German anti-Nazi, SS officer and head of the Waffen SS-Institute of Hygiene in Berlin. Gerstein was the sixth of seven children born to a well-established Lutheran family in Muenster, in the German state of Westphalia. Gerstein's father was a judge and German nationalist; his mother died when he was young.
Gerstein studied mining engineering and received his degree from the university in Marburg in 1931. Two years later, he joined the Nazi Party, while remaining in the Protestant youth movement.
Conflict between his faith and Nazi ideology soon got him into trouble. After speaking out against a play approved by the regime in 1935, he was beaten by storm troopers. Later, he was arrested for planning to disseminate anti-Nazi pamphlets. He was expelled from the Nazi Party for activities on behalf of the dissident Bekenntniskirche (“Professing Church”) and was twice incarcerated in concentration camps (1936 and 1938).
With the help of his father and several influential officials, Gerstein was readmitted to the Nazi party in 1939. Anxious to know more about the Nazis' horrifying activities, he volunteered for the Waffen-SS in March 1941 and became an employee at its Hygiene Service. There are, however, other versions of the reason for his entry into the SS. One explanation is that he was suspicious of the death of his sister-in-law in the euthanasia program. It is unclear if she was indeed killed or that she died before Gerstein applied to join the SS.
At the hygiene institute he developed techniques for vermin control and maintaining quality drinking water for combat troops, which helped earn him a series of promotions to First Lieutenant. He was subsequently given the responsibility for delivering Zyklon B – a poison gas used in fumigations – to Auschwitz and other camps.
In 1942, Gerstein was sent by the
Treblinka, where his task was to substitute Zyklon B for diesel exhaust fumes as a means of mass murder. At Belzec he witnessed the killing of several thousand Jews from Lvov.
Upon his return to Berlin, Gerstein tried to stop the murders, informing Swedish and Swiss legations, the Holy See, and underground Church groups, the German Confessing Church, of his experiences, but despite the accuracy of his reports, he encountered disbelief and indifference. Charged with the task of continuing to supply the murderous gas to the camps, Gerstein succeeded in destroying two consignments.
As the outcome of the war became evident, Gerstein turned himself in to French authorities and insisted he wanted to provide information to convict the people responsible for the atrocities. Gerstein, however, was suspected of involvement in the crimes.
He was imprisoned in Paris in May 1945 and submitted to an Anglo-American intelligence team a detailed report on Nazi atrocities, particularly his experience at Belzec, which was used at the Nuremberg trials. Another, in German, was published after his death in Vierteljahreshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte (vol. 1, 1953), entitled “Augenzeugenbericht zu den Massenvergasungen.”
Gerstein was found hanged in his cell on July 25, 1945, victim either of suicide or murder. He left no note so we can only speculate whether he was distraught over his failure to prevent the atrocities or was just afraid of being convicted as a war criminal. Regardless, his testimony remains essential to our understanding of Belzec, where so little first-hand information was available.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “On August 17, 1950, a denazification court in Tuebingen found Gerstein to have been a Nazi offender for his assistance in the production and delivery of Zyklon B. His widow was denied a pension. Almost 15 years later, with the help of Baron von Otter and other well-placed friends, Gerstein's wife obtained posthumous pardon for her husband in January 1965.”