The History Place - Writers' Corner
Book Excerpt
Doctors from Hell

by Vivien Spitz


Nuremberg, Germany, 1946

After finishing the major Nazi leaders' trial, many of the lawyers, prosecutors, interpreters, judges, court reporters, document examiners, analysts, and clerks did not stay for the twelve Subsequent Proceedings. The International Military Tribunal had finished their mission and purpose for being: to prove, expose, and justify severe punishment for atrocities committed by Germans. Justice Robert H. Jackson, who had been appointed by President Truman to be the Chief of Counsel for prosecuting war criminals in this first international military trial, made the following memorable statement during the trial:

We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. In the end, the defendants eagerly drank from their own chalice, poisoned by their own atrocities.

The entire world had been watching. It had been shown that this was not a trial of the victors over the vanquished, but of justice over evil. The Light of Goodness shone over the Darkness of Evil.

The twelve separate trials in the Subsequent Proceedings started on October 25, 1946, and continued until judgment in the last case was rendered in April 1949. These trials were prosecuted by the United States only, with American civilian judges sitting on military tribunals. Each tribunal consisted of three or more lawyers, admitted to practice for at least five years in the highest state courts or the Supreme Court of the United States. The defendants in these Subsequent Proceedings included leading professional physicians, diplomats and politicians, the State Secretary of the Foreign Office of Germany, Cabinet Ministers, military leaders, SS leaders, industrialists, the Acting Minister of Justice, and jurists.

Prosecution Exhibit 428

The following is an extract taken from the field interrogation of Waffen SS member Kurt Gerstein, on April 26, 1945, describing the mass gassing of Jews and other "undesirables." The deposition of Kurt Gerstein began:

Hearing of the massacres of idiots and insane people at Grafeneck, Hadamar, etc., shocked and greatly affected me, having such a case in my family. I had but one desire--to gain an insight into this whole machinery and then to shout it to the whole world! With the help of two references written by the two Gestapo employees who had dealt with my case, it was not difficult for me to enter the Waffen SS...

In January, 1942, 1 was appointed chief of the technical branch dealing with strong poison gases for disinfection. On June 8, 1942, SS Sturmbannfuehrer Guenther of the RSHA entered my office. He was in plain clothes and I did not know him. He ordered me to get a hundred kilograms of prussic acid and to accompany him to a place which was only known to the driver of the truck. We left for the potassium factory near Collin (Prague). Once the truck was loaded, we left for Lublin (Poland). We took with us Professor Pfannenstiel, Professor for Hygiene at the University of Marburg on the Lahn. At Lublin, we were received by SS Gruppenfuehrer Globocnik. He told us, "This is one of the most secret matters there are, even the most secret. Whoever talks of this shall be shot immediately. Yesterday, two talkative men died." Then he explained to us that at the present moment--August 17, 1942--there were four installations: 1. Belcec, on the Lublin-Lvov road, in the sector of the Russian demarcation line. Maximum fifteen thousand persons a day. Seen! 2. Sobibor, I do not know exactly where it is located. Not seen. Twenty thousand persons per day. 3. Treblinka, 120 kilometers NNE of Warsaw. Twenty-five thousand persons per day. Seen! 4. Maidanek, near Lublin. Seen--in the state of preparation.

Globocnik then said, "You will have to handle the sterilization of very large quantities of clothes, ten or twenty times the amount of the clothing and textile collection, which is only arranged in order to conceal the source of these Jewish, Polish, Czech, and other clothes. Your other duties will be to change the method of our gas chambers (which are run at the present time with the exhaust gases of an old Diesel engine), using more poisonous material, having a quicker effect: prussic acid. But the Fuehrer and Himmler, who were here on August 15, the day before yesterday, ordered that I personally should accompany all those who are to see the installations."

Then Professor Pfannenstiel asked, "What does the Fuehrer say?" Then Globocnik, now Chief of Police and SS, from the Adriatic Riviera to Trieste, answered: "Quicker, quicker! Carry out the whole program!" And then Dr. Herbert Linden, Ministerial-director in the Ministry of the Interior said: "But would it not be better to burn the bodies instead of burying them? A future generation might think differently of these matters!" Globocnik replied, "But, gentlemen, if after us such a cowardly and rotten generation should arise that it does not understand our work which is so good and so necessary, then, gentlemen, all National Socialism will have been for nothing. On the contrary, bronze plaques should be put up with the inscription that it was we, we who had the courage to achieve this gigantic task. And Hitler said, 'Yes, my good Globocnik, that is the word, that is my opinion, too."

