Chelmno

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

CHELMNO

CHELMNO (Ger. Kulmhof ), Nazi extermination camp on the Ner River 37 mi. (60 km.) west of *Lodz, the first site used for the murder of Jews by gassing as part of the German Final Solution to the Jewish question. The gassing of Jews began on December 8, 1941, and continued through March 1943. Jews from the Warthegau district, which had been annexed by the Third Reich, were deported to Chelmno for extermination until there were no more Jews in the region, except for the inhabitants of Lodz, the last of the Polish ghettos, which remained in operation until August 1944, longer than any other ghetto, perhaps because of its productivity. The camp was reopened and restaffed in June–July 1944 to oversee the murder of 7,000 Jews from Lodz; the remaining Jews from Lodz were sent to Auschwitz. In the fall of 1944 special units under Aktion 1005 were sent to Chelmno to dig up the bodies and burn them, thus destroying evidence of the crime. The ss abandoned Chelmno on January 18, 1945, the very date the death marches left Auschwitz ahead of advancing Russian troops.

According to some sources, approximately 320,000 Jews were murdered at Chlemno, including 60,000 Jews from Lodz and 11,000 West European Jews who had been shipped to the Lodz ghetto. Other sources speak of half that number. Jews were the primary victims of this death camp, but not the only ones. Among those murdered were 5,000 gypsies who had been deported to Lodz and sent from Lodz to Chelmno, an unknown number of Soviet prisoners of war, and 88 children from the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice, which was destroyed because of its proximity to the site where Reinhard *Heydrich was assassinated, even though no one in the village was involved in the attack.

The camp personnel consisted of fewer than 20 ss men and about 120 German regular police for auxiliary functions, first under Herbert Lange (until the spring of 1942) and then Hans Bothmann.

Upon arrival, the victims were informed that they were to work in factories. The Germans carefully camouflaged the camp to hide from the new arrivals any outward sign of extermination apparatus. They utilized an innocent-looking ancient palace called the Schloss, surrounded by a high fence.

The camp was divided into two parts, the arrival camp (the Schloss) and the Waldlager, the camp for cremation and burial located some 2.5 miles away in the Rzuwowski forest to hide its function. Other death camps used stationary gas chambers and crematoria that were first used in the Nazi murder of the handicapped. Chelmno used mobile gas vans that had also been developed in the *euthanasia program and were also utilized in the contemporaneous murder of Jewish men in Serbia and in the murder of Jewish women and children there in 1942. Unlike the other death camps that were situated adjacent to major railroad lines, freight trains could not reach Chelmno directly. Jews were transported to the Kolo Station and then transferred to a narrow-gauge track and taken to Powiercie station, and from there by truck to the Schloss. They were concentrated there in groups of 50 and taken to the cellar, where their valuables were confiscated and they were told to undress. To deceive the victims, a sign read: "To the Washroom." They proceeded by ramp to gas vans whose two rear doors were open. They too were disguised as delivery vans in an effort to deceive the local population. The doors were next shut and a flexible hose connected the exhaust pipe directly to the rear compartment of the truck as the short trip began to the Waldlager. The Renault trucks that were employed developed problems with their rear axles as victims rushed to the rear of the truck seeking to escape. Reinforced axles provided greater reliability for the mobile gas chambers. Death by gassing took a few minutes and the truck then continued slowly on its way to a mass grave in the nearby forest. The Germans constructed two crematoria following a typhoid epidemic in the district caused by the decaying corpses in the summer of 1942. A few Jews were kept alive temporarily to strip the corpses of their valuables, burn, and bury them. The belongings taken from the victims were collected under the German administration of the Lodz ghetto and most of them sent to Germany. From August 1944 until January 1945 the only function of the German crew was obliterating the traces of the extermination installations. In January 1945, with the Soviet troops fast approaching, the ss began to execute the remaining Jewish workers, some of whom attacked the Germans, killing two of them. The ss then burned the building in which the Jewish workers were housed. There were only two Jewish survivors of the camp, Mordechai Padchlebnik and Simon Srebnik, and one escapee, Jacob Grojanowski, who fled to Warsaw. His account of the camp's activities was received in mid-January 1942, just as the gassing began, by *Ringelblum's Oneg Shabbat group, which had intense interest in what was happening throughout Poland, and was transmitted to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and published there. The American Jewish publication The Jewish Frontier contained a detailed article on Chelmno in December 1942. In 1962–63, a trial of 12 members of the ss crew was held in Bonn. They were all found guilty and sentenced to 1 to 20 years' imprisonment.

Claude Lanzmann interviewed Simon Srebnik, who was just 13 when he entered Chelmno. Srebnik said: "There were 80 people in each van. When they arrived, the ss said, 'Open the doors,' and we opened them. The bodies tumbled right out. An SS man said, 'Two men inside!' These two men worked the ovens. They were experienced. Another ss man screamed, 'Hurry up! The other van's coming!' That's how it went all day long."

bibliography:

H. Krausnik et al. (eds), Anatomy of the ss State (1968), 224–6; German Crimes in Poland, 1 (1946), 109–21; G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682), index; R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (1961, 1984, 2003), index; W. Bednarz, Obóz straceń w Chelmnie nad Nerem (1946); Blumental and Kermisz, in: Dos Naye Lebn, no. 7 (1945); Y. Gutman and A. Saf (eds.), The Nazi Concentration Camps: Structure and Aims; The Image of the Prisoners; The Jews in the Camps, Proceedings of the Fourth Yad Vashem Historical Conference, Jerusalem (1984); Sh. Krakowski, Kefar Niddaḥ be-Eiropah. Chelmno, Maḥaneh Hashmadah ha-Naẓi ha-Rishon (Yad Vashem, 2001).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.]