it was this emptiness that explained Eichmann’s capacity to commit his crimes. His fundamental sin, she wrote, was an “inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else.” It’s characteristic of Arendt the intellectual to make thinking the root of virtue; but another name for “thinking from the standpoint of someone else” is compassion, and it feels more accurate to say that it was the absence of compassion, of sympathy, that made the Nazis’ crimes possible. None of us has enough sympathy to give humankind all the care it needs and rightfully demands. But we like to think that ordinary people have enough sympathy to be unable to actually inflict cruelty on someone right in front of their eyes, especially someone they know personally. Capesius’ story does not prove this intuition totally false, but it does suggest that in the right environment—say, in a society where Jews have been demonized and dehumanized by propaganda for years on end, and in a war theater where mass killing is the norm—many people will lose their innate reluctance to be cruel; enough people, certainly, to commit a genocide.


What happens, in such an environment, to people who do retain a sense of conscience? One answer can be found in Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters From the Eastern Front (Princeton, $35), which is more thought-provoking in its ambiguities than The Druggist of Auschwitz is in its outright horrors. The book is a selection of letters written by Konrad Jarausch, who was surely one of the least soldierly soldiers in Hitler’s army. Nearly 40 when the war began, he was a career educator and a pious Protestant who’d spent his life training Christian teachers and editing a journal called School and Church. Too old for the regular army, he was drafted into an auxiliary battalion and sent to Poland to guard prisoners of war. Later he was promoted to non-commissioned officer and assigned to train new recruits in Germany. Finally, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Jarausch was returned to the Eastern Front to run a prisoner of war camp, now on a much larger scale. He died in January 1942 of typhoid, never having laid eyes on his infant son, also named Konrad. That son grew up to become a historian and has now edited this volume of his father’s letters—a remarkable and moving act of filial confrontation and reconciliation.

In many ways, Jarausch is a witness who is easy to identify with—at least, for the kind of reader who is likely to pick up a book like Reluctant Accomplice. As a bookish and introverted man, who spent his spare moments reading Aristotle in Greek, Jarausch found army life totally repellent. Hardly a letter goes by without a complaint about lack of sleep, physical discomfort, bad food, or the vulgarity and drunkenness of his comrades. He is too old for all this, he feels, and as the war stretches on with no end in sight, he starts pulling strings for a discharge, hoping that as a teacher he will qualify as an essential war-worker. The invasion of Russia puts an end to these hopes, and the letters Jarausch wrote in the last six months of his life are increasingly desperate and depressed.

All this meant that Jarausch was fairly well-immunized against the Nazi cult of war and violence. More important still was his profound Christian belief, which put him at odds with the neo-paganism of the Nazis. One of the themes of the letters is the division between older men like himself, who were raised in a still-Christian society, and the younger recruits, who were shaped by the Nazi regime and have nothing but contempt for religion. On Christmas Eve in 1941, for instance, Jarausch relates that the major of his unit asked the men to recite a silent “Our Father.” The next day, the younger, more Nazified soldiers expressed anger at this sentimental Christianity, and “suddenly all our differences came to light: the old and the new, those who fought in the [first] world war and the younger national socialist generation.”

By age, temperament and conviction, then, Jarausch seemed designed for the role of skeptic about the Nazi regime. Reluctant Accomplice charts the growth of Jarausch’s belief that Hitler’s war was a disaster, for humanity and for Germany itself. He was able to arrive at this independent judgment of the war for just the reason Arendt pinpointed: He retained the ability to think, and to think from the point of view of another person.

Continue reading: When politics fail. Or view as a single page.
In his case, it was Christianity that safeguarded this human solidarity. Jarausch discovered that he had more in common with some of his Russian prisoners of war, who had clung to their faith despite Bolshevik persecution, than he did with his Nazi comrades. On the same Christmas Eve when the young German soldiers refused to pray, Jarausch addressed a small group of Russian POWs through a translator: “I told them that I didn’t dare wish them a Merry Christmas when they were in a prison camp, if God’s son hadn’t himself lived in absolute poverty and was himself a prisoner just as they were.”

Intellectual curiosity, too, played a role in preserving Jarausch’s humanity. He wanted to learn about the countries he was helping to occupy; he wrote home asking for Russian textbooks and asked a Soviet prisoner to teach him the language. Together, these impulses allowed Jarausch to imagine what many Germans couldn’t or wouldn’t—the reactions of the peoples they conquered. “We are living at the expense of these people and sucking them dry,” he wrote in September 1941. “What should we expect, other than bitterness and an abiding desire to overthrow this foreign rule?… I don’t understand how we can expect anything good to come of such circumstances.” A few weeks before he died, Jarausch wrote simply, “After all that I’ve seen, I cannot spot a single enemy amid the millions of Russians.”

All the more striking and troubling, then, is what Reluctant Accomplice has to teach about the limits of sympathy. There is, obviously, one group sure to be excluded from a solidarity based on Christianity. When Jarausch writes about the situation of the Jews in Poland and Russia, he is notably reserved and guarded. Perhaps this is because he hesitated to write freely in letters that might be read by a military censor. Thus, in November 1941, he writes to a colleague at home: “Bolshevism is being ruthlessly stamped out, wherever we encounter it. The same thing goes for the Jewish element. Today in particular I’m under the impressions of such actions. Thus the brevity [of this letter].” This seems very much like a coded admission of having seen a massacre of Jews, couched in the Nazis’ own rhetoric (“ruthlessly stamped out”). Reading between the lines, it might well communicate Jarausch’s horrified inability to describe what he saw.