The next day we left for Belcec, a small special station of two platforms against a hill of yellow sand, immediately to the north of the Lublin-Lvov road and railway. To the south, near the road were some service houses with a signboard, "Belcec, Service Center of the Waffen SS." Globocnik introduced me to SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Obermeyer from Pirmasens, who with great restraint, showed me the installations. No dead were to be seen that day but the smell of the whole region, even from the main road, was pestilential. Next to the small station there was a large barrack marked "Cloakroom," and a door marked "Valuables." Next to that, a chamber with a hundred barber's chairs. Then came a corridor, 150 meters long, in the open air and with barbed wire on both sides. There was a signboard "To the baths and inhalations!" Before us we saw a house, like a bathhouse, with concrete troughs to the right and left containing geraniums or other flowers. After climbing a small staircase, we came to three garage-like rooms on each side, 4 x 5 meters in size and 1.90 meters high. At the back were invisible wooden doors. On the roof was a Star of David made out of copper. At the entrance to the building was the inscription, "Heckenholt Foundation." That was all I noticed on that particular afternoon.

Next morning, a few minutes before seven, I was informed that in ten minutes the first train would arrive. And indeed, a few minutes later the first train came in from Lemberg (Lvov); forty-five cars containing 6,700 persons, 1,450 of whom were already dead on arrival. Behind the little barbed-wire openings were children, yellow, half scared to death, women, and men. The train stopped; 200 Ukrainians, forced to do this work, opened the doors and drove all the people out of the coaches with leather whips. Then, through a huge loudspeaker, instructions were given to them to undress completely and to hand over false teeth and glasses--some in the barracks, others right in the open air. Shoes were to be tied together with a little piece of string handed to everyone by a small Jewish boy of four years of age; all valuables and money were to be handed in at the window marked "Valuables," without receipt. Then the women and girls were to go to the hairdresser who cut off their hair in one or two strokes, after which it vanished into huge potato bags "to be used for special submarine equipment, door mats, etc.," as the SS Unterscharfuehrer on duty told me.

Then the march began. To the right and left, barbed wire; behind, two dozen Ukrainians with guns. Led by a young girl of striking beauty, they approached. With Police Captain Wirth, I stood right in front of the death chambers. Completely naked, they marched by, men, women, girls, children, babies, even one-legged persons, all of them naked. In one corner, a strong SS man told the poor devils in a strong deep voice, "Nothing whatever will happen to you. All you have to do is to breathe deeply; it strengthens the lungs. This inhalation is a necessary measure against contagious diseases; it is a very good disinfectant!" Asked what was to become of them, he answered, "Well, of course the men will have to work, building streets and houses. But the women do not have to. If they wish, they can help in the house or the kitchen." Once more, a little bit of hope for some of these poor people, enough to make them march on without resistance to the death chambers.

Most of them, though, knew everything; the smell had given them a clear indication of their fate. And then they walked up the little staircase--and behold the picture: mothers with babies at their breasts, naked, lots of children of all ages, naked too; they hesitate, but they enter the gas chambers, most of them without a word, pushed by the others behind them, chased by the whips of the SS men. A Jewess of about forty years of age, with eyes like torches, calls down the blood of her children on the heads of their murderers. Five lashes in her face, dealt by the whip of Police Captain Wirth himself, drive her into the gas chamber. Many of them say their prayers; others ask, "Who will give us the water for our death?" Within the chambers, the SS press the people closely together; Captain Wirth had ordered "Fill them up full." Naked men stand on the feet of the others. Seven to eight hundred crushed together on twenty-five square meters, in forty-five cubic meters! The doors are closed!

Meanwhile the rest of the transport, all naked, waited. Somebody said to me, "Naked, in winter! Enough to kill them!" The answer was, "Well, that's just what they are here for!" And at that moment I understood why it was called the Heckenholt Foundation. Heckenholt was the man in charge of the Diesel engine, the exhaust gases of which were to kill these poor devils. SS Unterscharfuehrer Heckenholt tried to set the Diesel engine going, but it would not start! Captain Wirth came along. It was obvious that he was afraid because I was a witness of this breakdown. Yes, indeed, I saw everything and waited. Everything was registered by my stop watch. Fifty minutes--seventy minutes--the Diesel engine did not start! The people waited in their gas chambers--in vain. One could hear them cry. "Just as in a synagogue,' says SS Sturmbannfuehrer Professor Dr. Pfannenstiel, Professor for Public Health at the University of Marburg/Lahn, holding his ear close to the wooden door! Captain Wirth, furious, dealt the Ukrainian who was helping Heckenholt eleven or twelve lashes in the face with his whip. After two hours and forty-nine minutes--as registered by my stopwatch--the Diesel engine started. Up to that moment the people in the four chambers already filled were still alive--four times 750 persons in four times forty-five cubic meters! Another twenty- five minutes went by. Many of the people, it is true, were dead by that time. One could see that through the little window as the electric lamp revealed for a moment the inside of the chamber. After twenty-eight minutes only a few were alive. After thirty-two minutes all were dead!

