The Gerstein Report was written in 1945 by Kurt Gerstein, Obersturmführer of the Waffen-SS, who served as Head of Technical Disinfection Services of the SS in World War II, and in that capacity supplied the hydrogen cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon B from Degesch (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung) to Rudolf Höss in Auschwitz, and conducted the negotiations with the owners. On 18 August 1942, along with Rolf Günther and Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, Gerstein witnessed the gassing of some 3,000 Jews in the extermination camp of Belzec in occupied Poland. The report features his eyewitness testimony. It was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.
When Gerstein surrendered to the French Commandant in the occupied town of Reutlingen on 22 April 1945 he was sent to the town of Rottweil where he was placed under "honorable captivity" and given accommodation in the Hotel Mohren. There he composed his report, first in French and then in German.
Gerstein was born on 11 August 1905 in Münster where he lived until 1910, moving to Saarbrücken, Halberstadt, and Neuruppin near Berlin where he received his secondary school diploma in 1925. He attended universities in Marburg, Aachen and Berlin, receiving an engineering degree in 1931. During his studies he was active in the Protestant youth movements.
He joined the Nazi Party in May 1933. As a committed Christian, Gerstein resisted attempts by the Nazi state to control the Christian youth movement, and ran afoul of state authorities. He was expelled from the party in October 1936 after his arrest in September 1936 for circulating anti-Nazi pamphlets. Released, he was arrested a second time in July 1938, spending two months in a concentration camp. Reportedly outraged by the euthanasia or Aktion T4 programme, he decided to join the Waffen SS: "to look into the matter of these ovens and chambers in order to learn what happened there." Because of his technical education, Gerstein was placed in the Waffen-SS technical disinfection services where he rose quickly to become its head. It was in that capacity that he traveled to the extermination camps of Belzec and Treblinka offering the supply of hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B).
Testimony regarding gas chambers
Gerstein stated that on 18 August 1942, he traveled to the extermination camp at Belzec where he witnessed the arrival of "45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival." He described the gassing operation as it happened directly in front of him:
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 metres, in 45 cubic metres! 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 metres! 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!— Gerstein Report
The final part of the report describes Gerstein's attempts to circulate his eyewitness testimony. He reports on his chance encounter with the secretary of the Swedish legation in Berlin, Baron Göran von Otter, on the Warsaw-Berlin train "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." Von Otter did talk with high-ranking officials at the Swedish Foreign Ministry. However, the information was not passed on to the Allies or to any other party. He also reports on his unsuccessful attempts to see the Papal Nuncio Cesare Orsenigo in Berlin. Gerstein wished to notify the Vatican. Informed of the purpose of Gerstein's visit, Orenigo refused to meet with him. Gerstein's message was eventually sent to the Vatican, by the auxiliary bishop of Berlin, not the nuncio's office, where the information reached a "dead end". In addition to these attempts, Gerstein also stated he reported these eye witness accounts to "hundreds of personages." Although not explicitly mentioned in the 1945 report, one of these attempts was via a Dutch industrialist, J.H. Ubbink. In February 1943, Ubbink visited Gerstein in Berlin, wherein Gerstein
With great indignation he told me how the gassings took place using the exhaust gas from diesel engines. He gave me all the details and told me that at that time there were 9000 deaths per day in the three camps.— Letter from J.H. Ubbink to Erika Arajs, Department of Justice in Nuremberg, dated September 14, 1949
Ubbink passed this information on to a member of the Dutch Resistance, Cornelius Van der Hooft who, a few days later on March 23, 1943 wrote "Tötunsanstalten in Polen" (English translation: Killing Institutions in Poland), a four-page report in Dutch which apparently remained hidden in the chicken coop of another member of the Dutch Resistance and this version only came to light in 1996. The March report however, does seem to have been sent to the Dutch government-in-exile as on April 24, 1943, one month after the meeting between Van der Hooft and Ubbink, another version of the report inspired by Gerstein was written. Typed on paper without an official heading, and with the simplified title of "Tötungsanstalten", this version circulated within the Dutch government-in-exile, via the British government and eventually to the attention of the United States Inter-Allied Information Committee.
