The extermination camp at Chelmno was a typical death camp, i.e. a place designed exclusively for killing all who where brought there. The only ones to be saved were a small group of workers selected by the Germans for work connected with their criminal activities.
The extermination camp at Chelmno demands special attention, because during the German occupation only a very few people in Poland ever knew of its existence and the hundreds of thousands of its victims.
The village of Chelmno (district of Kolo) is situated 14 km. (8 3/4 miles) from the town of Kolo, through which runs the main railway line from Lodz to Poznan, and which is connected with the village of Chelmno by a branch line. Lodz, the second largest city of Poland, which in 1939 had a Jewish population of 202,000, was relatively near (60 km or 37 1/2 miles); the road to it was good and little used.
In the village there was a small country house surrounded by an old park, which was owned by the State and stood empty. In the vicinity was a pine-wood, sections of which, densely planted with young trees, were almost impenetrable. This site the German occupation authorities selected for their extermination camp. The park was enclosed by a high wooden fence which concealed everything that went on behind it. The local inhabitants were expelled from the village, only a few workers being left to do the necessary jobs. Inside the enclosure were two buildings, the small country house and an old granary, besides which the Germans constructed two wooden hutments. The whole enclosure where hundred of thousands of people were done to death measured only 2 hectares (5 acres).
Those who were brought here for destruction, were convinced till the very last moment that they were to be employed on fortification work in the East. They were told that, before going further, they would have a bath, and that their clothes would be disinfected. Immediately after their arrival at the camp they were taken to the large hall of the house, where they were told to undress, and then they were driven along a corridor to the front door, where a large lorry, fitted up as a gas-chamber, was standing. This, they were told, was to take them to the bath-house. When the lorry was full, the door was locked, the engine started, and carbon monoxide was introduced into the interior through a specially constructed exhaust pipe. After 4-5 minutes, when the cries and struggles of the suffocating victims were heard no more, the lorry was driven to the wood, 4 km (2 1/2 miles) away, which was enclosed with a high fence and surrounded with outposts. Here the corpses were unloaded and buried, and afterwards burnt in one of the clearings.
The aim of the Chelmno camp was the extermination of the Jews from the Warthegau, the part of Poland which consisted of the 1939 province (voivodship) of Poznania, almost the whole province of Lodz, and a part of the province of Warsaw, inhabited altogether by 4,546,000 People (including 450,000 Jews).
The camp was established in November 1941. The extermination process began on December 8, with the ghetto population of the cities and towns of the Warthegau, first from the neighbouring Kolo, Dabie, Sompolno, Klodawa and many other places, and later from Lodz itself. The first Jews arrived at Chelmno from Lodz in the middle of January 1942. From that time onwards an average of 1000 a day was maintained, with short intermissions, till April 1943.
Besides those who were brought by rail, others were delivered at the camp from time to time in cars, but such were comparatively rare. Besides those from Poland there were also transports of Jews from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Luxemburg and Holland; as a rule the Lodz ghetto served as a distribution centre. The total number of Jews from abroad amounted to about 16,000.
Besides the 300,000 Jews from the Warthegau, about 5,000 Gipsies and about a thousand Poles and Russian prisoners of war were murdered at Chelmno. But the execution of the latter took place mostly at night. They were taken straight to the wood, and shot.
In 1943, four lorries filled with children aged from 12-14 without Jewish emblems were brought. The witnesses took the impression that they were “Aryans”. It was just at this time that the Nazis were expelling the Polish population from the neighbourhood of Zamosc, and as a rule separating children from their parents.
According to the evidence of three witnesses (Podchlebnik, Srebrnik and Zurawski) who succeeded in escaping from the camp of Chelmno,¹ as well as to that of Polish witnesses drawn from the population of the neighbourhood who had been able to get in touch with the inmates of the camp, and finally, that obtained from the railway transport records, the following preparatory phases in the process of mass execution can be distinguished:
Jews who were taken were told that they were going for military work in the East. Except for those from Lodz, it was the practice to surround the town at dawn with gendarmerie, police, SS, army, and Nazi party units in order to prevent the escape of the Jews. The latter were collected at appointed places, and were allowed to take hand-baggage with them; having been told that they were going to be taken for work on fortifications in the East. Only small numbers of craftsmen, such as tailors, furriers and shoemakers, were selected and sent to the ghetto at Lodz.
At the same time, all that was going on at the camp was kept so secret that the Jews taken there had no notion whatever of what was awaiting them. Many, indeed, applied voluntarily to be sent to Chelmno and the East.
