By April 1945, the destruction of the Third Reich was imminent. Karl Gerstein turned himself in to French authorities in the town of Reutlingen. At the end of May 1945, he was moved to Cherche-Midi Prison in Paris where he drafted his final statement, known as the Gerstein Report. The report is his eye-witness account of his experience in the SS and at Belzec, and an effort to distance himself from the actions of the war criminals.
According to historian Christopher Browning, Gerstein’s report has untruths and exaggerations, such as his claims regarding the height of the piles of shoes and clothing at Belzec and Treblinka, and his assertion that 25 million Jews and others were gassed. Browning says that his account of the gassing of a transport of Jews from Lwow, however, was corroborated.
Kurt Gerstein, retired mining civil servant, graduate engineer, on 27 September 1936 released from theHöheren Preußischen Bergdienst because of subversive activity.Born on 11 August 1905 in Münster (Westfalen), associate of the engineering works De Limon Fluhme & Co. in Düsseldorf, Industriestraße 1 - 17. Special factory for automatic grease systems for engines, Knorr- and Westinghouse brakes.
1905-1910 in Münster (Westfalen). 1910-1919 Saarbrücken. 1919 until 1921 Halberstadt. 1921-1925 Neuruppin near Berlin. There in 1925 school-leaving examination at the humanistic grammar school. Studies: University Marburg a. Lahn 1925-1927. Berlin 1927-1931, college of technology Aachen 1927. Graduate engineer examination 1931 in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Since 1925 active member of the organized Protestant Youth (CVJM-YMCA) and the bible circles at secondary schools.
Active follower of Brüning and Stresemann. - Since June 1933 persecuted by theGestapo because of Christian activity against the Nazi State. On 2 May 1933 joined the NSDAP, on 2 October 1936 expulsion from the NSDAP because of subversive (religious) activity for the denominational church. At the same time expulsion as official from the civil service because of disturbing a party solemnity ceremony at the state theatre in Hagen (Westfalen) on 30 January 1935 - a performance of the drama "Wittekind" - thrashed in public and injured.
On 27 November 1935 mining service examination at the economics ministry in Berlin, all examinations passed with distinction. Until arrest on 27 September 1936 civil servant at the Saarland mines administration in Saarbrücken. This first arrest happened because of sending 8,500 subversive (re the Nazis) pamphlets to all heads of ministerial departments and high judicial officers in Germany. In accordance with a life-long wish I then studied medicine in Tübingen at the Deutsches Institut für Ärztliche Mission. This was possible because of my economic independence. As an associate of the De Limon Fluhme & Co. in Düsseldorf I earned an average income of 10,000 Reichsmark yearly. I used to spend approximately one third of this income for my religious ideals. In particular, I had 230,000 religious and anti-Nazi pamphlets printed and distributed at my own cost.
On 14 July 1938 my second arrest occured, and I was committed to the Konzentrationslager Welzheim because of subversive activity. Before that I was frequently warned and interrogated by the Gestapo, and received a ban on speaking throughout the whole Reich area.
When I heard about the beginning of the killing of mentally ill persons at Grafeneck and Hadamar and other sites, I decided to make every effort to look into the matter of these ovens and chambers in order to learn what happened there. This was all the more relevant as a sister-in-law by marriage - Bertha Ebeling - was compulsorily killed in Hadamar. With two references from Gestapo officers who had worked on my case, I easily succeeded in joining the SS. The gentlemen took the view that my idealism, which they probably admired, must be of advantage to the Nazi cause. On 10 March 1941 I joined the SS. I received my basic training in Hamburg-Langenhorn, in Arnhem (Holland), and in Oranienburg. In Holland I immediately contacted the Dutch resistance movement (graduate engineer Ubbink, Doesburg).
Because of my dual studies I was soon taken over by the technical-medical service and allotted to the SS-Führungshauptamt, Amtsgruppe D, Sanitätswesen der Waffen-SS Abteilung Hygiene. I completed the training in a course together with 40 physicians. At the Hygienedienst I could determine my activities for myself. I constructed mobile and stationary disinfection facilities for the troops, for prisoner-of-war camps, and concentration camps. With this I had great success and was from then on undeservedly considered as a kind of technical genius. Indeed it turned out well at least to some extent, by getting the horrible epidemic typhus wave in 1941 in the camps under control. Because of my successes I soon became Leutnant and then Oberleutnant.
