Kurt Gerstein

Kurt Gerstein - one remarkable man who refused to surrender his conscience 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 .."

On the night of August 20-21, 1942, on his way back to Germany from the death camps, Kurt Gerstein travelled by train from Warsaw to Berlin and accidently encountered the Secretary to the Swedish Legation in Berlin, Baron Göran von Otter.

In his superbly written book A Spy For God Pierre Joffroy tells how von Otter had been unable to get a sleeper and stayed in the corridor: "There was an officer in SS uniform who seemed to be having the same trouble. He kept glancing at me, but I got the impression that it was from personal interest, not because he had me under surveillance."

Less than an hour from Warsaw, the train stopped at a station and von Otter got down to get a breath of air: "He followed me on to the platform and asked if I would give him a light. I produced a box of matches of the kind that were issued to us, with the words Swedish Consulate printed on it, and while I was lighting his cigarette he murmured: I want to talk to you. May I come and see you in Berlin?"

With beads of sweat on his forehead and tears in his eyes Kurt Gerstein suddenly burst out: Yesterday I saw something appalling. Von Otter asked him what he meant, but now Gerstein was weeping and could only repeat: ... something appalling.

"Is it to do with the Jews?" von Otter asked. "I don't think he answered. We couldn't go on talking on the platform. We got back into the train and sat on the floor at the end of the corridor. He had got himself under control ... The train was blacked out and the corridor was very badly lit, but there was enough light for me to read his identity papers and instructions."

In a feverish conversation lasting 10 hours, Kurt Gerstein poured out the whole story, crying and smoking incessantly. He related all he had just seen to the Swedish diplomat and begged him to tell the Swedish government about the atrocities in the camps.

Von Otter later recalled: "He gave me full details, names of the people carrying out the operation, and those higher up who were responsible ... he told me how he had come to be involved. His sister, or some other close relative, had died in a mental home, in circumstances that seemed to him so suspicious that he resolved to investigate further. Hence his entry into the SS."

Kurt Gerstein desperately urged von Otter to make the Holocaust known to the Allies and the outside world. His idea was that the Allied air forces, acting on Swedish information, should drop millions of leaflets over Germany, telling the German people what was going on, so that then they would rebel against Hitler.

Von Otter later described the encounter: "It was hard to get Gerstein to keep his voice down. We stood there together, all night. And again and again, Gerstein kept on recalling what he had seen. He sobbed and hid his face in his hands. From the very beginning as Gerstein described the atrocities, weeping and broken hearted, I had no doubt as to the sincerity of his humanitarian intentions."

Göran von Otter filed a report to his own government, which found it, as did other neutrals, too bizarre for credibility, and it was never acted on. But Gerstein maintained contact with the Swedish embassy in Berlin and kept it informed of the extermination operations.

Kurt Gerstein continued to tell people what he had seen, anyone he felt would spread the word about the atrocities:

"Taking my life in my hands every moment, I continued to inform hundreds of people of these horrible massacres. Among them were the Niemoller family; Dr. Hochstrasser, the press attaché at the Swiss Legation in Berlin; Dr. Winter, the coadjutor of the Catholic Bishop of Berlin - so that he could transmit my information to the Bishop and to the Pope; Dr. Dibelius, bishop of the Confessing Church, and many others. In this way, thousands of people were informed by me."

Gerstein also urged members of the Dutch underground to broadcast his information by radio to Great Britain. But Kurt Gerstein was ignored - nothing happened. All were disinclined to believe his gruesome narrative of mass murder, it was rejected as atrocity propaganda. All his efforts to inform the church, the Allies and the opinion abroad proved futile as did his premise that, if the facts became known, the extermination of the Jews would be stopped.

As months continued to pass and still the Allies had done nothing to stop the extermination, Gerstein became increasingly frantic. He behaved in a desperate manner, risking his life every time he spoke of the death camps to persons he scarcely knew ..

Later during the war a despairing Gerstein risked everything destroying shipments of Zyklon B gas to be used for the extermination of thousands of Jewish people. The gas was buried on the pretext that it had been spoiled in transit.

Eventually he risked 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 ..."

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 ..

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 ..."

- Louis Bülow