Whereas in other concentration camps prisoners were gassed to eliminate quickly and cheaply those "unfit for work" and other "useless lives," poison gas was used for a quite different reason in the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace—often called Struthof, from the name of a nearby locality.
SS-Hauptsturmführer August Hirt, professor of medicine and director of the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Strasbourg,* was conducting research on race, a field quite fashionable in Hitler's Third Reich. Because the "Jewish race" was on the point of being exterminated, he wanted—while there
* It had become a German institution when Alsace and Lorraine were occupied and incorporated into Hitler's Greater Germany in 1940. (Editor's note.)Gassings in Other Concentration Camps 197
was still time—to assemble a "collection of skulls of Jewish Bolshevik commissars." In presenting his research project, Professor Hirt explained how "the material" was to be collected by a "special deputy":
This special deputy, commissioned with the collection of the material, . . . is to take a prescribed series of photographs and anthropological measurements, and is to ascertain, insofar as possible, the origin, date of birth, and other personal data of the prisoner. Following the subsequently induced death of the Jew, whose head must not be damaged, he will separate the head from the torso and forward it to its point of destination in preserving fluid in a well-sealed tin container especially made for this purpose. . . . In accordance with its scope and tasks, the new Reich University of Strasbourg would be the most appropriate place for the collection of and research on the skulls thus acquired. 72
Himmler had already agreed to support Hirt's "research" and entrusted an organization under his orders, known as the "Ahnenerbe," or Ancestral Heritage Society, to assist in carrying it out. On 2 November 1942 a letter was written by SS-Standartenführer Wolfram Sievers, the business manager of this association dedicated to promoting race research, to SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Brandt, of Himmler's personal staff. The letter, stamped "Secret," read:
"Dear Comrade Brandt! The Reichsführer-SS has ordered, as you know, that SSHauptsturmführer Prof. Dr. Hirt should be provided with all necessary material for his research work. I have already reported to the Reichsführer-SS that 150 skeletons of inmates, Jews, are now needed for some anthropological studies, and should be provided by the Auschwitz concentration camp.* It is now only necessary for the Reich Security Main Office to be furnished with an official directive by the Reichsführer-SS; by order of the Reichsführer-SS, however, you could issue it yourself. " 73
Brandt turned immediately to SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, who solved all the problems. On 21 June 1943 Sievers wrote to Eichmann:
You are informed that the co-worker in this office who was charged with executing the above-mentioned special task [in the heading of the letter the subject is defined as "Assembling of a skeleton collection"] SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Bruno Beger, ended his work in the Auschwitz concentration camp on 15 June 1943 because of the existing danger of infectious diseases.
* Hirt's original plan had undergone some transformations; he was now interested not only in skulls but also in skeletons. The subjects would no longer be living Jewish Bolshevik commissars captured on the Russian front but prisoners from the Auschwitz camp—in particular, young Jewish women from Greece. (Editor's note.)198 Gassings in Other Concentration Camps
A total of 115 persons were treated, seventy-nine of whom were Jews, two Poles, four Asiatics, and thirty Jewesses. At present these prisoners are separated according to sex, and each group is accommodated under quarantine in a hospital building of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
For further processing of the selected persons an immediate transfer to the Natzweiler concentration camp is now imperative; this must be accelerated in view of the danger of infectious diseases in Auschwitz. 74
Charlotte Heydel, a secretary who had been employed by the Ahnenerbe organization, recounted:
"The various stages of assembling a collection of skeletons and skulls are still in my memory. . . . It was only during the summer of 1943 that my duties put me personally in touch with that affair. I still remember that I had to write the list of the prisoners selected at the Auschwitz concentration camp." 75
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Natzweiler camp was making all the preparations necessary for carrying out its assigned task. Georg Weydert, a prisoner from Luxemburg who was in the camp at the time, later testified before a French military court in Strasbourg in the summer of 1945:
Gassings in Other Concentration Camps 199
While I was with the sanitary installations commando at the Natzweiler camp sometime between the spring and summer of 1943, I had to go to the gas chamber on orders from the building directorate, to do some work there with the help of a prisoner of German nationality.
Schondelmaier [an SS man] was already there, and he told me to make a funnel out of sheet metal, which was then attached to the outer wall of the gas chamber, on the corridor side, right next to a peephole for looking into the chamber. The small end of the funnel led into a pipe that passed into the chamber and stopped over a hole made in the concrete floor. A porcelain receptacle with a capacity of one or two liters was placed in this hole.
A tap was fitted into the piece of pipe immediately below the funnel. The purpose of this device was to put a liquid—I have no idea what liquid—into the funnel with the tap turned shut, and then, at a chosen moment, to cause this liquid to flow toward the gas chamber and into the porcelain receptacle, where another liquid would have been placed in advance. The chemical reaction between the two liquids would result in the release of toxic gas, designed to asphyxiate prisoners enclosed in the chamber.
My work was barely finished when Nitsche came along, in the company of a Wehrmacht doctor whose name I never knew.
