The death camp in the village of Chelmno in the Kolo County in central Poland became operational on 8 December 1941. The name given by the German occupation authorities to Chelmno was Kulmhof. The entire Jewish population from the Warthegau was to be exterminated there by means of poisonous gases. The Wartheland, a territory incorporated into the Third Reich, included both the Wielkopolska and the Lodz Provinces. The reasons for choosing the village of Chelmno as a site for an extermination camp included – its location by the road connecting the town of Kolo The town was called Warthbrücken during the occupation, an important regional centre, with a Jewish population of approximately 2300 people. Kolo station played an integral part in the history of Chelmno, as it was on the main line between Lodz and Poznan.
Deportees arrived from Lodz and other places in the Warthegau in closed cattle wagons. Here they were transferred to the narrow gauge railway for the trip to Powercie, and then by truck or foot onto Chelmno. Another reason for choosing Chelmno was its proximity to a forest and to an abandoned palace on the edge of the village just 150 meters off the road. Thus the access to the palace was convenient, and at the same time the distance from the road was far enough to avoid unwanted outsiders. The palace was renovated and adapted to receive the intended victims. The church near the palace was transformed into a point for the concentration of victims before they were directed into the camp. The granary and several other buildings were also part of the death camp. The Ner River flowed by the church, although it was not very deep, it posed a serious obstacle for potential runaways and made it easier for the guards to isolate the camp. The village of Powiercie, eight kilometres from Chelmno, is linked to Kolo by a narrow-
The palace in Chelmno was one of two extermination facilities. The second one was located in the clearings in the Rzuchow Forest, four kilometres from the palace. The bodies of the murdered Jews were buried in mass graves in three clearings, referred to as the Forest Camp (Waldlager) Later at this location the Germans built crematories in order to obliterate the evidence of their crimes. For the purpose of mass killing specially adapted trucks were deployed. Such trucks had been previously used by the Einsatzgruppen, who carried out mass killings in the Soviet Union. The vehicles were reinforced to carry heavy loads and equipped with tightly sealed doors. The exhaust pipe was redirected to a vent in the middle of the truck, which would fill the rear compartment completely with gas. The camp at Chelmno had three such vehicles at its disposal.
In the beginning of November 1941 two groups of Nazis arrived in Chelmno, they formed the personnel of the Chelmno death camp. The first small group consisted of 15 people – members of the Sicherheitspolizei. These were SS-
All the commanding posts were held by the SS-
The Chelmno death camp was under the direct command of SS-
In the courtyard everybody was ordered to get off the trucks with their hand baggage. The SS-
However, the next stages happened much faster. Armed members of the Schutzpolizei began to rush the people brutally in the direction of the back entrance of the palace. There was a wooden ramp guarded by a two metre –high fence. The rushed Jews started to sense the danger, they could not however realise, what kind of danger it was. Whoever attempted to stop before the ramp was violently pushed into it by the armed Germans. Those already on the ramp quickly moved towards the bottom of it. It was impossible to withdraw or even pause for a second. The ramp led to a vehicle – a gas van with the back door opened. The victims were thus moving along the ramp straight to the inside of the gas-
Having murdered the Jewish people from Kolo, the German authorities went on with the extermination of all the Jews from nearby locations such as Dabie, Nowiny Brdowskie, Klodawa and Izbica Kujawska. They too perished in Chelmno. Between 5 January and 12 January 1942 about 4,300 Gypsies were transported to Chelmno and murdered. They belonged to the Lalleri tribe and came from Austria. In the first days of November 1941 they had already been deported to Lodz and imprisoned in the Gypsy camp consisting of a few blocks within the ghetto. The camp was guarded by the gendarmes from the 132nd Schutzpolizei battalion and commanded by Eugen Jansen. After a short time many of the Gypsies died of hunger and extremely poor sanitary conditions. The survivors were to be exterminated in Chelmno. They were brought in groups and murdered in the same manner as the Jews from the nearby towns. None of them remained alive.
The next community to be murdered were the residents of the Lodz Ghetto.
Deportations to the Chelmno death camp began on 16 January 1942 and lasted, with short intervals, until 15 May 1942. During this period 55,000 people were deported from Lodz Ghetto and murdered in Chelmno.The exceptional character of the deportations during this period was marked by the fact that they were carried out on the basis of lists of names prepared by the Jewish Council, whose Chairman was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. The deportations were carried out under false pretence of deportations to the forced labour camps. Any protests against the orders of the German authorities would lead to the liquidation of the ghetto, according to Rumkowski. Deportations of the Jews from Lodz Ghetto were carried out simultaneously with the liquidations of the ghettos in smaller towns of the Warthegau. However, after the first wave of the liquidations the German authorities decided to keep part of the Jewish communities in live in order to use them for forced labour. Brutal deportations now included a selection process – choosing the fit and healthy ones for forced labour. Those not selected for work were transported to Chelmno and murdered there. The people selected from the adjacent ghetto numbered 18,500 who were transferred to the Lodz Ghetto. Hans Biebow the German Chief of the Ghetto Administration played a major part in the selection process.
