Chełmno extermination camp, known by the Germans as the Kulmhof concentration camp, was a Nazi German extermination camp situated 50 kilometres (31 mi) from Łódź, near a small Polish village called Chełmno nad Nerem (Kulmhof an der Nehr in German). After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it annexed the area as part of the territory of Reichsgau Wartheland. The camp operated in two periods, from December 8, 1941 to March 1943 during Aktion Reinhard (the most deadly phase of the Holocaust), and from June 1944 to January 18, 1945 during the Soviet counter-offensive. It was specifically built to exterminate most of the Polish Jews of the Łódź Ghetto and the local Polish inhabitants of Reichsgau Wartheland (Warthegau). In between these two periods, modifications were made to the camp’s killing methods, as the main part of the camp was dismantled in 1943.
At least 152,000 people (Bohn) were killed in the camp. Due to German efforts to destroy their wartime records, the estimates in the early postwar period based on a statistical approach also ought to be taken into consideration; these include a total of 340,000 victims estimated by GKBZNwP. The murdered were chiefly Polish Jews from the Łódź Ghetto and the surrounding area, along with Romani from Greater Poland. But, during this period, Jews from Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Germany, Luxemburg, and Austria were also transported to Chelmno via the Łódź Ghetto, and Soviet prisoners of war were killed there. The camp killed most of the victims by the use of gas vans. The camp was a center for early experimentation and development of methods of mass murder, some of which were applied in later phases of the Holocaust.
Sources vary, but in total, they suggest that only four Jewish males had survived the Chełmno extermination camp by war’s end; one was fifteen years old. The Holocaust Encyclopedia notes that seven escaped from work details during the 1940s; among them was Yakov Grojanowski, who documented the camp’s operations in his Grojanowski Report. But he was later captured and killed at another death camp before war’s end. In June 1945 two survivors testified at a trial of captured camp personnel in Łódź, Poland. The three best-known survivors testified about their Chełmno experiences at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Two also testified at the Chełmno Trials, conducted from 1962-1965 in West Germany.
Governor (Reichsstatthalter) of the Reichsgau Wartheland, Arthur Greiser, initiated setting up an extermination centre at Chełmno. In a letter to Himmler dated 30 May 1942, Greiser referred to an authorisation he had received from him and Reinhard Heydrich, to start the Sonderbehandlung (Special Handling, i.e. mass execution without judicial process) of 100,000 Jews, about one-third of the total Jewish population of the Wartheland territory. The letter stated that the process of killing those Jews was expected to be completed very soon. One theory is that Greiser’s request arose from the German Government’s decision of October 1941 to deport German Jews to the Łódź Ghetto (Litzmannstadt) in central Poland. Greiser wanted to create space for the incoming German Jews by killing off part of the existing Polish Jewish population.
According to post-war testimony by the Higher SS and Police Leader for Reichsgau Wartheland, SS General Wilhelm Koppe, he received an order from Himmler to liaise with Reichsstatthalter Greiser to carry out the Sonderbehandlung requested by the latter. Koppe entrusted the extermination operation to SS-Standartenführer Ernst Damzog, Commander of Security Police and SD from the headquarters in occupied Poznań (Posen). Damzog personally selected staff for the killing centre and later supervised its daily operation. Damzog formed an SS-Sonderkommando (special detachment) commanded by SS Captain Herbert Lange. Lange had previous experience with mass killing of Poles in the Wartheland region (Wielkopolska) during the Euthanasia Aktion of mid-1940, when his forces used a mobile gas-chamber as well as shooting other victims.
In October 1941, Lange toured the area looking for a suitable site for an extermination centre, and finally chose Chełmno (Kulmhof) because of the estate. He was the first commander of forces at the camp.
The killing center consisted of a vacated manorial estate in the town of Chełmno and a large forest clearing about 4 km (2.5 mi) northwest of Chełmno, off the east side of the road to Koło and abutting the village of Rzuchów to the south. These sites were known respectively as the Schlosslager (manor-house camp) and the Waldlager (forest camp). On the grounds of the estate was a large two-story brick country house called “the palace.” Its rooms were adapted to use as the reception offices, including rooms for the victims to undress and to give up their valuables. The SS and police staff and guards were housed in other buildings in the town. The Germans had a high wooden fence built around the manor house and the grounds. The clearing in the forest camp, which contained space for mass graves, was likewise fenced off. The camp consisted of three parts: an administration section, barracks and storage for plundered goods; and a burial and cremation site.
