Kurt Gerstein -Eye witness to the Holocaust

I tend to judge harshly on those who joined the German armed forces during WWII and especially those who joined the despicable SS. Although I can understand those who joined the regular Wehrmacht,since often they didn’t have a choice(but then again you always have a choice). The SS enjoyed what they did.

Although I am not inclined the change my view on this I have to admit there were some in the SS who did display a human side, none less so then Kurt Gerstein.

Kurt Gerstein (11 August 1905 – 25 July 1945) was a German SS officer and member of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS and Head of Technical Disinfection Services. He witnessed mass murders in the Nazi extermination camps Belzec and Treblinka.

He gave information to the Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter, as well as to members of the Roman Catholic Church with contacts to Pope Pius XII, in an effort to inform the international public about the Holocaust.

In 1945, following his surrender, he wrote the Gerstein Report covering his experience of the Holocaust. He died, an alleged suicide, while in French custody.

Although his family was not a particularly religious one, Gerstein received Christian religious training in school. While at university, almost as an antidote to what he saw as frivolous activities of his classmates, he began to read the Bible.From 1925 onwards, he became active in Christian student and youth movements, joining the German Association of Christian Students (DCSV) in 1925 and in 1928 becoming an active member of both the Evangelical Youth Movement (CVJM-YMCA) and the Federation of German Bible Circles where he took a leading role until it was dissolved in 1934 after a takeover attempt by the Hitler Youth movement. At first finding a religious home within the Protestant Evangelical Church he gravitated toward the Confessing Church, which formed itself around Pastor Martin Niemöller in 1934 as a form of protest against attempts of the Nazis to exercise increasing control over German Protestants.His religious faith caused conflict with the Nazis and he spent time in prison and concentration camps in the late 1930.

Like many of his generation, Gerstein (and his family) were deeply affected by what they saw as the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and were attracted by the extreme nationalism of the Nazis. In July 1933, he enrolled in the SA, the Storm Troopers of the Nazi Party. Friedlander describes the contradictions in Gerstein’s mind at the time: “Firm defense of religious concepts and of the honour of the Confessional youth movements, but weakness in the face of National Socialism, with acceptance of its terminology and shoddy rhetoric; acceptance, above all, of the existing political order, of its authoritarianism and its hysterical nationalism”.

However, in early 1935 he stood up in a theater during a performance of the play Wittekind protesting against its anti-Christian message and was beaten by Nazi Party members in the audience.He also came into conflict with the Nazi government for distributing anti-Nazi material. He was arrested on 4 September 1936, held in protective custody for five weeks, and expelled from the Nazi Party. The loss of Nazi Party membership meant he was unable to find employment as a mining engineer in the State sector. He was arrested a second time in July 1938, but was released six weeks later because no charges could be found against him. With the help of his father and some powerful party and SS officials, he continued to seek reinstatement in the Nazi party until in June 1939, when he obtained a provisional membership.

In early 1941, Gerstin enlisted in the SS. Explanations for this are varied and confusing. One document indicates it was the result of his outrage over the death of a sister-in-law, who apparently was killed under the euthanasia program directed at the mentally ill, Action T4.However, other documents suggest he had already made his decision before she died and that her death reinforced his desire to join the SS to “see things from the inside”, try to change the direction of its policies, and publicise the crimes they were committing.Gerstein was shocked by what he had seen and eventually risked his life to inform the Allies.

Because of his technical education, Gerstein quickly rose to become Head of Technical Disinfection Services, working with Odilo Globocnik and Christian Wirth on the technical aspects of mass murder in the extermination camps. He supplied hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B) to Rudolf Höss in Auschwitz from the company called Degesch (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung, or Vermin-Combating Corporation) and conducted the negotiations with the owners.On 17 August 1942, together with Rolf Günther and Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, Gerstein witnessed in Belzec the gassing of some 3,000 Jews who had arrived by train from Lwow and the next day he went to Treblinka which had similar facilities where he observed huge mounds of clothing and underwear. At that time, motor exhaust gases were used for the purpose of mass murder in both extermination camps.


 During the war Kurt Gerstein continued to tell people what he had seen, anyone he felt would spread the word about the atrocities. He 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. A despairing Gerstein even risked his life destroying shipments of Zyklon B gas to be used for the extermination of thousands of Jewish people.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 ..

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. After the war he wrote down his evidence on May 26, 1945:

“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 …”


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’s report has been used as evidence in a number of high-profile cases. It was used at the Nuremberg Trials against major Nazi war criminals such as Hermann Göring and Hans Frank.

It was also later used in the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann by an Israeli court.


More recently in 2000 it was used by Christopher Browning in the Holocaust libel trial between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt.

While some aspects of Gerstein’s report include false statements attributed to Odilo Globocnik, as well as inaccurate claims regarding the total number of Jews gassed at Holocaust locations where he was not an eyewitness, Gerstein’s claim that gassing of Jews occurred at Belzec is independently corroborated by SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel’s testimony given at the Belzec trials,as well as by the accounts of other witnesses that can be found in Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, a biography of one-time Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl


I do think a lot more questions should have been asked to the christian leaderships, both Catholic and Protestant, why they remained so inactive when they were told about these atrocities happening right under their noses.


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