This is the remarkable story of Felix Kersten (1898-1960) who, as Heinrich Himmler’s personal physician and principal confidant, parlayed his close relationship with one of the leading architects of the “Final Solution” to save at least 60,000 Jews.
After graduating from high school in Riga, Lithuania, Kersten fought in the German army during WWI, toward the end of which he also fought under the flag of the White Guard in support of Finnish liberation against the Russians. This earned him Finnish citizenship in 1920 and a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Finnish Army a year later. Returning to civilian life, he earned a physical therapy certificate studying with specialist Dr. Colander in Helsinki, and then went to Berlin to study with the renowned Chinese therapeutic masseur, Dr. Ko. Upon his retirement in 1925, Dr. Ko turned his prestigious practice over to Kersten.
Kersten’s reputation grew to the point that he became a legend in his own time, the regard for him being such that he was soon treating the elite of the European aristocracy, including the likes of the King of Romania, Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands, and Mussolini’s son-in-law, the Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano. On occasion, he also treated Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Our story begins when Kersten came to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s chief executioner, Gestapo Chief, S.S. Chief, and architect of the Final Solution as creator of the concentration camps. The hypochondriac reichsfuhrer was suffering from chronic neurogastric abdominal pain, which all conventional healers and medical treatments had failed to cure, but when Kersten successfully treated him using Tibetan methods he had learned from Dr. Ko, the Nazi leader insisted that he serve as his personal physician and masseur.
According to Kersten’s own account, he did all he could to resist Himmler’s offer, but the reichsfuhrer grew impatient and ultimately made an offer that Kersten could not refuse: either agree to serve as Himmler’s doctor or be sent to a concentration camp.
Himmler’s recently discovered office diaries show that he started each day with a treatment from Kersten, who became his singular intimate confidant. As a result, Kersten – who referred to himself as Himmler’s “father-confessor” and whom Himmler affectionately characterized as “my magical Buddha” – was in position to learn in detail of the horrors being planned by the Third Reich. In particular, Himmler advised him directly at the beginning of 1941 about Hitler’s plans for the Final Solution.
Several Nazi leaders grew deeply concerned about Himmler’s reliance upon Kersten, whom they believed to be a spy, but Himmler always protected him, including one notable instance when he advised SS Security Chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner that should anything happen to Kersten, Shallenberger’s death would follow soon after.
Kersten attempted to change Himmler’s enthusiasm for the Holocaust through a carefully constructed frontal assault, but his sponsor remained fiercely resistant, so he decided instead to chip away at his patron’s resolve one Jew at a time. He had earned Himmler’s trust to the point where he was able manipulate him into agreeing to spare one or more lives as requested by Kersten in lieu of paying a fee for each doctor’s visit. Himmler would sardonically note that every time his personal physician treats him, it was costing him prisoners, and Kersten understood that he was committing high treason against the Reich and that he was risking his life every time he asked the hot-blooded S.S. commander to release one or more Jews.
Sometimes Kersten would push his luck, and his risk and fear were greatest when the volatile and unpredictable Himmler would irritably refuse his requests, as in one notable example, when he requested that an entire Jewish transport to a concentration camp be freed.
Kersten’s first successful rescue effort took place in 1942, when he persuaded Himmler to intercede with Hitler regarding the case of “the Warsaw Swedes” (seven Swedish businessmen who had been arrested by the Gestapo and charged with murder), the result of which was the dismissal of their convictions and commutations of their sentences.
Kersten was charged with organizing Himmler’s visit to Finland in July 1942, the purpose of which was to convince the government to extradite Finland’s 2,000 Jews to the Gestapo. When President Risto Ryti refused – an act of bravery and morality which should be remembered for all time – Himmler threatened to have his Gestapo forcibly remove them. Kersten went behind Himmler’s back to coach the Finnish government on how to handle the reichsfuhrer, and he takes credit for convincing Himmler not to carry out his threat – although the Finnish people consider this to be a bogus claim.
In October 1943, Kersten convinced Himmler to permit him to commence negotiations for a peace plan with the Allies, and he successfully negotiated such a plan with Abram S. Hewitt, an agent of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) posing as FDR’s Special Assistant to Sweden. Although the terms of the proffered settlement were onerous for Germany, Himmler surprisingly did not reject it out of hand but, when he finally decided to go forward with negotiations, Hewitt had already returned to the United States, where he debriefed the OSS and provided important intelligence, including the imminent implosion of the Nazi command structure.
Hewitt trusted Kersten and believed that the United States could use him to its advantage, but President Roosevelt lacked confidence in him, and the “Himmler peace track” was not pursued. Many authorities consider this to have been a grave mistake, possibly costing many thousands of lives.
Kersten’s greatest impact may have come in early 1945 when, with the tide of war having dramatically changed in favor of the Allies, Hitler ordered Himmler to liquidate every remaining Jew in every concentration camp. Hillel Storch, president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Sweden, met with Kersten in February 1945 and asked him to intercede with Himmler to counter the Fuhrer’s order, and Kersten urged his patron to take action accordingly.
The result was a secret March 12, 1945, Himmler-Kersten Agreement, in which Himmler agreed that the death camps would not be demolished; that the mass murder of Jews in the camps would cease; and that control of the camps would be delivered to the Allied troops upon their arrival. Although the authenticity of the March 12 document reflecting this agreement – ostensibly written in Himmler’s own hand and signed “Reichsfuhrer SS” – has been effectively challenged by most experts, there is significant evidence to support the proposition that Himmler’s countermand of Hitler’s liquidation order was carried out, particularly with respect to Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and Bergen-Belsen. Kersten, who represented no one, signed the document “in the name of humanity.”