The railway trains which used to bring the Jews from Lodz consisted as a rule of 20-22 wagons. At Kolo the transportees, usually about 1000 at one time, were reloaded and sent by the branch line to Powiercic, the rail-head,² whence their baggage was dispatched straight to Chelmno, while they themselves were taken under an escort of 6 to 8 gendarmes to the neighbouring village of Zawadki, and left for the night in a large mill building.
The next morning 3 lorries used to come for them from Chelmno, about 2 km (a mile and a quarter) away. Not more that 100-150 were taken at a time, that being the number which could be gassed in one operation. The whole process was so arranged that the next batch of victims remained till the last moment ignorant of the fate of those who had preceeded them. The whole thousand were disposed of by 1 or 2 p.m.
The loaded lorries entered the camp grounds and stopped before the house, where the newcomers were addressed by a representative of the Sonderkommando, who told them they were going to work in the East, and promised them fair treatment and good food. He also told them that first they must take a bath and deliver their clothes to be disinfected. From the courtyard they were sent inside the house, to a heated room on the first floor, where they undressed. They then came downstairs to a corridor, on the walls of which were inscriptions: “to the doctor” or “to the bath”, the latter with an arrow pointing to the front door. When they had gone out they were told that they were going in a closed car to the bath-house.
Before the door of the country house stood a large lorry with a door in the rear, so placed that it could be entered directly with the help of a ladder. The time assigned for loading it was very short, gendarmes standing in the corridor and driving the wretched victims into the car as quickly as possible with shouts and blows. When the whole of one batch had been forced into the car, the door was banged and the engine started, poisoning with its exhaust fumes those who were locked inside. The process was usually complete in 4 or 5 minutes, and then the lorry was driven to Rzuchow wood about 4 km (2 1/2 miles) away, where the corpses were unloaded and burnt.
Meanwhile lorries were bringing from Zawadki the next batch of 100-150 persons, destined to be disposed of in the same way, all traces of the previous batch having been removed and their belongings (clothing, shoes, etc.) taken away.
When the camp was “liquidated” in 1944 the gas-chamber lorries were sent back to Germany. At the inquiry it was established that they had originally been brought from Berlin. There were three of them, one large enough to hold about 150 persons, and two with a capacity of 80-100 each. Their official name was Sonderwagen.
As the Sonderkommando of the camp had no repair shops, and the cars often needed overhaul, they were sent to the Kraft und Reichsstrassenbauamt repair shops at Kolo. Eight Polish mechanics who had worked there and were examined at the inquiry described their construction as follows: the large lorry measured 6 x 3 metres (20 x 1O ft.); and the smaller ones 4.5 or 2,3 x 2.5 metres (15 or 16 x 8 ft.). The outside was covered with narrow overlapping boards, so that it looked as though it were armoured. The inside was lined with iron plates and the door fitted tightly, so that no air could let in from outside. The outside was painted dark grey.
The exhaust pipe was placed underneath and discharged its gas through a vent in the middle of the floor, which was guarded by a perforated iron plate, to prevent it from choking. On the floor of the car was a wooden grating. The engine was probably made by Sauer. By the driver’s seat was a plate with the words: Baujahr 1940-Berlin. In the driver’s cabin were gas-masks.
In Rzuchow wood, 4 km (2 1/2 miles) from Chelmno, the camp authorities enclosed two sections and posted sentries on the adjoining roads. Here the gas-lorries brought the corpses from Chelmno. After the door was opened ten minutes were allowed for the complete evaporation of the gas, and then the bodies were unloaded by the Jewish Waldkommando, and carefully searched for concealed gold and valuables. Gold teeth were pulled out, finger-rings torn off.
Until the spring of 1942 the remains were buried in large common graves, one of which measured 27O x 9 x 6 metres (885 x 3O x 2O ft.). In the spring of 1942 two crematoria were built, and after that, all the dead were burnt in them (and the bodies previously buried as well). Details about the furnaces are lacking, for the investigator could find no witnesses who had been in the wood in 1942 or 1943. Those who lived near had only noticed two constantly smoking chimneys within the enclosure.
