GERSTEIN, KURT° (1905–1945), German anti-Nazi, SS officer and head of the Waffen SS-Institute of Hygiene in Berlin. The son of a bourgeois family, a German nationalist, and a Christian, Gerstein joined the Nazi Party in 1933, while remaining in the Protestant youth movement. 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). 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. A professional engineer, Gerstein reached officer's rank and due to his technical abilities was named chief of the disinfection department. He lost a sister-in-law in the so-called euthanasia program. In 1942, as an expert in the use of Zyklon B – a poison gas used in fumigations – Gerstein was sent by the *RSHA to *Belzec and *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. At the end of the war, he submitted to an Anglo-American intelligence team a detailed report in French on Nazi atrocities 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." Arrested by the French as a suspected war criminal, Gerstein was found hanged in his cell on July 25, 1945, victim either of suicide or murder. His testimony remains essential to our understanding of Belzec, where so little first-hand information was available.


S. Friedlaender, Kurt Gerstein, the Ambiguity of Good (1969); idem, in: Midstream, 13 no. 5 (1967), 24–29; F. Helmut, K. Gerstein (Ger., 1964); R. Hochhuth, The Representative (1963), (U.S. title –The Deputy). P. Joffroy, A Spy for God: The Ordeal of Kurt Gerstein (1971).

[Yehuda Reshef]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.