In 1941 Kurt Gerstein joined the Health Department of the SS and in January 1942 he was appointed head of the Technical Disinfection Service of the Waffen SS, responsible for handling ‘poisonous disinfectant gases’. A friend later recalled: “He was so appalled by the satanic practices of the Nazis, that their eventuel victory did not seem to him impossible.”
In the late summer of 1942 he was sent on a mission to introduce Zyclon B gassing into the Nazi death camps in Poland in place of gas engines.
Kurt Gerstein was deeply shaken by what he witnessed – he had but one desire: to gain an insight into the Nazi death machinery and shout it to the whole world. Eventually he risked his life to inform the Allies. He described how the Jews were forced to undress, the piles of shoes were allegedly 25 meters high, the women’s hair was cut off, the naked Jews were driven between two barbed wire fences to the gas chambers.
Kurt Gerstein desperately tried to alert the world about the atrocities:
“I see everything! The mothers, their babies at the breast, the little naked children, the men and women, naked. They enter into the death chamber, pushed by the leather whips of the SS. Pack well, that is what the captain ordered. Seven to eight hundred persons on twenty-five square meters. More than half are children …”
A five-year-old girl dropped a necklace and a three-year-old boy picked it up as they passed into the chamber, where victims were crammed in so tightly they could not move. Men, women, children filed past in ghastly parade as a burly SS man promised in a loud, priestlike voice that nothing terrible was going to happen to them. “All you have to do is breathe in deeply. That strengthens the lungs. Inhaling is a means of preventing infectious diseases. It’s a good method of disinfection.”
To those who timorously asked what their fate would be, the SS man gave more reassurance: the men would build roads and houses, the women would do housework or help in the kitchen.
When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work but broke down while pumping its deadly carbon monoxide gas into the chamber. While mechanics worked to repair the diesel engine, the Jews had to await death, pressed body-to-body against one another.
The SS officer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, looking through the glass peep hole in the door of the gas chamber, commented that the Jews were weeping “as they do in the synagogue.”