The furnaces were blown up by the camp authorities on April 7, 1943. Two new ones were, however, constructed in 1944, when the camp activities were resumed. The witnesses Zurawski and Srebrnik, and the captured gendarme Bruno Israel, who saw them in 1944, describe them as follows:
They were built deep in the ground and did not project above its surface; and were shaped like inverted cones with rectangular bases. At the top on the ground level the furnaces measured 6 x 10 m (2O x 33 ft.) and they were 4 m (13 ft.) deep. At the bottom by the ash-pit they measured 1.5 x 2 m (95 x 6 in. ft.). The grates were made of rails. A channel to the ash-pit ensured the admittance of air and permitted the removal of ashes and bones. The sides of the furnace were made of firebrick and faced with cement. In the furnace were alternate layers of chopped wood and corpses: to facilitate combustion, space was left between the corpses. The furnace could hold 100 corpses at a time, but as they burned down, fresh ones were added from above.
The ashes and remains of bones were removed from the ash-pit, ground in mortars, and, at first, thrown into especially dug ditches; but later, from 1943 onwards, bones and ashes were secretly carted to Zawadki at night, and there thrown into the river.
The number of people killed at Chelmno could not be calculated from reliable data or railway records as the camp authorities destroyed all the evidence. The investigators were therefore obliged to confine themselves to the evidence given by witnesses concerning the number of transports sent to Chelmno.
In order to obtain as accurate an estimate as possible, witnesses were called from various points through which the transports passed (Lodz, Kolo, Powiercie, Zawvadki and Chelmno) or on individual observation and the counting based on the collective Railway tickets which they had seed (e. g. that of the woman Lange, a German booking-clerk at Kolo station), or finally individual observation and the counting of transports; or finally on what the members of the Sonderkommando told them about the number of victims.
All the witnesses agree that the average number of persons brought to the camp was at least 1000 a day. There were times when the number was larger, but 1000 may be accepted as a reliable average – exclusive of those who were brought in cars. These latter were not a negligible proportion, coming as they did from numerous small towns.
As to how many railway trains arrived during the whole time of the camp’s existence, investigators found that the extermination activities at Chelmno lasted from December 8 1941, to April 9 1943. From April 1943, till the final “liquidation” of the camp in January 1945, strictly speaking the camp was not functioning, the total number of transports in this period ammounting only to 10, bringing approximately 10,000 people.
Considering only the time from December 8 1941, to April 7 1943, 480 days, we must allow for a break of two months in the spring of 1942, when transports were stopped, as well as for certain interruptions due to merely technical causes, which, it was found, did not exceed 70 days altogether.³ This gives (61 + 70), or 131-150 days lost. The remainder, 330 days of full activity, may be unhesitatingly accepted, and if 1000 victims were murdered a day, the total was 330,000. To this number must be added the 10,000 killed in 1944. The final total therefore is 340,000 men, women and children, from infants to old folk, killed at the extermination camp at Chelmno.
This mass destruction was carefully planned, down to the smallest detail. The victims were kept in ignorance of their fate, and the whole German staff did not exceed 150-180 persons. Sonderkommando Kulmhof consisted only of a party of 20 SS-men, n. c. o’s of gendarmerie, and over 100 members of the German police, who served as sentinels, helped in the camp and in the wood where the corpses were burnt, and guarded the neighbouring roads.
At the head of the camp was Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Bootman. For the first few months the Commandant of the camp was a certain Lange who had come, like all the SS-men, from Germany. The assistant of the Commandant was first Lange, then Otto Platte and Willi Hiller. All activities in the camp were managed by Untersturmfuhrer Heffele. In charge of the works in the wood was Wachmeister Lenz. The crematoria were superintended by Hauptscharfuhrer Johann Runge, who had directed their construction with the help of Unterscharfuhrer Kretschmer. Hauptscharfuhrer Gustav Laps, Hauptscharfuhrer Burstinge and Gilow served as drivers of the gas-wagons.
The investigators cited the names of 80 Germans who were members of the Sonderkommando. In addition to their wages they received hush-money (Schweigegeld) amounting to 13 RM a day. The Canteen was well stocked with food and spirits. The inquiry showed that Greiser Gaulciter of the Warthegau, during one of his visits to the camp at the beginning of March 1943, handed each of the members of the Sonderkommando 500 RM at a banquet specially given for them, and invited them to his estate when on leave.
It should be pointed out that when, in January, 1945, in view of the Soviet offensive, arrangements were being made for the final “liquidation” of the camp, the camp authorities waited till the last minute for Greiser to give the evacuation order (evidence of Israel Bruno, the arrested gendarme from Chelm).