After Nitsche had checked the work, he ordered me to install a grating, fastening it with care over the porcelain receptacle, so that the prisoners enclosed in the chamber would not be able to move the receptacle. 76
On 26 September 1943 the construction department of the Natzweiler camp, managed by the Waffen SS and police, sent the following bill ("Subject: Ahnenerbe special section") to the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Strasbourg: "For delivery of equipment and work to be done on instructions from the administration of the Natzweiler concentration camp for the installation of a gas chamber at the Struthof."
The construction of the chamber, carried out under the supervision of the Waffen SS on 3 and 12 August, cost 236.08 Reichsmarks. 77 It was installed in an outbuilding of the former Struthof hotel, which was about five hundred meters from the entrance to the camp. After the liberation, a group of French experts visited this building and described it. It included several rooms. One of the rooms contained a smaller room, which the experts described in detail: "In one of them . . . there is a room 2.4 by 3.5 meters and 2.6 meters high, . . . closed by a door . . . with a painted metal plate attached to the inside. The joints, which were edged with felt (the nails that attached it can still be seen), made the door airtight. Three bolts, the center one provided with a tightening screw, made it possible to seal this room hermetically."
Then the group of experts described a peephole, an electric switch, the appearance of the inside of the room, and two round holes in the ceiling, covered with gratings. From one of these holes a flue with an elbow joint led to the outside. The report continues: "This flue contains a fan marked `NVM type 4 B 50, 1,400 revolutions per minute.' . . . . The water is carried away by a drain, at the beginning of which is a decantation siphon covered by a grating, which one can see on the floor in the middle of the room." Among the remains the experts found in the siphon were "about twenty hairs . . . , fragments of a glass ampoule, whose pointed, closed end was easily recognizable, some maggots with pupae." 78
The gas chamber had been installed and the prisoners chosen for the skeleton collection; it was now up to the commander of Natzweiler, SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, to go into action. In July 1945 he told the investigating judge at the Strasbourg trial what he did:
200 Gassings in Other Concentration Camps
In the month of August 1943, I received an order from the camp at Oranienburg, or rather from SS Supreme Headquarters in Berlin, . . . to take in approximately 80 prisoners from Auschwitz. In the letter accompanying the order, it was specified that I should immediately get in touch with Professor Hirt of the Faculty of Medicine in Strasbourg.
When I went to the Strasbourg Institute of Anatomy where Hirt was working, he told me that he had been informed of a convoy of Auschwitz prisoners bound for Struthof. He made it clear to me that these people would
be killed with gas in the Struthof gas chamber, and that their corpses would be taken to the Institute of Anatomy and put at his disposal.
At the end of this conversation, he gave me a flask containing about a quarter of a liter of salts, which I believe to have been hydrocyanic salts. The professor indicated to me the approximate dose I should use to asphyxiate personally the prisoners coming from Auschwitz, whom I have just mentioned.
So at the beginning of August 1943 I received the eighty prisoners to be killed by means of the gases given to me by Hirt, and I started with a first group of about fifteen women, taken to the gas chamber one evening, at about nine o'clock, in a delivery van. I told these women that they were going into a disinfection room, without letting them know that they were going to be asphyxiated. Assisted by several SS men, I had them take off all their clothes and pushed them into the gas chamber once they were completely naked. As soon as the door was closed, they started to scream.
Once I had closed the door, I placed a fixed quantity of the salts in a funnel attached below and to the right of the peephole. At the same time I poured in a fixed amount of water, which flowed, mixed with the salts, into a pit made inside the gas chamber under the peephole. Then I closed the opening of the funnel by means of a tap, fitted into the bottom of the funnel... .
I illuminated the chamber's interior by means of a switch located near the funnel, and I observed what was happening inside the chamber through the outside peephole. I noted that the women continued to breathe for about half a minute, and then fell to the ground. When I opened the door, after having simultaneously switched on the ventilation inside the air-circulation flue,* I found the women stretched out lifeless in their excrement.
The next morning, at about half past five, I entrusted two SS male nurses with placing the corpses in a delivery van, so that they could be taken to the Institute of Anatomy as Professor Hirt had asked.
A few days later, in the same way, I again brought a number of women to the gas chamber, and they were asphyxiated by the same procedure. A few more days after that, about fifty or fifty-five men were taken on two or three occasions to the gas chamber on my orders, and were killed there by means of the same salts that Hirt had given me. 79
When photographs of the gas chamber were shown to Kramer, he recognized them without hesitation.
* In a later statement, made in Luneburg on 6 December 1945 (file no. 3, exhibit 1806/V2bis), Kramer corrected himself:
"As nothing further could be heard, and nothing was moving, I turned on the fan. During that time I was outside and did not breathe or smell the gas. After a quarter of an hour, I opened the door."