At Christmas 1941 the court which had ordered my expulsion from the NSDAP was informed about my joining the SS in a leading position. The result was a severe witch hunt against me. But because of my great successes and my personality I was protected and kept in office. In January 1942 I became head of the department of health engineering and in addition in a double function for the same sector I was taken over by the Reichsarzt SS und Polizei. In this function I took over the whole technical disinfection service including disinfection with highly toxic gases.
In this capacity I was visited on 8 June 1942 by the until then unknown to me SS-Sturmführer Günther from Reichssicherheitshauptamt Berlin W, Kurfürstenstraße. Günther arrived in civil clothing. He gave me the order to immediately obtain 100 kg prussic acid for a very secret Reichs order, and to drive with it by car to an undisclosed location which would be only known by the driver. Then some weeks later we drove to Prague. I understood little of the nature of the order but accepted it because here was an accidental opportunity to do something which I had longed for for a long time - to be able to view inside these objects.
In addition I was recognized as such an authority and considered so competent as an expert on prussic acid, that in every case it would have been very easy for me to declare on some pretext that the prussic acid was unsuitable - because of decomposition or the like - in order to prevent its use for the real killing purpose. Together with us travelled - merely by chance - Professor Dr. med. Pfannenstiel, SS-Obersturmbannführer, full Professor of Hygienics at the University of Marburg/Lahn.
Then 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:
- Belzec, at the country road and railway line Lublin - Lemberg, at the demarcation line with Russia. Maximum output 15,000 persons daily.
- Treblinka, 120 km northeast of Warsaw. Maximum output 25,000 persons daily.
- Sobibor, also in Poland, I don't know exactly where. 20,000 persons maximum output daily.
- 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 wholeSpinnstoffsammlung [= 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.
The next day we drove to Belzec. A small special station had been created for this purpose at a hill, hard north of the road Lublin-Lemberg, in the left angle of the demarcation line. South of the road some houses with the inscription "Sonderkommando Belzec der Waffen-SS". Because the actual chief of the whole killing facilities, Polizeihauptmann Wirth, was not yet there, Globocnik introduced me to SS-Hauptsturmführer Obermeyer (from Pirmasens). That afternoon he let me see only that which he simply had to show me. That day I didn't see any corpses, just the smell of the whole region was stinking to high heaven in a hot August, and millions of flies were everywhere.
Near to the small double-track station was a large barrack, the so-called 'cloakroom', with a large counter for valuables. Then followed the barber's room with approximately 100 chairs, the barber room. Then an alley in the open air, below birches, fenced in to the right and left by double barbed wire with inscriptions: 'To the inhalation- and bath rooms!'. In front of us a sort of bath house with geraniums, then a small staircase, and then to the right and left 3 rooms each, 5 x 5 meters, 1.90 meters high, with wooden doors like garages. At the back wall, not quite visible in the dark, larger wooden ramp doors. On the roof as a "clever, little joke" the Star of David. In front of the building an inscription: Hackenholt-Foundation. More I couldn't see that afternoon.
The next morning, shortly before 7 a.m. someone announced to me: "In ten minutes the first transport will come!" In fact the first train arrived after some minutes, from the direction of Lemberg. 45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Behind the barred hatches children as well as men and women looked out, terribly pale and nervous, their eyes full of the fear of death. The train comes in: 200 Ukrainians fling open the doors and whip the people out of the wagons with their leather whips.
A large loudspeaker gives the further orders: 'Undress completely, also remove artificial limbs, spectacles etc. Handing over valuables at the counter, without receiving a voucher or a receipt. The shoes carefully bound together (because of the Spinnstoffsammlung), because on the almost 25 metre high heap nobody would have been able to find the matching shoes again. Then the women and girls to the barber who, with two, three scissor strokes is cutting off all hair and collecting it in potato sacks. "That is for special purposes in the submarines, for seals or the like!" the SS-Unterscharführer who is on duty there says to me.
Then the procession starts moving. In front a very lovely young girl; so all of them go along the alley, all naked, men, women, children, without artificial limbs. I myself stand together with Hauptmann Wirth on top of the ramp between the gas chambers. Mothers with babies at their breast, they come onward, hesitate, enter the death chambers! At the corner a strong SS man stands who, with a voice like a pastor, says to the poor people: "There is not the least chance that something will happen to you! You must only take a deep breath in the chamber, that widens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the illnesses and epidemics." On the question of what would happen to them he answered: "Yes, of course, the men have to work, building houses and roads but the women don't need to work. Only if they wish they can help in housekeeping or in the kitchen."
