Kurt Gerstein is an Unreliable Witness
Holocaust deniers say:
The "story" of mass murder of Jews in the Operation Reinhard camps in gas chambers using engine exhaust is based solely on the unbelievable post-war testimony of Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who observed a mass gassing in Belzec.
Let us take a look at what we know about Kurt Gerstein and his report before we discuss the Holocaust deniers’ attacks on it.
Who was Kurt Gerstein?
Kurt Gerstein was the chief disinfection officer for the Waffen-SS (the military arm of the SS). In August 1942, Gerstein was sent to Poland to see if using liquid prussic acid (a version of Zyklon-B) would be better than using diesel engine exhaust for mass murder in the Operation Reinhard camps. In Lublin Gerstein met Odilo Globocnik, the head of Operation Reinhard, who took him on a tour of Belzec and Treblinka, where he observed the murder of Jews in the gas chambers in Belzec and Treblinka.
Gerstein was very shaken by what he had seen and on his way back to Germany he began trying to expose what the Germans were doing by confiding in a Swiss diplomat on the train and begging him to tell the Swiss government. Back in Germany he told many important Protestant church leaders and members of the Dutch resistance about what he had seen. He also tried to tell the Catholic Church in Berlin, but he was denied an interview.
Despite what he had seen at Belzec and Treblinka, Gerstein remained in the SS until the end of the war. His job was to provide Zyklon-B to the camps, including Auchwitz-Birkenau, where it was used for the mass murder of about 1 million Jews.
A few weeks before the war ended Gerstein slipped through the front lines and voluntarily surrendered to the French in Reutlingen, Germany. While he awaited interrogation, he wrote up an account of what he had seen in Belzec and Treblinka. He told his captors that in addition to trying to inform the West about the mass murder of the Jews, he had actively worked to sabotage the use of Zyklon-B on human beings in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His French interrogators did not believe Gerstein’s claim that he had tried to misdirect or destroy the Zyklon-B before it could be used on human beings and, rather than treating him as a star witness, they indicted him for war crimes.
On July 25, 1945 after receiving the articles of indictment Gerstein hung himself in his jail cell in Paris, France.1
What did Gerstein see at Belzec?
The key parts of his report are as follows:
- The next day, we left for Belcec. [sic] For this purpose a special little station had been constructed close to a hill directly to the north of the Lublin-Lemberg route . . . I did not see any dead that day, but the smell which prevailed in the surroundings was pestilential in that scorching month of August and there were flies everywhere by the million . . . there was a large hut, the so-called "Cloakroom," with a large service window headed "Valuables." Then came a room with a hundred chairs; the premises of the hairdresser. Then a little alley in the open air planted with birch trees, bordered to the right and left with a double row of barbed wire, with the sign: Access to the Inhalation Rooms and Baths! Before us, a kind of bath establishment with, to right and left in the front, large concrete pots with geraniums, then a small stairway, and afterwards to right and to left respectively 3 halls of 5 x 5 meters, 1.90 m high, with doors of wood like garages. In the wall at the bottom, not very visible in the darkness, large sliding doors of wood. On the roof, by way of a "subtle joke," the star of David! In front of the building a sign: Heckenholt Foundation. I did not see more that afternoon.
- The following morning, a little before 7 o’clock, I am told: the first transport arrives in ten minutes! . . . the first train coming from Lemberg [Polish: Lvov] arrives: 45 cars, 6,700 persons of whom 1,450 were already dead on their arrival. . . . The train entered the station: 200 Ukrainians brutally open the doors and make the people get out of the cars by lashing them with their whips of leather thongs. A big loudspeaker gives further instructions: to undress completely: also remove artificial limbs, spectacles, etc. . . . Deliver objects of value to the service window, without vouchers or receipts. Carefully tie up the shoes in pairs . . . otherwise . . . no one would have been able to retrieve the shoes which went together. Then the women and the young girls pass to the hair dresses who, in two or three cuts with the scissors, cuts all the hair, which disappears into large potato sacks.
- Then the procession starts to move. . . . They climb up the little stairway and then they see everything. The mothers with their children at the breast, the small naked children, the adults, men and women, all naked, they hesitate but they enter into the chambers of death, pushed forward by others who are behind them or by the whips of leather thongs of the SS men. . . . The chambers are filled. Pack tightly! Captain Wirth has ordered. The people are stepping on each other’s feet, 700-800 in 25 square meters, in 45 cubic meters. The SS men press them physically one against the other as much as they can. The doors close.
- Heckenholt is the operator of the diesel engine . . . But the diesel does not work! Captain Wirth arrives. One sees that it is painful to him that it should have to happen today just when I am here. . . . 50 minutes, 70 minutes the diesel does not start. The people wait in the gas chambers. . . . One hears them weep, sob, "Like at a synagogue," remarks the professor Pfannenstiel, his ear against the wooden door . . . At the end of 2 hours 49 minutes . . . the diesel starts . . . 25 minutes pass . . . many are now dead. One sees it through the small window in which the electric light illuminates the chamber for an instant. At the end of 28 minutes only some still live; at the end of 32 minutes everyone is dead.
