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Subject: Holocaust Almanac: Chelmno Extermination Camp

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                 Chelmno Extermination Camp
              Introductory note by Leon Zamosc

Immediately after the war, the provisional Polish government
created the Central Commision for the Investigation of
German Crimes in Poland, whose main task was to establish
what had happened and prepare the evidence for the Nuremberg
trial and for subsequent trials of German war criminals in
Poland. The Commision (still active under the name Main
Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against the
Polish Nation) collected documents and testimonies and began
to publish them in 1946. The main report was GERMAN CRIMES
IN POLAND (two volumes, originally published in Poland in
1946 and 1947), the first general overview of the main
concentration and extermination camps. The chapter on
Chelmno is reproduced below.

Little has been published on Chelmno, despite its
significance as the first extermination camp to become
operational (the Germans began the preparation work at
Chelmno two full months before the Wansee Conference, which
is considered as the key milestone in the operational
launching of the Jewish mass extermination program in

The main reason, I guess, is the fact that the Germans
managed to destroy most of the evidence about this
particular camp. In any case, the Commission's report
remains one of the most thorough accounts I have seen. If
you are interested in more, the book NAZI MASS MURDER: A
Eugen Kogon and others (1993), contains a chapter on Chelmno
written by Schmuel Krakowski. Claude Lanzmann's film SHOAH
also has important stuff on Chelmno (the complete script of
that monumental film was published as a small book by

   Central Commision for Investigation of German Crimes in
        GERMAN CRIMES IN POLAND (Warsaw, 1946, 1947)
            Extermination Camp Chelmno (Kulmhof)
                           Part I

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.

                           Part II

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.

                          Part III

According to the evidence of three witnesses (Podchlebnik,
Srebrnik and Zurawski) who succeeded in escaping from the
camp of Chelmno (note 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
(note 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

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.

                           Part IV

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.

                           Part V

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 (note
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.

                           Part VI

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

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 they would be gassed anyway within
the next few hours.

                          Part VII

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.

                          Part VIII

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.


1. From the more than 300,000 Jews transported to Chelmno,
only 4 survived (data of enquiry).

2. The auto transports came directly to Chelmno.

3. The camp was mainly active at Sundays and holidays. At
Whitsuntide day (1942) the extermination activity at Chelmno
was fully executed.

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