From the other side, Jewish workers opened the wooden doors. In return for their terrible job, they had been promised their freedom and a small percentage of the valuables and the money found. The dead were still standing like stone statues, there having been no room for them to fall or bend over. Though dead, the families could still be recognized, their hands still clasped. It was difficult to separate them in order to clear the chamber for the next load. The bodies were thrown out blue, wet with sweat and urine, the legs covered with excrement and menstrual blood. Everywhere among the others were the bodies of babies and children.

But there is no time! Two dozen workers were busy checking the mouths, opening them with iron hooks--" Gold on the left, no gold on the right!" Others checked anus and genitals to look for money, diamonds, gold, etc. Dentists with chisels tore out gold teeth, bridges, or caps.

In the center of everything was Captain Wirth. He was on familiar ground here. He handed me a large tin full of teeth and said: "Estimate for yourself the weight of gold! This is only from yesterday and the day before! And you would not believe what we find here every day! Dollars, diamonds, gold! But look for yourself!"

Then he led me to a jeweler who was in charge of all these valuables. After that they took me to one of the managers of the big store, Kaufhaus des Westens, in Berlin, and to a little man whom they made play the violin. Both were chiefs of the Jewish worker units. "He is a captain of the Royal and Imperial Austrian Army, and has the German Iron Cross First Class," I was told by Hauptsturmbannfuehrer Obermeyer.

The bodies were then thrown into large ditches about 100 x 20 x 12 meters located near the gas chambers. After a few days the bodies would swell up and the whole contents of the ditch would rise 2 to 3 meters high because of the gases which developed inside the bodies. After a few more days the swelling would stop and the bodies would collapse. The next day the ditches were filled again, and covered with 10 centimeters of sand. A little later, I heard, they constructed grills out of rails and burned the bodies on them with Diesel oil and gasoline in order to make them disappear.

At Belzec and Treblinka nobody bothered to take anything approaching an exact count of the persons killed. Actually, not only Jews, but also many Poles and Czechs, who, in the opinion of the Nazis, were of bad stock, were killed. Most of them died anonymously.

Commissions of so-called doctors, who were actually nothing but young SS men in white coats, rode in limousines through the towns and villages of Poland and Czechoslovakia to select the old, tubercular, and sick people and have them done away with shortly afterwards in the gas chambers. They were the Poles and Czechs of category no. III, who did not deserve to live because they were unable to work.

Police Captain Wirth asked me not to propose any other kind of gas chamber in Berlin, but to leave everything the way it was. I lied--as I did in each case all the time--and said that the prussic acid had already deteriorated in shipping and had become very dangerous, that I was therefore obliged to bury it. This was done right away.

The next day, Captain Wirth's car took us to Treblinka, about seventy-five miles NNE of Warsaw. The installations of this death center scarcely differed from those at Belzec, but they were even larger. There were eight gas chambers and whole mountains of clothes and underwear about thirty-five to forty meters high. Then a banquet was given in our "honor," attended by all the employees of the institution.

The Obersturmbannfuhrer, Professor Pfannenstiel, Hygiene Professor at the University of Marburg/Lahn, made a speech. "Your task is a great duty, a duty useful and necessary." To me alone he talked of this institution in terms of "beauty of the task;" "humane cause;" and speaking to all of them he said, "Looking at the bodies of these Jews, one understands the greatness of your good work!"

Excerpted from Doctors from Hell by Vivien Spitz. Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Sentient Publications. All rights reserved.

Available from - Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans by Vivien Spitz, the youngest court reporter at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

Return to The History Place - Writers' Corner Index
The History Place Main Page

Terms of use: Private home/school non-commercial, non-Internet re-usage only is allowed of any text, graphics, photos, audio clips, other electronic files or materials from The History Place.