One of the most horrifying testimonies from the horrors of the Holocaust was left by a conscience-stricken SS officer, Kurt Gerstein, who visited the deathcamps Belzec and Treblinka in August 1942 and witnessed the mass gassing of Jewish men, women and children. Gerstein was shocked by what he had seen. Yet, he realized that as a witness, his position was unique, and he was determined to expose what he knew to the world to stop the atrocities: "I was one of the handful of people who had seen every corner of the establishment, and certainly the only one to have visited it as an enemy of this gang of murderers ..."
As he noted in his post-war testimony:
"I prayed with them and cried out to my God and theirs. How glad I should have been to go into the gas chambers with them! How gladly I should have died the same death as theirs! Then an SS officer in uniform would have been found in the gas chambers. People would have believed it was an accident and the story would have been buried and forgotten. But I could not do this yet. I felt I must not succumb to the temptation to die with these people. I now knew a great deal about these murders."
His report was one of the first and most important documents relating to the extermination of Jews in the death camps, including facts and events that Gerstein personally witnessed. After the war the basic facts of Gerstein's report were verified by SS Obersturmbannführer Dr. W. Pfannenstiel before the Land-Court of Darmstadt in the Federal Republic of Germany, on June 6, 1950.
Kurt Gerstein, born on August 11, 1905, of an old Prussian family, graduated as a mining engineer in 1931. He had close links to the Christian anti-Nazi Resistance and remained very active in the youth groups, especially the Federation of German Bible Circles until it was disbanded in 1934. He joined the Nazi party in 1933, but outspokenly critical of Nazi blasphemies, he was expelled from the party in 1936. In 1938, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to a term in a concentration camp to reappraise his premises. Later Gerstein reapplied to become a Nazi party member but was refused.
In 1940 he applied to the SS in order to infiltrate the Third Reich and gather information about the Nazis and their dark secrets, after being told by the Bishop of Stuttgart that mentally ill patients were being killed at the institutions Hadamar and Grafeneck. In the beginning of 1941, Kurt Gerstein's own sister-in-law, Bertha Ebeling, died mysteriously at Hadamar. Gerstein was shocked by her death and became determined to find out the truth about the numerous deaths at Hadamar and similar institutions.
No questions were asked about his past, and on March 10, 1941 he was admitted to the Waffen SS.
In 1942 Kurt Gerstein was appointed head of the Technical Disinfection Department of the Waffen SS, responsible for improving the efficiency of the gas chambers by procuring the highly toxic prussic acid Zyklon B. In the late summer of 1942 he was sent on a mission to introduce Zyclon B gassing into the Nazi death camps in Poland in place of gas engines.
Kurt Gerstein was deeply shaken by what he witnessed - he had but one desire: to gain an insight into the Nazi death machinery and shout it to the whole world. Eventually he risked his life to inform the Allies. He described how the Jews were forced to undress, the piles of shoes were allegedly 25 meters high, the women's hair was cut off, the naked Jews were driven between two barbed wire fences to the gas chambers. Kurt Gerstein desperately tried to alert the world about the atrocities:
"I see everything! The mothers, their babies at the breast, the little naked children, the men and women, naked. They enter into the death chamber, pushed by the leather whips of the SS. Pack well, that is what the captain ordered. Seven to eight hundred persons on twenty-five square meters. More than half are children ..."
A five-year-old girl dropped a necklace and a three-year-old boy picked
it up as they passed into the chamber, where victims were crammed in so tightly
they could not move. Men, women, children filed past in ghastly parade as a
burly SS man promised in a loud, priestlike voice that nothing terrible was
going to happen to them. "All you have to do is breathe in deeply. That
strengthens the lungs. Inhaling is a means of preventing infectious diseases.
It's a good method of disinfection." To those who timorously asked what
their fate would be, the SS man gave more reassurance: the men would build roads
and houses, the women would do housework or help in the kitchen.