For some of these poor people this gave a little glimmer of hope, enough to go the few steps to the chambers without resistance. The majority are aware, the smell tells them of their fate! So they climb the small staircase, and then they see everything. Mothers with little children at the breast, little naked children, adults, men, women, all naked - they hesitate but they enter the death chambers, pushed forward by those behind them or driven by the leather whips of the SS.
The majority without saying a word. A Jewess of about 40 years of age, with flaming eyes, calls down vengeance on the head of the murderers for the blood which is shed here. She gets 5 or 6 slashes with the riding crop into her face from Hauptmann Wirth personally, then she also disappears into the chamber. Many people pray. I pray with them, I press myself in a corner and shout loudly to my and their God. How gladly I would have entered the chamber together with them, how gladly I would have died the same death as them. Then they would have found a uniformed SS man in their chambers - the case would have been understood and treated as an accident, one man quietly missing. Still I am not allowed to do this. First I must tell what I am experiencing here!
The chambers fill. "Pack well!" - Hauptmann Wirth has ordered. The people stand on each other's feet. 700 - 800 on 25 square meters, in 45 cubic meters! The SS physically squeezes them together, as far as is possible.
The doors close. At the same time the others are waiting outside in the open air, naked. Someone tells me: "The same in winter!" "Yes, but they could catch their death of cold," I say. "Yes, exactly what they are here for!" says an SS man to me in his Low German. Now I finally understand why the whole installation is called the Hackenholt-Foundation. Hackenholt is the driver of the diesel engine, a little technician, also the builder of the facility.The people are brought to death with the diesel exhaust fumes. But the diesel doesn't work! Hauptmann Wirth comes. One can see that he feels embarrassed that that happens just today, when I am here. That's right, I see everything! And I wait. My stop watch has honestly registered everything. 50 minutes, 70 minutes [?] - the diesel doesn't start! The people are waiting in their gas chambers. In vain! One can hear them crying, sobbing... Hauptmann Wirth hits the Ukrainian who is helping Unterscharführer Hackenholt 12, 13 times in the face.
After two hours and 49 minutes - the stop watch has registered everything well - the diesel starts. Until this moment the people live in these 4 chambers, four times 750 people in 4 times 45 cubic meters! Again 25 minutes pass. Right, many are dead now. One can see that through the small window in which the electric light illuminates the chambers for a moment. After 28 minutes only a few are still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, everyone is dead!
From the other side men from the work command open the wooden doors. They have been promised - even Jews - freedom, and some one-thousandth of all valuables found, for their terrible service. Like basalt pillars the dead stand inside, pressed together in the chambers. In any event there was no space to fall down or even bend forward. Even in death one can still tell the families. They still hold hands, tensed in death, so that one can barely tear them apart in order to empty the chamber for the next batch. The corpses are thrown out, wet from sweat and urine, soiled by excrement, menstrual blood on their legs.
Children's' corpses fly through the air. There is no time. The riding crops of the Ukrainians lash down on the work commands. Two dozen dentists open mouths with hooks and look for gold. Gold to the left, without gold to the right. Other dentists break gold teeth and crowns out of jaws with pliers and hammers.
Among all this Hauptmann Wirth is running around. He is in his element. Some workers search the genitals and anus of the corpses for gold, diamonds, and valuables. Wirth calls me to him: "Lift this can full of gold teeth, that is only from yesterday and the day before yesterday!" In an incredibly vulgar and incorrect diction he said to me: "You won't believe what we find in gold and diamonds every day" - he pronounced it (in German Brillanten) with two L - "and in dollars. But see for yourself!" And now he led me to a jeweller who managed all these treasures, and let me see all this. Then someone showed me a former head of the Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin, and a violinist: "That was aHauptmann of the Austrian Army, knight of the Iron Cross 1st class who is now camp elder of the Jewish work command!"
