This is the story of one remarkable man who refused to surrender his conscience in the face of mass murder as one of the few SS officers in the Third Reich. Kurt Gerstein showed true heroism, tirelessly denounced Hitler’s Nazi genocide and alerted the Allies, the Pope, the Germans and the church of the crimes during World War 2.
The mission of Kurt Gerstein was to expose the horrors of the Nazism to the world and to mitigate the suffering around him. The conscience-stricken Gerstein left one of the most horrifying testimonies of the Holocaust – he visited the death camps Belzec and Treblinka in August 1942 and witnessed the mass gassing of Jewish men, women and children.
“There are not ten people alive, who have seen or will see as much as you,” he was told by SS Major Christian Wirth, responsible for overseeing the murder of more than two million Jews in the death camps Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
Kurt Gerstein, thirty-seven-year-old head of the Waffen SS Technical Disinfection Services, was shocked by what he had seen. Yet, he realized that as a witness, his position was unique, and he was determined to expose what he knew to the world to stop the atrocities.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Toland describes how Kurt Gerstein upon arrival in Warsaw set off immediately for Berlin, resolved to tell those who would listen of the ghastly sights he had witnessed:
“A modern Ancient Mariner, he began spreading the truth to incredulous colleagues. As a rock thrown into a pond creates ever widening ripples, so did the tale of Kurt Gerstein ..”
Eventually he sacrificed his honor, his family, and his life to inform the Allies: “I was one of the handful of people who had seen every corner of the establishment, and certainly the only one to have visited it as an enemy of this gang of murderers …“
Kurt Gerstein continued to tell people what he had seen, anyone he felt would spread the word about the atrocities. Later during the war evidence shows how a despairing Gerstein risked everything stopping shipments of gas by marking it no good and ordering it buried.
All his efforts proved futile and Kurt Gerstein died in a French prison on July 25, 1945 – overwhelmed by a sense of personal responsibility and guilt ..
Whether he committed suicide out of despair and guilt in not being able to stop the Holocaust or whether he was murdered by other SS officers in the prison to silence an accuser remains a mystery.
The author Gitta Sereny later wrote:
“Gerstein’s life is perhaps the most significant testimonial to the presence of moral convictions and heroism in the midst of the Nazi monstrosities .. a man in Germany who at almost unimaginable personal risk had tried, actively and from the start, to stop Hitler’s genocide.”
His friend, Pastor Martin Niemoller, later said: “He was a very special kind of saint, but perfectly pure and of irreproachable rectitude. He was prepared to sacrifice, and indeed did sacrifice, his honor, his family and his life …”