When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work but broke down while pumping its deadly carbon monoxide gas into the chamber. While mechanics worked to repair the diesel engine, the Jews had to await death, pressed body-to-body against one another. An SS officer, Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, looking through the glass peep hole in the door of the gas chamber, commented that the Jews were weeping "as they do in the synagogue."
Finally after two hours, it stuttered to life. "Up till then people were alive in these chambers .. another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead. Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall", Kurt Gerstein later wrote.
The outside doors to the gas
chamber were opened and t he bodies taken out.
he bodies taken out."One could tell families even in death. They were still holding hands, stiffened in death so that it was difficult to tear them apart to clear the chamber for the next load," Gerstein wrote.
Piles of the victims' glasses and shoes
Before the corpses of the Jews were tossed into large trenches, they were searched for valuables in the form of gold teeth or gems or gold hidden in the vagina or rectum. Gerstein was shown the processing of the dead: "With gold to the left - without gold to the right .. Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. Hew as in his element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: "See for yourself the weight of that gold! It's only from yesterday and the day before. You can't imagine what we find every day - dollars, diamonds, gold. You'll see for yourself!"
Gerstein forced himself to watch the final process. The bodies were flung into
trenches, each some hundred yards long, conveniently located near the gas
chambers. He was told that the bodies would swell from gas after a few days,
raising the mound as much as six to ten feet. Once the swelling subsided, the
bodies would be piled on railway ties covered with diesel oil and burned to
On the night of August 21-22, 1942, on his way back to Germany, Kurt Gerstein travelled by train from Warsaw to Berlin and accidently encountered the Secretary to the Swedish Legation in Berlin, Baron Göran von Otter.
Less than an hour from Warsaw, the train stopped in open country. "We both got down to get a breath of air," von Otter later recalled. "There were beads of sweat on his forehead. There were tears in his eyes. And his voice was hoarse when he said at once: I saw something awful yesterday - can I come and see you at the Legation?" Von Otter suggested that they talk on the train. Gerstein agreed. "Is it the Jews?" von Otter asked. "Yes, it is," Gerstein replied. "I saw more than ten thousand die today."
In a feverish conversation lasting hours, Gerstein poured out the whole story, crying and smoking incessantly. He related all he had just seen to the Swedish diplomat and begged him to tell the Swedish government about the atrocities in the camps. He desperately urged von Otter to make it known to the Allies and the outside world.
Von Otter later described the encounter: "It was hard to get Gerstein to keep his voice down. We stood there together, all night, some six hours or maybe eight. And again and again, Gerstein kept on recalling what he had seen. He sobbed and hid his face in his hands. From the very beginning as Gerstein described the atrocities, weeping and broken hearted, I had no doubt as to the sincerity of his humanitarian intentions."
Göran von Otter filed a report to his own government, which found it, as did other neutrals, too bizarre for credibility, and it was never acted on. But Gerstein maintained contact with the Swedish embassy in Berlin and kept it informed of the extermination operations.
Gerstein continued to tell people what he had seen, anyone he felt would spread the word about the atrocities:
"Taking my life in my hands every moment, I continued to inform hundreds of people of these horrible massacres. Among them were the Niemöller family; Dr. Hochstrasser, the press attaché at the Swiss Legation in Berlin; Dr. Winter, the coadjutor of the Catholic Bishop of Berlin - so that he could transmit my information to the Bishop and to the Pope; Dr. Dibelius, bishop of the Confessing Church, and many others. In this way, thousands of people were informed by me."
Gerstein also urged members of the Dutch underground to broadcast his information by radio to Great Britain. But Kurt Gerstein was ignored - nothing happened. All were disinclined to believe his gruesome narrative of mass murder, it was rejected as atrocity propaganda. All his efforts to inform the church, the Allies and the opinion abroad proved futile as did his premise that, if the facts became known, the extermination of the Jews would be stopped.
As months continued to pass and still the Allies had done nothing to stop the extermination, Gerstein became increasingly frantic. He behaved in a desperate manner, risking his life every time he spoke of the death camps to persons he scarcely knew ..
