Report by Kurt Gerstein


Kurt Gerstein (Private Archives)

SS- Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein, the chief disinfection officer in the Main Hygienic Office of the Waffen-SS and SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel -Professor and Director of the  Hygienic Institute at the University of Marburg / Lahn traveled to Lublin to advise on disinfection issues and to see whether Zyklon B could be used to improve the killing capacity .

Both men wrote reports on their visits to the Belzec and Treblinka death camps, and Gerstein's account is reproduced here. His report was written on May 4, 1945, in Rottweil, in the southwestern part of Germany and after the report, a biography of Kurt Gerstein will follow. His report is almost unique, as very few outside visitors were admitted to Belzec and its historical importance cannot be underestimated:

Kurt Gerstein Report

The next day we went to Belzec. A small station had been built especially for this purpose on a hill just north of the Lublin -Lemberg Chausee in the left corner of the demarcation line. South of the road some houses with the notice 'Sonderkommando der Waffen-SS.' As Polizeihauptmann Wirth, the actual head of the whole killing installations was not yet there, Globocnik introduced me to SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Obermeyer, from Pirmasens. The latter only let me see that afternoon what he had to show me. I did not see any dead that day, but in the hot August weather the whole place smelt like the plague and there were millions of flies everywhere.

Right by the small two-track station there was a large shed, the so-called cloakroom with a large counter where valuables were handed over. Then there was a room containing about 100 chairs - the barbers room. Then an outdoor path under birch trees, with a double barbed-wire fence on the left and right, with the sign 'To the inhalation and bathrooms.' In front of us a sort of bath-house with geraniums,, then a few steps, and then three rooms each on the right and left, 5 meters by 5 meters, 1.9 meters high, with wooden doors like garages. In the rear wall, hardly visible in the darkness, large sliding doors. On the roof, as a witty little joke' the Star of David. In front of the building a notice: 'Hackenholt Institute.' More than that i was not able to see that afternoon.

Shortly before seven the next morning I was informed: 'The first transport is coming in ten minutes!' The first train from Lemberg did in fact arrive in a few minutes. Forty-five wagons containing 6,700 people, of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Children were looking out from behind the barred windows, their faces dreadfully pale and frightened, their eyes filled with the fear of death, besides men and women. The train came into the station: 200 Ukrainians tore open the doors and drove people out of the wagons with their leather whips. A big loudspeaker gave further instructions: undress completely, take off artificial limbs, spectacles etc. Give up valuables at the counter without credit notes or receipts. Tie shoes together carefully, otherwise in the pile of shoes, which was a good 25 meters high, no-one could have found a pair that matched. Then the women and children went to the barber who cut off all their hair with two or three chops with the scissors and stuffed it into potato sacks. 'That is put to some special use in U-boats - for caulking or something like that,' the SS Corporal on duty told me.

Then the procession started to move. With a lovely young girl at the front, they all walked along the path, all naked, men, women and children, without their artificial limbs. I stood with Hauptmann Wirth up on the ramp between the chambers. Mothers with their babies at the breast came up, hesitated then entered the death chambers. A sturdy SS man stood in the corner and told the wretched people in a clerical tone of voice :' Nothing at all is going to happen to you! You must take a deep breath in the chambers. That expands the lungs. This inhalation is necessary because of illnesses and infection.' When asked what was going to happen to them, he answered: 'Well of course, the men must work, building houses and roads, but the women don't have to work. Only if they want to, they can help with the housework or in the kitchen.' This gave some of these poor people a glimmer of hope that lasted long enough for them to take the few steps into the chambers without resisting.

The majority realised - the smell told them what their fate was to be. So they climbed the steps and then they saw everything. Mothers with babies at the breast, naked little children, adults, men, women - all naked. They hesitated, but they went into the gas chamber, pushed on by those behind them, or driven in by the leather whips of the SS. Most of them without saying a word. A Jewess of about 40, with eyes blazing, called down upon the heads of the murderers the blood being split here. Hauptmann Wirth personally gave her five or six lashes in the face with his riding whip. Then she too disappeared into the chamber.

Many people were praying. I prayed with them. I pressed myself into a corner and cried aloud to my God and theirs. How gladly I would have gone with them into the chambers. How gladly I would have their death with them. Then they would have found a uniformed SS officer in their chambers. The matter would have been treated as a case of death by misadventure and dealt with: missing, presumed dead, unheralded and unsung. But I could not do that yet. First I had to make known what I had seen here!

The chambers filled. Cram them well in - Hauptmann Wirth had ordered. People were standing on each other's feet. 700 -800 on 25 square meters, in 45 cubic meters. The SS forced as many in together as was physically possible. The doors closed. Meanwhile the others were waiting outside in the open air, naked. Now at last I understood why the whole installation was called the Hackenholt Institute. Hackenholt was the driver of the diesel engine - a minor technician who was also the builder of this installation. The people were to be killed with diesel exhaust fumes.