Thus, contrary to the commonly accepted view that the extermination in the death camps did not cease until they were liberated by Allied troops, many scholars argue that, due to Kersten’s intervention, an end to the comprehensive liquidation of European Jewry actually commenced months before Germany’s official surrender. But for Kersten convincing Himmler to betray Hitler, countless thousands more Jews would have been slaughtered; in fact, it is possible that without this intervention, there would not have been a single living Jewish survivor in the camps by the time the Allies arrived.
With the Russian army rapidly approaching, Kersten urged Himmler in March 1945 to negotiate directly with the World Jewish Congress, an idea which repulsed Himmler because he would never agree to meet with a Jew. But Kersten again wore his patient down and, on April 20-21, 1945, a secret meeting was held between Himmler and the WJC Swedish delegate, Norbert Masur, at Kersten’s estate a few miles from the Ravensbrück concentration camp. In a great historical irony, Himmler arrived for the meeting after attending a party with Hitler in celebration of the fuhrer’s birthday in his Berlin bunker.
After listening to an hours-long self-justifying rant from Himmler repeating virtually every Nazi anti-Semitic canard and attempting to rationalize the Holocaust as performing “a great service to mankind,” Kersten and Masur prevailed upon him to sign an agreement to cease murdering Jews in the camps (saving an additional 60,000 lives, according to the WJC); permit the remaining prisoners to receive food and medical supplies; release 1,000 Jewish women at Ravensbrück (some 4,500 Jewish inmates were actually released) and the Jews imprisoned in Norway; and permitting the Red Cross to transport the released inmates to safety in Sweden.
Himmler met with Count Folke Bernadotte, then president of the Swedish Red Cross, to effect the transport to Sweden. Though Bernadotte had repeatedly urged Kersten to stop his work on behalf of Jews because it was “interfering” with his broader rescue efforts, he later claimed full credit for Himmler’s agreement and demeaned or ignored Kersten’s primary role in the affair. Bernadotte did, however, make a crucial contribution by working out the intricate details of the transports, but he played no role at all in any discussions or negotiations leading to Himmler contravening Hitler’s direct orders.
Bernadette’s role in arranging for the transport of tens of thousands of Jews to Sweden later played a key role in his appointment as a mediator in the 1948 Arab-Israel War, when he was murdered shortly after his arrival in Eretz Yisrael.
With the imminent end of the “Thousand-Year Reich,” Himmler fantasized that he could avoid prosecution for his monstrous war crimes in exchange for some token humanitarian gestures and, accordingly, he devised a scheme whereby Germany would surrender to the Western Allies, freeing its military forces to concentrate on the Russian campaign. He actually thought the Allies would join him in a common cause battle against the Bolshevik enemy, but a furious Hitler stripped him of all his offices and ordered his arrest. When Himmler tried to escape Germany by posing as a German sergeant, he was captured by Russian soldiers on May 20, 1945, and turned over to the British. During a routine body search on May 23, 1945, he committed suicide by swallowing a potassium cyanide capsule.
In December 1945, Aryeh Leon Kubowitski, WJC Secretary-General, presented Kersten with a letter thanking him for helping to save Jewish concentration camp victims. Exhibited here from my collection is that very Dec. 4, 1946 correspondence from Paris, which came from the documents division at Nuremberg:
We need to express our gratitude and appreciation for the profound service you have rendered to the Jews of all countries in connection with our desperate attempts to save them during the tragic years of war.
In particular, we are thinking of your successful efforts when it was possible, before the ed of the war, to liberate around 3,500 Jews from German concentration camps and transfer them to Sweden, as well as the handover of a certain number of German concentration camps to the Allies.
You have never denied your help, even under the most difficult of circumstances. The Jews of all countries will never forget your successful endeavors.
With the utmost respect!
The conclusion bears a typed passage from a Stockholm notary, confirming that the document was presented to him on April 30, 1947. A Nuremberg official has added a pencil notation at the top, “R. BRANDT . . . Not admitted,” suggesting that the letter was originally proposed as evidence against Rudolf Brandt, Himmler’s personal administrative officer.
Brandt was charged at the Doctors’ Trial in Nuremberg for his role in murdering 86 Jewish inmates at Auschwitz and then preparing their skeletons for public display at an anatomy institute to exhibit their “subhuman” and “repulsive” characteristics. He was later executed for war crimes in 1948.
Kersten’s intervention with Himmler to save Jews is historical fact for which he should be recognized and honored, but he turned out to also be a Holocaust fraudster when he credited himself with saving the entire Dutch population from being forcibly deported to Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Based solely on his braggadocio, the Dutch monarchy awarded him the Order of Orange-Nassau (January 1950), but a later investigation by a respected Dutch historian concluded that no mass deportation plan for the deportation of the Dutch had ever been planned and, moreover, that Kersten had fabricated documents.
However, Kersten’s claim to have played a key role in saving Finland’s Jews in the Holocaust is supported by Swedish archives, which confirm that the Finnish government used his services in the hope of influencing Himmler and provide evidence that he did serve as an intermediary between Himmler and Bernadotte in the negotiations that led to “The White Buses,” an operation which saved many hundreds of Scandinavians during the waning days of the Third Reich.
Kersten’s war memoirs were published in English translation (1947). Joseph Kessel wrote The Man with the Miraculous Hands (1960) about Kersten’s life, and actor Woody Harrelson is set to portray him in a feature film based upon Kessel’s novel.
Finally, some commentators note that while Israel has granted a Righteous Among the Nations Award to many worthy and admirable recipients, it has somehow never gotten around to bestowing that most respected honorific upon the much-deserving Kersten, and they urge Israel to correct this historical oversight. Nor is his name inscribed on Yad Vashem’s Wall of the Righteous, a recognition which is long overdue.