Later during the war a despairing Gerstein risked his life destroying shipments of Zyklon B gas to be used for the extermination of thousands of Jewish people. The gas was buried on the pretext that it had been spoiled in transit.
On April 22, 1945, near the end of the war, Kurt Gerstein surrendered to the French, who arrested him as an alleged war criminal. They took him to the Cherche-Midi Military Prison on July 5, 1945. Twenty days later, Gerstein was found dead in his cell. Whether he committed suicide out of despair and guilt in not being able to stop the Holocaust or whether he was murdered by other SS officers in the prison remains a mystery.
Gerstein was buried in the Thiais cemetery under the name Gastein. But even that was temporary, for his grave was within a section of the cemetery that was razed in 1956.
In 1950, a final blow was given to Kurt Gerstein - a denazification court posthumously condemned him: "Taking into account the extenuating circumstances noted the court has not included the accused among the main criminals but has placed him among the 'tainted' .."
It was not until January 20, 1965 that Kurt Gerstein was cleared of all charges, by the Premier of Baden-Württemberg.
While in prison Gerstein turned over to a French intelligence team his detailed report on atrocities in Belzec and Treblinka. His date provided the Allies in later trials with their most detailed accounts of the Nazi murder mills, and it was used at Nuremberg. Kurt Gerstein' report became perhaps the most horrifying eyewitness account of the Holocaust - one handwritten French and two type-written German versions. - Louis Bülow
"In Lublin, SS Gruppenfuehrer Globocnik was waiting for us. He said: This is one of the most highly secret matter there are, perhaps the most secret. Anybody who speaks about it is shot dead immediately. Two talkative people died yesterday. Then he explained to us that, at the present moment - August 17, 1942 - there were the following installations:
1. Belzec, on the Lublin-Lvov road, in the sector of the Soviet Demarcation Line. Maximum per day: 15,000 persons (I saw it!).
2. Sobibor, I am not familiar with the exact situation, I did not visit it. 20,000 persons per day.
3. Treblinka, 120 km. NNE of Warsaw, 25,000 per day, saw it!
4. Majdanek, near Lublin, which I saw when it was being built.
Globocnik said: You will have very large quantities of clothes to disinfect, 10 or 20 times as much as the "Textiles Collection," which is only being carried out in order to camouflage the origin of the Jewish, Polish, Czech and other items of clothing. Your second job is to convert the gas-chambers, which have up to now been operated with exhaust gases from an old Diesel engine, to a more poisonous and quicker means, cyanide. But the Fuehrer and Himmler, who were here on August 15, the day before yesterday, that is, gave orders that I am myself to accompany all persons who visit the installations.
Professor Pfannenstiel replied, "But what does the Fuehrer say?" Then Globocnik, who is now Higher SS and Police Leader in Trieste on the Adriatic Coast, said: "The whole Aktion must be carried out much faster." Ministerial Director Dr. Herbert Lindner of the Ministry of the Interior suggested, "Would it not be better to incinerate the bodies instead of burying them? Another generation might perhaps think differently about this?" Then Globocnik, "But, Gentlemen, if we should ever be succeeded by so cowardly and weak a generation that it does not understand our work, which is so good and so necessary, then, Gentlemen, the whole of National Socialism will have been in vain. On the contrary, one should bury bronze plaques [with the bodies], on which is inscribed that it was we, we who had the courage to complete this gigantic task." Hitler said to this, "Well, my good Globocnik, you have said it, and that is my opinion, too."
The next day we moved on to Belzec. There is a separate little station with two platforms, at the foot of the hill of yellow standstone, due north of the Lublin-Lvov road and rail line. To the south of the station, near the main road, there are several office buildings with the inscription "Belzec Office of the Waffen-SS". Globocnik introduced me to SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Obermeyer from Pirmasens, who showed me the installations very much against his will.