The camp was also inspected personally by Himmler, and Dr. Bradfisch, chief of the Gestapo at Lodz, and Hans Bibow, the manager of the Ghettoverwaltung at Lodz, were constant visitors.
It was found that Greiser and the higher functionaries of the German administration who were in contact with the camp had received valuables which had belonged to murdered Jews. But the gendarmerie and police were very severely punished if they appropriated such things.
Apart from the Sonderkommando some 70 Jewish workers and 8 Polish prisoners from concentration camps were employed in the camp on searching and burning the corpses. They worked in two parties: the Hauskommando in the camp enclosure, and Waldkommando in the wood. As a rule, after several weeks of work, these Jewish workers were killed, and replaced by fresh ones, newly arrived. They were fettered to check their movements. The workers at the ash-pit in the wood as a rule did not live longer than a few days. The attitude of members of the Sonderkornmando towards the Jewish workers was cruel. Members of the SS used them as living targets, shooting them like hares.
Besides this, members of the Sonderkommando very often killed infants and small children, as well as old people, although they knew that thev would be gassed anyway within the next few hours.
A further important factor inspiring the destruction of the Jews by the Nazi authorities was economic. The value of the property owned by 340,000 people amounted to a large sum. The majority of things had been already taken from the Jews at the time of the evacuation of the ghettos, but many valuables and gold were stolen in the camp itself.
The things which were seized were sent to different centres, mostly to Lodz, where they were collected and underwent a final examination before being sent to the Reich. It was stated for instance, that on September 9 1944, 775 wristwatches and 550 pocket watches were sent from Chelmno to the Ghettoverwaltung at Lodz.
At the inquiry it was stated that the clothing of the victims was sold for the benefit of the winter assistance fund (Winterhilfe). Among the documents of the case there is a letter of January 9 1943, to the ghetto administration at Lodz, sent by the Winterhilfswerk des Deutschen Volkes: Der Gaubeauftragte Poznan. It runs as follows: “Concerning the supply of textiles for NSV by the ghetto authorities. According to a personal understanding between you, my principal local Manager Kichhorn and the local Manager Koalick, clothes, dresses, and underwear are to be provided after cleaning. The 1,500 suits supplied do not correspond in any way to the textiles which we saw at Chelmno (Kulmhof), which were put at the disposal of the ghetto authorities: Your consignment contains various assorted articles of clothing, but no whole suits. Many articles of this clothing are badly stained and partly permeated with dirt and blood-stains. (Ein grosser Teil der Bekleidungsstucke ist stark befleckt und teilweise auch mit Schmutz und Blutflecken durchsetzt). In one of the consignments sent to Poznan containing 200 jackets, on 51 of them the Jewish stars had not been removed! As they are mostly Polish workers in the camps of the district, the danger is that the settlers (Ruckwanderer) who receive this clothing will become aware of its origin and WHW will be discredited (und das WHW somit in Misskredit kommt).”
From the above it may be concluded that German philantropic institutions knew that the clothing sent from Poland had been owned by murdered Jews.
The final activities of the camp at Chelmno in 1944 differ from those of 1941-1943 in this, that the victims were brought from Kolo by a local branch railway line direct to Chelmno, where they were left for the night in the church, and the next day were taken directly to Rzuchow wood. In this wood, at a distance of only 150 metres from the crematoria, two wooden huts were constructed, one of them designed, as was previously the country house at Chelmno, to be a dressing room for those going to the bath, and the other as a clothing and baggage store.
The general procedure was exactly as before, the victims, completely naked, being forced into gas-lorries and told they were going to the bath-house. After gassing the victims the lorries were driven to a nearby clearing, in which stood the crematoria where the corpses were burnt.
The total number of persons murdered in 1944 was about 10,000. According to the testimony of the witness Peham, the wife of a gendarme from the camp at Chelmno, trainloads of Hungarian Jews in 1944 were to be directed there. In the end, however, they were not sent there, but to Oswiecim.
In the autumn of 1944 the camp in the wood was completely destroyed, the crematoria being blown up, the huts taken to pieces, and almost every trace of crime being carefully removed. A Special Commission from Berlin directed, on the spot, the destruction of all the evidence of what had been done. But up to the last moment, January 17 1945, the Sonderkommando and a group of 47 Jewish workers stayed there. In the night of January 17/18 1945, the Sonderkommando shot these last remaining Jews. When they tried to defend themselves and two gendarmes were killed, the Sonderkommando set fire to the building in which they were. Only two Jews, Zurawski and Srebrnik, survived.