At other times, however, the same curtness reads as simple indifference: “Today we got two oil lamps, one for down in the camp and one for our quarters—of course they were from Jewish homes.” Most ambiguous of all is the shocking moment when Jarausch mentions that he has had to stop taking Russian lessons: “Yesterday and today I didn’t get to practice Russian. That however had to do with the sudden painful end to my lessons: my teacher was discovered to be a half-Jew.” What is painful here, the discovery that Jarausch had been intimate with a Jew, or the fact that his tutor was murdered? Given Jarausch’s whole character, the latter, more humane interpretation seems more likely. But while Jarausch ventures some pretty blunt criticisms of the Nazi regime and the war, he never openly challenges its anti-Semitism or acknowledges the extent of the Wehrmacht’s massacres of Jews.

Possibly he didn’t know about them. Jarausch was not on the front line, but many miles in the rear, in charge of a transit camp, or Dulag, where Russian POWs were held before being sent to Germany. That, at least, was the theory. In fact, the German army advanced so quickly into Soviet territory and took so many millions of prisoners that the Dulag was totally unequipped to feed them. In keeping with the Nazis’ basic racial principles and their plans for the exploitation of Eastern Europe, Soviet prisoners were essentially starved to death—some 3 million of them in total, mostly in the first months of the invasion.

Jarausch did not necessarily know about the Holocaust, in other words, but he certainly knew about the mass murder of Soviet prisoners. He saw it happening every day, and in a sense he helped to facilitate it. The anguish this caused him is unmistakable. “I’m trying to do what I can,” he writes to his wife. “It’s not much in the face of the worst suffering I’ve ever encountered in my life. … I’ll spare you the details. On Sunday one of the Russians said to me: ‘This is hell.’ ” Later come descriptions of frozen corpses, starvation, and cannibalism. Jarausch had an especially hard time justifying the way he employed violence—beating and shooting—to keep the starving prisoners from rushing the kitchens.

Yet writing to a colleague in November 1941, he is still able to say, “One of the strongest experiences I’ve had in this war is that in the face of so much hunger, destitution, disease, and death, I have not had to renounce anything I’ve done as a German or a Christian.” In what sense, though, did Konrad Jarausch have more right to a good conscience than Victor Capesius? The Christian soldier was certainly a better man than the SS pharmacist: The former was grieved by the suffering around him and tried impotently to alleviate it; the latter was indifferent to suffering and showed no guilt about increasing it. Yet each was a functionary in a system that was designed to kill millions of human beings, and each played his role as ordered. Had he lived longer and learned more, Jarausch might have reached the point of open hatred of Nazism and the war; yet it’s hard to imagine him, even then, refusing to obey orders.


The case of Jarausch suggests that, in a situation where radical evil holds sway, goodness has to become equally radical in order to combat it. Subjective good will, in a Wehrmacht soldier, was not negligible—the lives of the Russian POWs would surely have been worse in other camps, where men less scrupulous than Jarausch were in charge. But only an outright refusal to serve the Nazi regime could have spared Jarausch from being its accomplice, however reluctant; and open opposition, in Nazi Germany, required a willingness to suffer imprisonment, torture, and death. Even then, it would have taken millions of such refusals to bring the war and the Holocaust to a halt. And there has never been a society with millions of heroes.

Perhaps that is itself the most important lesson that can be drawn from the lives of Victor Capesius and Konrad Jarausch. A society that can only be saved by heroes is not going to be saved: There will always be far more selfish and corrupt people, and good but ineffectual ones, than martyrs. Someone like Sophie Scholl, the 21-year-old who distributed anti-Hitler pamphlets in Munich knowing it would lead to her death, deserves everlasting praise for redeeming the honor of humanity; but she knew full well that she was not going to stop Hitler. It took the Allied armies and many millions of deaths to do that.

The terrain on which a country can fight for its destiny is not morality but politics. It is only after politics has totally failed—as it did in Germany in 1933—that each individual is thrown back on his or her own moral resources. And it is on political grounds, not moral ones, that America can justly regard itself as protected against the kind of irrational fears that Hentoff and Roth expressed, and that many Jews may sometimes share. It is not that every “ordinary American” is a better person than every “ordinary German” was 80 years ago, or that there are not, out of our 300 million people, enough potential Capesiuses or Eichmanns to commit the same kind of crimes—not necessarily against Jews, but against some despised and feared enemy.

Reassurance lies, rather, in the fact that American society is well-defended against the kind of sicknesses that allow, or require, such crimes to be committed. The names of those political sicknesses are well known: anti-Semitism and racism; militarism and love of conquest; contempt for law and civil rights; the exaltation of authority; ideological frenzy. These are what allowed the Nazis to take power in the first place, and it’s a sign of how deeply rooted they were in German society that they found purchase even in a man as essentially inoffensive as Konrad Jarausch. Politically, his kind of conservative nationalism left him unable to fight the Nazis when they could still be fought, at the ballot box. In this sense, political enlightenment is even more important than moral goodness to the preservation of a decent society.

The germs of these sicknesses are present in all societies, America not excluded; we see them erupt here sometimes in unsettling ways. But even under the stresses of the last 10 years—terrorism, war, financial crisis—our society has proved able to contain these threats. By contrast, where they flourish uncontrolled, it is no coincidence that hatred of both Jews and America also flourishes—witness al-Qaida, or Hamas, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If the Holocaust holds a political lesson for us today, it is to be especially vigilant about threats to the justice of our institutions, the freedom of our society, and the confidence and tolerance of our culture. When those bulwarks break down, as they did in Germany in 1933, innate human goodness is not enough to protect anyone from the consequences.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.