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 atHadamar. 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.
Photo of Auschwitz I gas chamber taken in January 1945
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, priest like 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 the 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.
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!”
Kurt 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 cinders.
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 via auschwitz.dk
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 ..
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.
We drove by car to Lublin where the SS-Gruppenführer Globocnik awaited us. In the factory in Collin I had intentionally intimated that the acid was destined for the killing of human beings. A man appeared in the afternoon who was very interested in the vehicle and, after being noticed, promptly fled at a breakneck tempo. Globocnik said: “This whole affair is one of the most secret things of all in this time, one can say the most secret of all. Whoever talks about it will be shot on the spot. Only yesterday two blabbers have been shot.” Then he explained to us:
“Actually” – that was on 17 August 1942 – “we are running three facilities”, namely:
1. Belzec, at the country road and railway line Lublin – Lemberg, at the demarcation line with Russia. Maximum output 15,000 persons daily.
2. Treblinka, 120 km northeast of Warsaw. Maximum output 25,000 persons daily.
3. Sobibor, also in Poland, I don’t know exactly where. 20,000 persons maximum output daily.
4. – Then in preparation – Majdanek near Lublin.
Belzec, Treblinka, and Majdanek I have visited personally in detail, together with the leader of these facilities, Polizeihauptmann Wirth. Globocnik consulted me alone and said: “It is your task in particular to disinfect the extensive amounts of textiles. The whole Spinnstoffsammlung [= Collection of spun material in Germany] has only been gathered in order to explain the origin of the clothing material for the Ostarbeiter [eastern workers] etc, and to present it as an offering of the German nation. In reality the yield of our facilities is 10 – 20 times larger than that of the whole Spinnstoffsammlung.”
Thereafter I discussed with the most efficient companies the possibility of disinfecting such amounts of textiles – it consisted of an accumulated stock of approximately 40 million kgs = 60 complete freight trains – in the existing laundries and disinfection facilities. However it was absolutely impossible to place such huge orders. I used all these negotiations to make known in a skilful way or at least to intimate, the fact of the killing of the Jews. In the end it was sufficient for Globocnik that everything was sprinkled with a bit of Detenolin so that it at least smelled of disinfection. That was then carried out.
“Your other and far more important task is the changeover of our gas chambers which actually work with diesel exhaust fumes into a better and quicker system. I think especially of prussic acid. The day before yesterday the Führer and Himmler were here. On their order I have to personally take you there, I am not to issue written certificates and admittance cards to anybody!”
Then Pfannenstiel asked: “What did the Führer say?” Glob.: “Quicker, carry out the whole action quicker.” Pfannenstiel’s attendant, Ministerialrat Dr. Herbert Lindner, then asked: “Mr. Globocnik, do you think it is good and proper to bury all the corpses instead of cremating them? A generation could come after us which doesn’t understand all this!”
Then Globocnik said: “Gentlemen, if ever a generation will come after us which is so weak and soft-hearted that it doesn’t understand our task, then indeed the whole of National Socialism has been in vain. To the contrary, in my opinion one should bury bronze plates on which it is recorded that we have had the courage to carry out this great and so necessary work.”
The Führer: “Good, Globocnik, this is indeed also my opinion!”
Later the alternative option was accepted. Then the corpses were cremated on large roasts, improvised from rails, with the aid of petrol and diesel oil. More details from deathcamps.org