By the end of summer 1942 all the ghettos in the Warthegau apart from Lodz Ghetto, had been liquidated. Among the victims brought to Chelmno the Germans from time to time selected groups of 30 young and strong men. They were used to form the so-
Whilst there is no idea of how many unsuccessful escape attempts there were, it is known that only four people managed to escape from the death camp at Chelmno. One of the four men was called Szlamek Bajler, also known as Yakov Grojanowski, who left the camp on 19 January 1942, after two weeks of forced labour as a grave-
Having liquidated all the Jewish communities in the Warthegau apart from Lodz, the German authorities decided to decrease the size of the Lodz Ghetto even more, they ordered the deportation of the children, the old and those who were ill, or in hospital. Between 5 September and 12 September 1942, no one was allowed to leave their houses, the infamous Gehsperre Aktion. Units of the German police searched the ghetto thoroughly apartment by apartment. Children, the old and ill were loaded into trucks with extreme brutality. Those who opposed were killed on the spot. The selected were taken to Chelmno and slain there. Almost 20,000 residents of the Lodz Ghetto were added to the Chelmno death camp toll. Deportations to Chelmno death camp were accompanied by the confiscation of all personal property, which was transported to a storehouse in Pabiance, which they were distributed among the German community who had resettled in the Warthegau.
In March 1943 a decision was made to close down the Chelmno death camp, and on 7 April 1943 the Germans blew up the palace, along with a transport of Jews infected with typhus. The Germans who were afraid of being infected, ordered the Jews up to the first storey of the palace, whilst dynamite was placed in the basement, and the building was blown up. On 11 April 1943 the German personnel left Chelmno. After a month off, they were sent to Yugoslavia to form the SS-
In the spring of 1944 the German authorities decided to liquidate the Lodz Ghetto – at that time the last ghetto in the occupied Polish territories. The remaining 80,000 of its residents were to be exterminated over the coming months. To achieve this the forest camp was reactivated and the “Bothmann –Kommando” was recalled from Yugoslavia. Hans Bothmann was appointed Commandant and SS-
In order to make the camp look like a larger temporary camp, the barracks were equipped with signs reading barracks numbers, and the gate had a sign that read “ To the Bathhouse”, while on the wall inside the barracks was a sign that read “To the Doctor”. In addition on both doors there were signs that read “Dressing Room” for men and women respectively. After 25-
To avoid complications and to speed up the undressing, they were further informed that they would be living in newly built barracks, and as much as possible with their entire families, but first they had to be deloused. To make them undress quickly, they were also told that the transports would leave that very day and they should hurry up. Valuables were to be placed on the shelves above the pegs, while bread, tobacco and matches and lighters were to be wrapped in handkerchiefs or small bags and placed separately, because the filthy clothes had to be cleaned chemically and any valuables left in the pockets would have been burnt. When everyone had stripped naked, first the women, followed immediately by the men, had to go through a door with a sign “To the Bathhouse”.
Behind the door there was a passage about 20-
Removing the ash was a difficult and hazardous job. No one could keep on with it longer than two or three days, after which the worker was unable to continue and was killed. The bones and ashes were packed in sacks made of blankets brought by the Jews on transports. But first the bones had to be crushed with wooden stamps on a special cement foundation. The sacks were driven out of the forest at night to Zawadka Mill and thrown into the River Warta. One of the furnaces was destroyed by August 1944 whilst the other furnace was destroyed in January 1945” The end of the SS-
Mordechai Zurawski testified:
On the night of 17 January 1945, the doors to the room in the Granary where about 20 Jews slept were opened; the rest slept upstairs above this room. Two SS –men entered, Lenz and Haase, shining their electric flashlights, and they ordered us to leave in fives. After the first five went out, we heard five shots, we were sure they were killed and so when another five were called, nobody wanted to go. So the SS-
Walter Piller testified:
So the prison remained in the palace courtyard in Chelmno with 40-
Before Bothmann and the five other men started the chase, he ordered me to take care of the rest of the labour unit with a shot to the back of the head. Lenz brought out the remaining five from the lower cell. They were killed by Lenz and myself. But there were still the 20 craftsmen left in the upper cell. Without my order, Lenz took a certain Wachtmeister Schupo to the upper cell so that five Jews could be removed and shot in the same way as with the lower cell. As soon as Lenz opened the cell door, four Jews threw themselves at him and pulled him into the cell. Then they took his pistol away and opened fire at two Wachtmeisters standing by the door. The door on the ground floor was locked only after Bothmann had returned from the unsuccessful search for the escapee and had given the order to do so.
After Bothmann, Hafele and I called out several times for them to release Lenz and leave the cell in groups of five, the answer was the firing of the pistol taken away from Lenz. Then one of the Jews called out that Lenz had hung himself. We could not check it out because the prisoners set fire to the prison and the flames were coming out of the roof. The fire spread twice as fast, because above the upper cell, wood was being dried to run the cars. Bothmann decided to let the prison burn down completely, despite the fact that Lenz was still inside. Judging by the fire, Lenz was no longer alive. The killed Jews lying in front of the prison were also carried into the burning building and abandoned to the flames.
In the morning of 18 January 1945 when the fire was slowly dying out, Bothmann instructed Piller and Gorlich to open a metal cabinet standing in one of the rooms and to burn all the secret documents kept there. The documents were burnt and the ash spread over open fields. The SS-
It is impossible to establish the precise number of victims murdered at Chelmno, but the German mayor of Kolo, Becht, informed his doctor Leo Brat, that until spring 1943 about 250,000 Jewish people were murdered. Bothmann told Karl May, a forestry official, in the summer of 1942 during a visit to the Waldlager, that about 250,000 people had been buried there and another 100,000 would be buried soon.
However, the monument at the site of the former death camp, says 180,000 Jews were murdered here, 160,000 Polish Jews, and 20,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Luxemburg and 4300 Gypsies.
Chelmno witnesses Speak – The District Museum in Konin
W. Dressen, E.Klee, V.Reiss, Those Were the Days, published by Hamish Hamilton, London 1991
Lucjan Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-
Cameron Munro, Chelmno Book 1 – Transport to Death, Mac Publication
Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1997
Photograph – Chris Webb Archive
Dedicated To Artur Hojan
© Holocaust Historical Society 2014