- From the other side the men of the work detail open the wooden doors. . . . The dead are standing straight like pillars of basalt, ranged tightly one against the other in the chambers. There was no room to fall or lean forward. . . . The bodies are thrown outside . . . Two dozen dentists open the mouths with hooks and look to see if there are gold crowns . . . the naked cadavers were hauled on wooden barrows to only a few meters from there to pits of 100 by 20 by 12 meters. . . . Afterwards . . . the cadvers were burned on large grills improvised with railway rails, with the help of petrol and diesel oil. 2
Why are there so many versions of the Gerstein Report?
There are four "versions" that were clearly written by Gerstein. We know he wrote them because they are in his handwriting, are signed by him or their origin can clearly be traced back to Gerstein himself. These four "versions" are:
- Two reports dated April 26, 1945, both written in French. The first is handwritten and the second was typed up from the first. The handwritten copy is indisputably in Gerstein’s hand and the typed copy is signed by Gerstein.
- On May 4, 1945 he typed up another copy of the report in German and added some new material at the end. This report is not signed but we know it is authentic because Gerstein advised his wife by letter that he was being transferred to Paris and that he was leaving it at the hotel desk, where it was later found. This report is not signed.
- Gerstein started another handwritten report in French dated May 6. However, for an unknown reason he stopped halfway through it and never finished it. The part he did write was substantially the same as the reports that had come before as far as it went.
The first three are a series of drafts, first in French and then in German, each consecutive one containing a little more information and editing changes until Gerstein apparently felt he had achieved his final complete report. In every draft Gerstein’s account of mass murder in Belzec remained fundamentally the same, with no significant changes.
The report typed in French on April 26, 1945 was entered into evidence at the International Military Trial at Nuremberg in 1946 together with several invoices for Zyklon-B that Gerstein had saved as evidence as documents PS-1553.
Gerstein also gave some of his original reports to various interrogators, who then prepared their own reports which made their way through a series of hands into various archives around the world in several languages. However, the "contradictions" and "discrepancies" pounced on by Holocaust deniers in these texts are irrelevant because Gerstein cannot be responsible for texts that were translated, composed or handled by others even when they are clearly based on his original reports.
The reports that are known to have been composed and/or authorized by Gerstein are those listed below and they will be referred to as follows:
- Report 1: In French, handwritten, April 26, 1945.
- Report 2: In French, typed, April 26, 1945.
- Report 3: In German, typed, May 4, 1945.
The unfinished handwritten report in French dated May 6 will not be considered, although it is clearly by Gerstein, because it is not complete. None of the reports prepared or handled by interrogators and passed on to various offices in various languages will be considered for the reasons written above.
Why do the Holocaust deniers focus so heavily on destroying Gerstein’s credibility?
Gerstein’s report on the mass murder of Jews in the Operation Reinhard camps is part of the handful of testimony from Jewish survivors and perpetrators who made affidavits or testified in trials after the war. Since the buildings in the camps were razed and most of the documentation on these camps was destroyed, these accounts are very important.
In order to erase the deaths of some 1.5 million Jewish men, women and children in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, the Holocaust deniers must discredit Gerstein and his report at any cost.
How do they go about this task? Their tactics are diverse and sometimes contradictory, but in general they claim that:
- Gerstein made the story out of whole cloth up to please his Allied captors in the hope that he would be treated as a star witness instead of prosecuted as a war criminal.
- Gerstein was tortured by his Allied captors to get the story they wanted about German atrocities against the Jews. They might even have killed him in the process of making him sign their mountain of lies.
- No matter how the Allies got Gerstein’s false report, immediately afterward he was mysteriously found dead in his prison cell. In fact, the Allied interrogators may even have had a hand in his death, which they covered up by reporting it as a "suicide." Then they secretly and quickly disposed of his body to hide the marks of torture or the lack of support for "suicide" as the cause of death.
- Some of the details in Gerstein’s report are so unbelievable and physically impossible that the entire report is clearly false and must be dismissed as evidence of the mass murder of the Jews.
- Gerstein’s report is so unbelievable that it was rejected as evidence by the judges at the Nuremberg Trials.
Finally, in an attempt to cover all the bases the Holocaust deniers attack Gerstein’s character. They call him a coward, a liar and a traitor. The American Holocaust denier videomaker goes to the opposite extreme claiming that Gerstein was a German hero because he sabotaged his Allied captors’ attempt to foist a forgery on the world under his name by cleverly including impossible details so the whole world would later know it was false. When all else fails, the Holocaust deniers claim that Gerstein was mentally unbalanced, physically ill and taking drugs that affected his senses, or he was outright insane.
Let us look at these claims one at a time.
1. For additional reading on Gerstein’s life see Saul Friedländer, Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good (Random House, 1969) and Valerie Hebert, "Disguised Resistance? The Story of Kurt Gerstein," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, V20, N1, Spring 2006, pp. 1-33.
2. These excerpts were taken from the typed report written in German dated May 4, 1945 (Report 3). The translation can be found in Henri Roques, The 'Confessions’ of Kurt Gerstein (Institute for Historical Review, 1989), pp. 40-43. The original German text can be found in the same book, pgs. 229-241.