Himmler’s Healer: How the SS Chief’s Physiotherapist Saved Jewish Lives During World War II

Felix Kersten saved thousands of Jewish lives during the holocaust using his bare hands

Felix Kersten and Heinrich Himmler.
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo, AP

Oscar Schindler used his enamelware factory as a cover in order to save Jews. Jan and Antonina Zabinski used the zoo they were running for the same purpose. Jaap Penraat from Holland used to smuggle Jews dressed as construction workers. All of them justly received the Righteous Among the Nations honorific from the State of Israel. So how come a man who saved thousands of lives using nothing but his bare hands wasn’t honored with the same title?

Felix Kersten was born in Tartu (nowadays Estonia) in 1898. After graduating in physical therapy in Helsinki, he apprenticed in Berlin at the clinic of a notable therapeutic masseur named Dr. Ko. Upon returning to his homeland, Tibet, Ko left the clinic in the marvelous hands of Kersten.

Dr. Felix Kersten
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Rumors about his legendary hands spread quickly and soon he was treating the entire aristocracy of the Weimar Republic – counts, dukes and princes. He even eased the pains of the king of Romania, and his reputation as an alternative healer specializing in medical massage was rising. He soon gained financial success, enabling him to buy a sizable house in a wealthy quarter in Berlin, and married German Aryan woman from the upper class, suitable for his new status. Everything about this young family seemed promising and optimistic from their point of view – until World War II.

Heinrich Himmler, commander of the S.S. and main planner of the Jewish genocide, suffered grievous stomach pains, and recovered after being treated by Kersten’s magical hands, after which he would not leave his trusted physician. Himmler asked Kersten to become his personal masseur and doctor.

For a while, Kersten managed to avoid the unwanted position, but finally Himmler made him choose: Either become his personal physician, or be sent to a concentration camp. Kersten made a seemingly egoistic choice, but as his decision saved many lives, surely the utilitarian philosophers Bentham and Mill would approve his moral choice.

Heinrich Himmler in 1936.
AP

According to Kersten’s memoir, so close was he to Himmler – who was known as an extremely superstitious man – that he became his only confidant.  Himmler called him “my magician Buddha.” In his new job, Kersten was able to hear all kinds of disturbing information about the horrors committed by the Nazi regime. He concluded that the skill which had made him a healer had also destined him to use his new circumstances to save lives. 

He applied a basic give and take method: one massage for one life (or more if possible). He stopped charging Himmler for the treatments and instead would present a note specifying his requests, such as release of underground prisoners, labor captives, homosexuals and others. Himmler would read the note – and meet the demand. Kersten’s life was in constant danger. Himmler may have seemed like a solid, restrained official, but deep inside he was an unsteady, unpredictable monster. He used to joke diabolically that “every time Dr. Kersten treats me, it costs me one pardon.”

One time Kersten was denied, though. When he asked Himmler to set free a large group of Jews due to be transported to the camps, he got a frightful stare from the boss, who was famous among the Nazi leadership as a fanatic devoted to the idea of purging Aryan Europe of all Jews.

Towards the end of the war, Himmler started to realize that some of his firm convictions needed to be reviewed. Although he shared Hitler’s belief that the Jews were a demonic race that poisons the world, he realized the end of the war was near, and he started to consider using the strength of those he thought of as roaches to lead the allies to sign an agreement.
Sensing the changing state of mind of his boss and patient, Kersten set up a clandestine meeting in his house between Himmler and the World Jewish Congress Swedish delegate Norbert Masur.

On the night of April 20, 1945, while the Red Army was approaching Berlin, Hitler gathered his close friends and subordinates to celebrate his 56th birthday. At some point Himmler took his leave and went out to meet Masur. If only the Fuhrer knew where his “truthful Heinrich” was heading, straight from his birthday party!

Adolf Hitler, left, shaking hands with German Interior Minister and head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, somewhere in Germany, 1944.
AP

After 2 A.M. Himmler’s car stopped in front of Kersten’s house. In “The Devil’s Doctor: Felix Kersten and the Secret Plot to Turn Himmler Against Hitler,” by the American historian John H. Waller, the meeting is described at length. Himmler gave a two-and-a-half-hour speech full of pathetic self-justification, lies and racist claims. Kersten and Masur were sitting still, focusing on their goal – to take advantage of the meeting to save as many Jews as they could,  which, at the end of the meeting, they achieved. 

Himmler approved the release of thousands of prisoners, most of them young Jewish women who were transferred to Sweden, thus rescued from certain death.  One of them was Tania Zvi, who married Israeli MK and Israel Prize laureate Aryeh “Lova” Eliav.

After the war Felix Kersten settled in Sweden, where he passed away in 1960. His descendants still wait for Israeli authorities to come to their senses and honor him with the Righteous Among the Nations title.

The Beit Hatfutsot blog tells the story and makes accessible materials from the history of the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, from its distant past until our times in the modern State of Israel. It tells the story of culture, people, curiosities, new angles on phenomena and well-known cases, or turns the spotlight on those we have never known about.

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