But the diesel did not work. Hauptmann Wirth came. He was obviously embarrassed that this had to happen on the very day that I was there. Yes I saw everything. And I waited. My stop-watch had recorded it all well. 50 minutes- 70 minutes - the diesel did not start. The people were waiting in the gas chambers. In vain! We heard them weeping, sobbing... Hauptmann Wirth struck the Ukrainian who was supposed to be helping Unterscharfuhrer Hackenholt mend the diesel. The whip hit him in the face 13 or 14 times. After 2 hours 49 minutes - the stop-watch had recorded it all well - the diesel started.

Up till then people were alive in these four chambers, four times 750 people, in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 went by. True, many were now dead. One could see that through the little glass window through which the electric light lit up the chamber for a moment. After 28 minutes only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes everyone was dead. Men of the work squad opened the wooden doors from the other side. They - Jews themselves - had been promised their freedom and a certain percentage of all valuables found in payment for the ghastly duty they performed.

The dead were standing upright like basalt pillars, pressed together in the chambers. There would not have been room to fall down or even to bend over. One could tell the families, even in death. They were still holding hands, stiffened in death, so that it was difficult to tear them apart in order to clear the chamber for the next load. The corpses were thrown out - wet with sweat and urine, soiled with excrement, menstrual blood on their legs. Children's bodies flew through the air. There was no time to lose. The whips of the Ukrainians whistled down on the backs of the work squad. Two dozen dentists opened the mouths with hooks and looked for gold. Gold on the right, without gold on the left. Other dentists used pliers and hammers to break gold teeth and crowns out of the Jews.

The naked corpses were carried in wooden barrows just a few meters away to pits of 100 by 20 by 12 meters. After some days the putrefying bodies swelled up and then, a short time later, collapsed violently so that a new batch could be thrown on top of them. Then 10 centimeters of sand was thrown over it, so that only a few single heads and arms stuck out . In one of these spots I saw Jews clambering about on the corpses in the pits and working. I was told by an oversight those who were already dead when the transport arrived, had not been undressed. Because of the textiles and valuables, which they would otherwise have taken with them to the grave, this of course had to be rectified. Nobody took any trouble either in Belzec or in Treblinka to record or count those who had been killed. The figures were only estimates based on the capacity of the wagons.

The next day- the 19th August 1942, we went in Hauptmann Wirth's car to Treblinka, 120 kilometers NNE of Warsaw. The installations was somewhat similar to that in Belzec, except it was much larger. Eight gas chambers and veritable mountains of cases, textiles and underclothes. A banquet in the dining-hall was laid on in our honour, in typical Himmlerite Old German style. The meal was simple, but there were masses of everything. Himmler himself had ordered that the men of these Kommando's should receive as much meat, butter and other things, particularly alcohol, as they wanted.

We then went by car to Warsaw. After I had tried in vain to find a bed in a sleeper, I met in the train the Secretary of the Swedish Legation in Berlin, Baron von Otter. I told him all this while the shocking experiences were still fresh in my mind, with the request that he inform his government and the Allies at once, as every day's delay would cost further thousands and tens of thousands their lives. I then met Mr. von Otter two more times at the Swedish Legation. In the meantime he had reported to Stockholm and informed me this report had had a considerable effect on Swedish-German relations. I tried to give an account of the same matter to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin. There I was asked if I was a soldier. Thereupon further conversation with me was refused and I was requested to leave the Embassy of His Holiness. After leaving the Papal Embassy I was followed by a policeman on a bicycle. He cycled past me a little way, dismounted and then inexplicably let me go. I then informed hundreds of public figures about all this, including the syndic of the Catholic Bishops of Berlin, Dr. Winter, with the express request that he forward the information to the Papal See

Handwritten account of SS-Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein, 4th May 1945, in Rottweil

Whilst the detailed description of Belzec, is not in doubt, what is questionable is the timing, or indeed the possibility of more than one visit. The visit to Treblinka on August 19, 1942, is highly problematical. Kurt Gerstein states he saw eight gas chambers on his visit on that day. This is unlikely, as the larger gas chambers only started construction after the visit of Odilo Globocnik and Christian Wirth took place and Treblinka's first commandant Dr. Irmfried Eberl was relieved of his command, in late August. Eberl's wife wrote to him on August 24, 1942, started her letter with the words, 'Well with the end of your activity in Treblinka....'

The larger gas chambers, with their 8 or 10 chambers were not operational until late September, early October, but an intercepted German police decode sent by Globocnik's Chief of Staff Ernst Lerch sent a message on September 14, 1942, regarding a car for Obersturmfuhrer Pfannenstiel, which would place him in Lublin, during September 1942. This could point to a later visit, or that more visits to the General-Gouvernement were made.

car lerch - pfannsteil -decode 462

Lerch - Police Message - Car for Obersturmbannfuhrer Pfannenstiel - 14 September 1942 (HW16/21 - National Archives Kew)


Gerhard Schoenberner, The Yellow Star, Corgi Books, London 1978

Chris Webb, The Belzec Death Camp, ibidem-verlag, Stuttgart 2016

Document - National Archives, Kew

Photograph - Private Archive

Holocaust Historical Society May 27, 2019