Kurt Gerstein was born in Münster on August 11, 1905, of an old Prussian family. By profession a mining engineer he was an active member of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s Confessional Church with close links to the Christian anti-Nazi Resistance.
He joined the Nazi party in 1933, but outspokenly critical of Nazi blasphemies, he was arrested and expelled from the party in 1936. He was dismissed from the Ministry of Mines, debarred from the public service and banned from public speaking anywhere in Germany.
In 1938, he was arrested again by the Gestapo and sentenced to a term in the concentration camp Welzheim.
Released after six weeks he wrote a letter to his uncle, Robert Pommer, who had emigrated to the US: “Dear Uncle Robert, your many visits to Germany have enabled you to see the undeniable successes of the Hitler regime in so many fields – roads, unemployment, building. But you cannot have seen the tragedies resulting from the loss of spiritual and religous freedom, and of justice …”
Later Gerstein reapplied to become a Nazi party member in order to gather information about the Nazis and their dark secrets – but he was refused.
In 1941, Kurt Gerstein’s own sister-in-law, Bertha Ebeling, died mysteriously at the Hadamar psychiatric hospital. He was shocked by her death and Pierre Joffroy tells in his book A Spy for God how Gerstein burst out to his brother and sister-in-law at the funeral: “Do you realize what they did to Berta? Hadamar is a slaughterhouse. The Nazis are clearing out all the mental hospitals in Germany by systematically exterminating the patients. Berta didn’t die a natural death. She was murdered.”
Gerstein became determined to find out the truth about the numerous deaths at Hadamar. On March 10, 1941, he applied for admission to the Waffen SS after being told by the Bishop of Stuttgart that mentally ill patients were being killed at the institutions Hadamar and Grafeneck.
Gerstein explained in his report: “I wanted only one thing: to see to the bottom of this witchpot and then tell the people what I would have seen there – even if my life was then threatened.”
No questions were asked about his past, and on March 15, 1941, he was – miraculously – admitted to the Waffen SS and send to Hamburg for a training course.
In his book Counterfeit Nazi: the Ambiguity of Good, the historian Saul Friedlander wrote that had there been in Germany hundreds of Gersteins, “then surely hundreds of thousands of the intended victims would have been saved. But there were non save Gerstein ..”
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 eventual 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.”
Finally after two hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers .. another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead. Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall”, Kurt Gerstein later wrote.
The outside doors to the gas chamber were opened and the bodies taken out. “One could tell families even in death. They were still holding hands, stiffened in death so that it was difficult to tear them apart to clear the chamber for the next load,” Gerstein wrote.
Before the corpses of the Jews were tossed into large trenches, they were searched for valuables in the form of gold teeth or gems or gold hidden in the vagina or rectum. Gerstein was shown the processing of the dead: “With gold to the left – without gold to the right .. Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and crowns.
In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. Hew as in his element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: “See for yourself the weight of that gold! It’s only from yesterday and the day before. You can’t imagine what we find every day – dollars, diamonds, gold. You’ll see for yourself!”
Gerstein forced himself to watch the final process. The bodies were flung into trenches, each some hundred yards long, conveniently located near the gas chambers. He was told that the bodies would swell from gas after a few days, raising the mound as much as six to ten feet. Once the swelling subsided, the bodies would be piled on railway ties covered with diesel oil and burned to cinders.