There were no dead to be seen that day, but the stench in the whole area, even on the main road, was pestilent. Next to the small station there was a large barrack labeled "Dressing Room," with a window that said "Valuables," and also a hall with 100 "Barber's Chairs." Then there was a passage 150 m. long, in the open, enclosed with barbed wire on either side, and signs inscribed "To the Baths and Inhalation Installations." In front of us there was a house, the bathhouse, and to the right and left large concrete flower pots with geraniums or other flowers. After climbing a few steps there were three rooms each, on the right and on the left. They looked like garages, 4 by 5 m. and 1.90 m. high. At the back, out of sight, there were doors of wood. On the roof there was a Star of David made of copper. The front of the building bore a notice "Heckenholt Institution." That is all I saw that afternoon.
Next morning, a few minutes before 7 o'clock, I was told that the first train would arrive in 10 minutes. And in fact the first train from Lvov arrived a few minutes later. There were 45 carriages with 6,700 persons, of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Through small openings closed with barbed wire one could see yellow, frightened children, men, and women.
The train stopped, and 200 Ukrainians, who were forced to perform this service, tore open the doors and chased the people from the carriages with whips. Then instructions were given through a large loudspeaker: The people are to take off all their clothes out of doors and a few of them in the barracks, including artificial limbs and glasses. Shoes must be tied in pairs with a little piece of string handed out by a small four-year-old Jewish boy. All valuables and money are to be handed in at the window marked "Valuables," without any document or receipt being given. The women and girls must then go to the barber, who cuts off their hair with one or two snips. The hair disappears into large potato sacks, "to make something special for the submarines, to seal them and so on," the duty SS Unterscharfuehrer explained to me.
Then the march starts: Barbed wire to the right and left and two dozen Ukrainians with rifles at the rear. They came on, led by an exceptionally pretty girl. I myself was standing with Police Captain Wirth in front of the death chambers. Men, women, children, infants, people with amputated legs, all naked, completely naked, moved past us. In one corner there is a whimsical SS man who tells these poor people in an unctuous voice, "Nothing at all will happen to you. You must just breathe deeply, that strengthens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the infectious diseases, it is good disinfection!"
When somebody asks what their fate will be, he explains that the men will of course have to work, building streets and houses. But the women will not have to work. If they want to, they can help in the house or the kitchen. A little glimmer of hope flickers once more in some of these poor people, enough to make them march unresisting into the death chambers.
But most of them understand what is happening; the smell reveals their fate! Then they climb up a little staircase and see the truth. Nursing mothers with an infant at the breast, naked; many children of all ages, naked. They hesitate, but they enter the death chambers, most of them silent, forced on by those behind them, who are driven by the whip lashes of the SS men.
A Jewish woman of about 40, with flaming eyes, calls down revenge for the blood of her children on the head of the murderers. Police Captain Wirth in person strikes her in the face 5 times with his whip, and she disappears into the gas chamber ..."
Adolf Hitler's SS Men
Hitler surrounded himself with a small clique of fanatical, ruthless henchmen - a violent group of outsiders who rose to power in the Third Reich and established political and economic institutions of legitimized terror.
These masterminds of death were found to be quite psychologically normal. They were men of fine standing, husbands who morning and night kissed their wives, fathers who tucked their children into bed.
But murders, brutalities, cruelties, tortures, atrocities, and other inhuman acts were an everyday occurrence.
The European Jews were the primary victims of the Nazis. In 1933 nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that would be occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed.
But Jews were not the only group singled out for persecution by Hitler's Nazi regime. One-half million Gypsies, 250,000 mentally or physically disabled persons, and more than three million Soviet prisoners-of-war also fell victim to Nazi genocide. Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Social Democrats, Communists, partisans, trade unionists, and Polish intelligentsia were also victims of the hate and aggression carried out by the Nazis.
John Toland: Hitler
Alan Elsner, Reuters
Robert M. Pallotti, D. Min.
www.auschwitz.dk Louis Bülow Privacy. ©2007-09.