Kurt Becher was an SS officer who was involved in the famous “Jews for Trucks” incident near the end of World War II. When the war was over, Becher was arrested by the Allies and taken to Nuremberg, but he was not put on trial. He was a “Righteous Gentile” because he had saved Jews.
Kurt Becher did not testify at Nuremberg, but he did sign an affidavit which was entered into the Nuremberg IMT. In his affidavit, Becher claimed that he had personally caused Reichsfuehrer-SS Himmler to issue an order which forbade any liquidation of Jews at Mauthausen. Himmler was dead, so he was not on trial. The affidavit was read in court because it contained accusations against Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was on trial as a war criminal.
But before we get to Becher’s affidavit and the accusations against Kaltenbrunner, here is the back story on the “Jews for Trucks” episode:
On August 21, 1944, three SS officers (Kurt Becher, Max Grüson and Hermann Krumey) and Rudolf Kastner (a representative of the Budapest Jews) met with Saly Mayer, a leading member of the Jewish Community in Switzerland.
The meeting took place in the middle of a bridge at St. Margarethen, on the border between Germany and Switzerland. Saly Mayer had refused to enter Germany and he also did not want the SS men to enter Switzerland, according to Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer.
Kurt Becher asked for farm machinery and 10,000 trucks, and in return, he promised to free 318 Hungarian Jews from Bergen-Belsen. In a show of good faith, the train with the 318 Jews was already waiting at the Swiss border. Mayer offered minerals and industry goods instead of the trucks.
A second group of 1368 Hungarian Jews left the Bergen-Belsen camp on December 4, 1944 and entered Switzerland just after midnight on December 7th, according to Yehuda Bauer.
Altogether, there was a total of 2,896 Jews released for ransom, including a transport of 1210 Jews from the Theresienstadt Ghetto who entered Switzerland on February 7, 1945.
According to Yehuda Bauer, Becher later claimed that he had persuaded Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler not to deport the Budapest Jews, and that was why Himmler issued an order to stop the deportation of the Hungarian Jews three days later.
Now, back to the trial of Ernst Kaltenbrunner:
On 12 April 1946, the one hundred and sixth day of the Nuremberg IMT, the prosecutor read the affidavit of Kurt Becher, who was not in the courtroom.
The text of the affidavit is quoted below:
“I, Kurt Becher, formerly a colonel in the S.S., born 12th September, 1900, at Hamburg, declare the following under oath:
Between the middle of September and the middle of October, 1944, I caused the Reichsfuehrer S.S. Himmler to issue the following order, which I received in two originals, one each for S.S. Generals Kaltenbrunner and Pohl, and a copy for myself:
By this order, which becomes immediately operative, I forbid any liquidation of Jews and order that on the contrary, care should be given to weak and sick persons. I hold you (and here Kaltenbrunner and Pohl were meant) personally responsible even if this order should not be strictly adhered to by the subordinate offices.
I personally took Pohl’s copy to him and left the copy for Kaltenbrunner at his office in Berlin. In my opinion Kaltenbrunner and Pohl bear the responsibility after this date for any further killings of Jewish prisoners.
When visiting Mauthausen Concentration Camp on 27th April, 1945, at 9.00 a.m. I was told, in the strictest secrecy by the camp commandant, S.S. Colonel Ziereis, that ‘Kaltenbrunner gave me the order that at least a thousand persons have still to die at Mauthausen each day.’
The facts mentioned above are true. This declaration is made by me voluntarily and without coercion. I have read it through, signed it, and confirmed the statement with my oath.”
The most important part of Becher’s affidavit was his accusation that Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner had ordered 1,000 prisoners per day at the Mauthausen camp to be killed, even after Himmler had ordered that no more prisoners should be killed at Mauthausen. Becher claimed that Mauthausen Commandant Franz Ziereis had personally told him, while he was on a visit to the camp, that Kaltenbrunner had given the order to continue killing prisoners.
After this affidavit was read in court, Kaltenbrunner was asked:
“Is that true or false, defendant?”
Kaltenbrunner’s answer is given in full in this quote from the testimony at the IMT:
A. In part it is correct and in part it is not. I shall explain it sentence by sentence.
Q. No. Suppose you simply tell us what you claim to be false, because we must get on with this.
A. I quite believe that you want to save time, but this is a question of establishing my guilt or my innocence and to do that I must be given an opportunity to make a statement in detail. Otherwise neither you nor the Tribunal would know the truth, And that is what we want here, isn’t it? I am glad that this witness Becher was found and that this statement is available, because it proves, firstly, that in September or October, 1944, Himmler was forced to issue this order, that same Himmler, about whom it has been established that since 1939 or 1940 he has committed the crime of killing Jews on the largest scale.
And now we must find out why in September or October Himmler had given such an order. Before I had seen this document I stated yesterday and today that this order was issued by Hitler through my intervention, and obviously this order from Himmler is based on another order which he received from Hitler.
Secondly, it is clear to me that Himmler gave such an order to Pohl as the person responsible for the concentration camps in which Jews were kept and that he gave the information to me as the person who had opposed him in this case. Where Becher is concerned, I should like to go into the question a little further.
Through this man Becher, Himmler committed some of the worst possible crimes, crimes which have been exposed here. Through Becher and the Joint Committee in Hungary and Switzerland he released Jews in exchange, first, for war equipment, then, secondly, for raw material and thirdly, for foreign currency. I heard about this through the Intelligence Service and immediately attempted to stop it – not through Himmler, because there I would have failed, but through Hitler; – at the moment any personal credit Himmler might still have had with Hitler was at an end – for this action might have damaged the reputation of the Reich abroad in the most serious manner.
At the same time my efforts in connection with Burckhardt had been going on, and now you understand why the witness Schellenberg stated that Himmler had said to him: “I am alarmed now. Kaltenbrunner has got me under his thumb. This means that Kaltenbrunner has completely exposed the things I was doing in Hungary and has told Hitler about it.”
This order was an attempt to camouflage the matter and to get out of the whole thing by pretending that the responsibility rested on Kaltenbrunner and Pohl. According to this document the responsibility rested on Himmler and Pohl, but, Kaltenbrunner had to be included and be told about it because otherwise he might bring the subject up with Hitler any day. That was the intention of the document.
This witness Becher is now in Nuremberg. Will you allow me to confront him here? I am quite able to prove to the world with the help of this witness that, starting with the transfer of the so-called Weiss AG. in Hungary up to that day, Himmler, Pohl and Becher, and the two committees in Hungary and Switzerland, were running this business. And I can prove how I fought against it.
There is yet another accusation in this document, that on 27th April I am supposed to have given a strictly secret order to Ziereis that a thousand Jews had to be destroyed in Mauthausen every day. I ask you to have the witness Hoettl, who is also held here, called in immediately, so that I may ask him on what day I dictated and sent by courier to Mauthausen the order that the entire camp, with all its inmates, be surrendered to the enemy. The witness will then confirm to you that this order was given several days before 27th April and that I could not have given orders to the contrary on the 27th.
In spite of Kaltenbrunner’s testimony which proved his innocence, he was convicted and hanged as a war criminal.