Use as evidence in trials
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.
Some aspects of Gerstein's report are inaccurate as they are physically impossible or improbable. This includes false statements attributed to Odilo Globocnik, inaccurate claims regarding the total number of Jews gassed at Holocaust locations where he was not an eyewitness, impossibly large numbers of people per square metre during gassings, impossibly high piles of clothes, etc. Holocaust historian Christopher Browning has written:
Many aspects of Gerstein's testimony are unquestionably problematic. [In making] statements, such as the height of the piles of shoes and clothing at Belzec and Treblinka, Gerstein himself is clearly the source of exaggeration. Gerstein also added grossly exaggerated claims about matters to which he was not an eyewitness, such as that a total of 25 million Jews and others were gassed. But in the essential issue, namely that he was in Belzec and witnessed the gassing of a transport of Jews from Lwow, his testimony is fully corroborated .... It is also corroborated by other categories of witnesses from Belzec.
One such witness was SS-Standartenführer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel who was named in the report. Although the Gerstein report's statements regarding gassing of Jews at Belzec were not refuted by Pfannenstiel when he was on post-war trial, he did refute the report towards the end of his life in a private letter to Paul Rassinier, calling it “highly dubious rubbish in which 'fantasy' far outweighs fact”..
Historian Robin O'Neil noted that Gerstein's data presented at face value about the enormous capacity of the gas chambers i.e. "four times 750 persons" has no grounds in reality.
Notes and references
- Yahil 1991, pp. 356-357.
- Friedländer, Saul (1969), Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good. New York: Alfred A Knopf, p. 112.
- Friedländer 1969, pp. 211-212.
- The Gerstein Report (in translation). ARC 2006.
- Hilberg, Raul (1985) The Destruction Of The European Jews, Student Eds p241 Holmes & Meier, Teaneck
- Phayer, 2000, p. 46.
- Brayard, Florent (2000) An Early Report by Kurt Gerstein, Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [On Line], published on line 19 May 2008, Accessed 10 March 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/bcrfj/3022
- Kurt Gerstein, Nuremberg Trial Document PS-1553.
- Evidence for the Implementation of the Final Solution: Electronic Edition, by Browning, Christopher R.
- HDOT : Irving v. Lipstadt : Defense Documents : Evidence for the Implementation of the Final Solution: Electronic Edition
- Shofar FTP Archives: people/p/pfannenstiel.wilhelm/
- Dr. W. Pfannenstiel, Professor of Medicine at Marburg, had been sent to Belzec and other camps as medical adviser to improve hygiene and health care in the camps. After the war, he was repeatedly interrogated regarding his visit to Belzec with Gerstein. He was charged in two cases but never convicted. In the court-room statements, which are available to us, he never directly disputed Gerstein's account, but in a private letter he described the Gerstein Statement as "highly dubious rubbish in which 'fantasy' far outweighs fact." He also wrote that due to the persecution and slander to which he was exposed, he did not wish to comment further on the matter publicly. In other words, Pfannenstiel had clearly tried to avoid further trouble for himself. The 'whole truth' would have been too much for his prosecutors to bear. - Letter from Pfannenstiel to P. Rassinier, dated Aug. 3, 1963, published in W. Stäglich, U. Walendy, "NS-Bewältigung", Historische Tatsachen no. 5, Historical Review Press, Southam (GB) 1979, p. 20.
- Robin O'Neil, Rudolf Reder (2011). "Appendix 5: Rudolf Reder's "Bełzec" with Introduction by M. M. Rubel". The Rabka Four. Instruments of Genocide and Grand Larceny (Poland) By Robin O'Neil. Spiderwize Publishing (digitized by JewishGen.org). p. 237. OCLC 796270628. Retrieved 6 September 2015.