(Editor's note.)Gassings in Other Concentration Camps 201
When Hirt's secretary at the Institute of Anatomy, Liselotte Seepe, was questioned years later, she remembered:
"We received a large quantity of corpses from the Naztweiler concentration camp. It was said that they were political criminals. I cannot tell you their nationality. It seems there were Jews among them." 80
A Frenchman named Henri Henripierre (or Henrypierre) was employed as a pharmacist at the Strasbourg Institute of Anatomy. A German by the name of Bong had taught him to preserve corpses. In 1946 he told an American military court at Nuremberg:
In July 1943 Professor Hirt had a visit from a high-ranking SS officer. . . . This officer came three times in July. . . . A few days later, Bong told me that we had to prepare vats for 120 corpses. Bong and I prepared six vats. . . . The first delivery that reached us was made up of thirty women. It was due at five o'clock in the morning but arrived only at seven. When we asked him why he was late, the driver said: "If you knew all the trouble these women gave us!" The thirty women were unloaded by the driver and his assistants, helped by Bong and me. The preservation began immediately. When the corpses arrived they were still warm; the eyes were wide open and shining. They were popping out of their sockets, red and congested. In addition, there were traces of blood around the nose and the mouth. . . . I thought they must have been victims who had been poisoned or asphyxiated, because none of the corpses sent earlier for preservation had shown such marks. . . . That is why I copied the prisoner number that was [tattooed] on the left arm. These numbers had five figures. A few days later we received a new shipment, of thirty men. . . . And some time later a third and last shipment, of twenty-six men.
Under cross-questioning, Henripierre stated:
"At the time I received these corpses I didn't know they were Jews. I questioned Mr. Bong, and he told me: `They are all Jews.' " 81
Later there was at least one other case in which prisoners were murdered by gas at Natzweiler. Between the middle of July and early August 1944, medical experiments were done on prisoners of an "inferior" race: Gypsies. They were exposed to phosgene (carbonyl chloride), a colorless gas that had been used as a combat gas in World War I.
A year before, in a first set of experiments, twenty-four prisoners had been given a protective product (urotropine) discovered by one of the directors of the experiments, Professor Bickenback of the University of Strasbourg. They had then been exposed to the gas. All had survived.
After that, to improve the reliability of the results of the experiments, Himmler had asked that protected and unprotected subjects be exposed simul-202 Gassings in Other Concentration Camps
taneously to the gas while the concentration of phosgene was gradually in-creased. In each of four experiments, two protected and two unprotected prisoners were exposed to the gas. (The latter were given placebos to make them believe they were protected.) Of the unprotected "control subjects," three finally died of lung edema after suffering horribly and spitting blood. 82Footnotes
72 Nuremb. Doc. 085-NO, Hirt's report on his work, which Sievers handed over to Brandt on 9 Feb. 1942.
73 Nuremb. Doc. 086-NO. Already on 27 Feb. 1942 Brandt informed Sievers that272
Notes to Pages 198–207
the Reichsführer-SS would put everything he needed at Sievers' disposal. Nuremb. Doc. 090-NO.
74 Nuremb. Doc. 087-NO. Eichmann had already been informed of the project by Brandt in a letter dated 6 Nov 1942. Nuremb. Doc. 116-NO and 089-NO.
75 StA Frankfurt a/M. AZ: 4 Js 444/59, fol. 7812 (hearing of 6 Feb. 1961).
76 Tribunal militaire permanent de la l0e Region militaire, Strasbourg, Struthof trial, file no. 3, exhibit 1806/V/17.
77 Copy in ZSL Coll., vol. 227, fols. 1ff.
78 Expert opinion in the files of the Struthof trial; see n. 76.
79 See n. 76, exhibit 1806/V/1. See also Nuremb. Doc. 807-NO, fols. 120ff. Of Kramer's statement, only the report in French and the translations made afterward into German exist. Translation into English of depositions made on 26 July 1945 (exhibits 107 and 1806/V/2) and on 6 Dec. 1945 (exhibits 157, 158, and 1806/V/2 bis) have been published in Serge Klarsfeld, The Struthof Album (New York: Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 1985), which also contains the reproduction of exhibits 085-NO, 086-NO, 087-NO, 088-NO, 089-NO, 091-NO, of the exhibit mentioned in n. 76, and important photographic documentation. Other SS members testified to the gassings (the head of the work allocation office in Natzweiler, Nitsche, ibid., file no. 4, bundle 12, exhibit 2277). The bodies were taken to Strasbourg, where they underwent a conservation process.
80 StA Frankfurt a/M. AZ: Js 1013/61, fol. 157, hearing of 10 Jan. 1963.
81 U.S. Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, Case I ("Physicians' Trial"), report on the proceedings of 18 Dec. 1946.
82 ZSL Coll.: "Natzweiler" file (Metz military tribunal), fols. 3/2798ff., and GStA of the Berlin Supreme Court AZ: 1 AR 123/63-III Mx, vol. 1 (human experiments), fols. 82-187 (ZSL: AZ: 413 AR 178/65, vol. 1, fols. 3ff.).