An eyewitness to gassings at Belzec (1942)

Kurt Gerstein was a Schutzstaffel (SS) Obersturmfuhrer (lieutenant) who in 1942 witnessed the gassings of Jews at Belzec concentration camp, in the far east of Poland. The method used at this time was diesel fumes. Gerstein gave this testimony to Allied authorities on May 1945, just a few days after the end of the war. (Warning: this document contains graphic and potentially disturbing information).

“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 Chaussee in the left corner of the demarcation line. South of the road some houses with the notice ‘Sonderkommando der Waffen-SS’. As Wirth, the actual head of the whole killing installations was not yet there, Glafcoenik introduced me to SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer [captain] Obermeyer. 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 barber’s 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 centre 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, 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: Heckenholt 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: 45 wagons containing 6700 people, of whom 1450 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 and 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 (for textile salvage), otherwise in the pile of shoes, which was a good 25 m. 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, and 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. [But] 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 chambers, 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 spilt 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 to theirs. How gladly I would have gone with them into the chambers. How gladly I would have died 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 metres, in 45 cubic metres! 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 Heckenholt Institute. Heckenholt was the driver of the diesel engine—a minor technician who was also the builder of this institute. The people were to be killed with diesel exhaust fumes. But [for a time] the diesel did not work. Hauptman Wirth came; he was obviously embarrassed 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. After 50 minutes, the diesel did not start. The people were waiting in the gas chambers. We heard them weeping, sobbing… Hauptmann Wirth struck the Ukrainian who was supposed to be helping Heckenholt 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 metres. Another 25 minutes 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 and 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 jaws…

The naked corpses were carried in wooden barrows just a few metres away to large pits. 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 centimetres of sand was strewn 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 that 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 had, of course, to be rectified.

Nobody took any trouble either in Belzec or in Treblinka to record or count those who were killed. The figures were only estimates based on the capacity of the wagons…”