The naked corpses were carried on wooden stretchers to pits only a few meters away, measuring 100 x 20 x 12 meters. After a few days the corpses welled up and a short time later they collapsed, so that one could throw a new layer of bodies upon them. Then ten centimeters of sand were spread over the pit, so that a few heads and arms still rose from it here and there. At such a place I saw Jews climbing over the corpses and working. One told me that by mistake those who arrived dead had not been stripped. Of course this has to be done later because of the Spinnstoffsammlung and valuables which otherwise they would take with them into the grave.
Neither in Belzec nor in Treblinka was any trouble taken over registering or counting the dead. The numbers were only estimates of a wagon's content... Hauptmann Wirth asked me not to propose changes in Berlin re his facilities, and to let it remain as it is, being well established and well-tried. I supervised the burial of the prussic acid because it allegedly had decomposed.
The next day - 19 August 1942 - we drove in the car of Hauptmann Wirth to Treblinka, 120 km north northeast of Warsaw. The equipment was nearly the same as, but much larger than in Belzec. Eight gas chambers and real mountains of suitcases, textiles, and clothes. In our honour a banquet was given in old German style in the communal room. The meal was simple but everything was available in sufficient quantity. Himmler himself had ordered that the men of these commandos received as much meat, butter and other things, especially alcohol, as they wanted.
Then we drove in the car to Warsaw. I met the secretary of the Swedish legation in Berlin, Baron von Otter in the train when I tried in vain to get a bed in a sleeping car. Still under the immediate impression of the terrible events, I told him everything with the entreaty to inform his government and the Allies of all of this immediately because each day's delay must cost the lives of further thousands and tens of thousands.
He asked me for a reference, as to which I specified Generalsuperintendent Dr. Otto Dibelius, Berlin, Brüderweg 2, Lichterfelde-West, an intimate friend of the pastor Martin Niemöller and member of the church resistance movement against Nazism. I met Mr. von Otter twice again in the Swedish legation. Meanwhile he had reported to Stockholm and informed me that this report has had considerable influence on Swedish-German relations. At the same time I tried to report to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin. There I was asked if I am a soldier. Then any further conversation with me was refused and I was asked to leave the embassy of His Holiness. While leaving the embassy, I was shadowed by a policeman on a bicycle who shortly passed me, got off, and then absolutely incomprehensibly, let me go.
Then I reported all this to hundreds of personages, among others the company lawyer of the Catholic bishop of Berlin, Dr. Winter, with the special entreaty to forward it to the Holy See. I must also add that SS-Sturmbannführer Günther from the Reichssicherheitshauptamt - I think he is the son of the Race-Günther - again demanded from me very large amounts of prussic acid in early 1944 for a very sinister purpose. On the Kurfürsten-Street in Berlin he showed me a shed in which he intended to store the prussic acid. I consequently explained him that I cannot take sole responsibility. It was approximately several wagon loads, enough to kill millions of people. He told me that he himself doesn't know whether the poison would still be needed; when, for whom, in which way etc. But it has to be permanently kept available.
Later I often thought about the words of Goebbels. I can believe that they wanted to kill a majority of the German nation, surely including the clergy or the unpopular officers. It should happen in a kind of reading rooms or club rooms, so far as I gathered from the questions re the technical realization that Günther asked me. It could also be that he intended to kill the foreign workers or prisoners of war - I don't know. In every case I managed to ensure that the prussic acid disappeared for some purpose of disinfection after arrival in the two concentration camps Oranienburg and Auschwitz.
That was somewhat dangerous for me but I could have easily said that the poison had already been in a dangerous condition of decomposition. I am sure that Günther tried to get the poison in order to probably kill millions of persons. It was sufficient for approximately 8 million people, 8,500 kgs. I have authorized invoices for 2,175 kgs. I always allowed the invoices to be authorised in my name, allegedly for the sake of discretion, but in truth because of being free to dispose of the poison and being able to allow it to disappear. Above all I avoided presentation of invoices again and again, delaying payment and putting off companies until later."
As for the rest I avoided appearing in concentration camps too often because it was sometimes usual to hang people or to carry out executions in honor of the visitors.
All my statements are true, word-for-word. I am fully aware of the extraordinary tragedy of my record before God and the whole of mankind, and take it on my oath that nothing of all this that I have registered has been made-up or invented but everything is exactly the truth.Kurt Gerstein
Sources: NARA; Christopher R. Browning, “Evidence for the Implementation of the Final Solution,” Electronic Edition, 1999.