The SS-Sonderkommando “Lange” was supplied with three gas vans, assigned by the RSHA in Berlin, for killing mass numbers of victims. These vehicles had been converted to mobile gas-chambers by the use of sealed compartments installed on the chassis, into which the engine exhaust was directed by an attached pipe. The Germans had used such vans successfully in September 1941 to kill mental patients in the occupied Soviet Union. For all practical purposes, the extermination by mobile gas vans proved very efficient. On June 5, 1942 inspector Becker wrote to Obersturmbannfuhrer Rauff in RSHA that, by using just three vans on the Eastern Front (the Opel-Blitz and the larger Saurerwagen), without any faults, they were able to “process” (murder) 97,000 Soviet captives in less than six months between December 1941 and June 1942.
The rank and file of the so-called SS Special Detachment Lange was made up of Gestapo, Criminal Police, and Order Police personnel, under the leadership of Security Police and SD officers. Herbert Lange was replaced as camp commandant in March (or April) 1942 by Schultze. He was succeeded by SS-Captain Hans Bothmann, who formed and led the Special Detachment Bothmann. The maximum strength of each Special Detachment was just under 100 men, of whom around 80 belonged to the Order Police.
The local SS also maintained a “paper command” of the camps Allgemeine-SS inspectorate, to which most of the Chełmno camp staff were attached for administrative purposes. Historians do not believe members of the 120th SS-Standarte office established in Chełmno performed any duties at the camp.
The SS and police began killing operations at Chełmno on December 8, 1941. The first people brought to the camp were the Jewish and Romany populations of Koło, Dąbie, Sompolno, Kłodawa, Babiak, Izbica Kujawska, Bugaj, Nowiny Brdowskie and Kowale Pańskie. A total of 3,830 Jews and around 4,000 Gypsies were killed by gas before February 1942. The victims were brought from all over Koło County to Powiercie by rail. Using whips, the Nazis marched them toward the river near Zawadki, where they were locked overnight in a mill, without food or water. The next morning, they were loaded onto lorries and taken to Chełmno. They were transferred to vans and gassed to death with the exhaust fumes on the way to the burial pits in the forest. The daily average for the camp was about 6 to 9 van loads of the dead. The drivers used gas-masks. From January 1942 the transports included hundreds of Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. In addition, they included Jews from Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and Luxemburg, who had first been deported to the ghetto in Łódź, a railroad hub, where they had been resettled for some time.
In late January 1942, the secretary of the local Polish council, Stanisław Kaszyński, and his wife were arrested. He was executed three days later for trying to bring public attention to what was being perpetrated at the camp. His letter was intercepted by the SS-Sonderkommando.
During the first five weeks, the murder victims came from the nearby areas. They were transported to the manor house (Schlosslager) in Chełmno under the guard of Special Detachment called SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof commanded by Herbert Lange. The victims, mostly Jews, disembarked at the courtyard and entered the manor house, where the SS men, wearing white coats and pretending to be medics, waited for them. The deportees were told to undress for bathing, and to have their clothes disinfected before transport to Germany and Austria. Occasionally they were met by a German officer dressed as a local squire with a feather hat, announcing that some of them would remain there. The Jews were led to a special room to strip and hand over their valuables. They were told that all hidden banknotes would be destroyed during steaming and needed to be taken out and handed over for safe-keeping. Wearing just underwear, with the women allowed to keep slips on, they were taken to the cellar and across the ramp into the back of a gas van holding from 50-70 people each (Opel Blitz) and up to 150 (Magirus). When the van was full, the doors were shut and the engine was started to pump fumes into the rear compartment. The vans immediately began to transport the victims to the mass graves in the forest. After about 5–10 minutes, the victims were killed by asphyxiation. Witnesses heard their screams as they were dying. The vans full of corpses were driven 4 km (2.5 mi) to the forest Waldlager camp, to previously excavated mass graves. They were unloaded and cleaned by the Waldkommando, and then returned to the manor house.
Murder of Jews from the Łódź Ghetto
On January 16, 1942, the SS and police began deportations from the Łódź Ghetto. German officials transported the Jews from Łódź by train to Koło railway station, six miles (10 km) northwest of Chełmno. There, the SS and police personnel supervised transfer of the Jews from the freight as well as passenger trains, to smaller-size cargo trains running on a narrow-gauge track, which took them from Koło to the Powiercie station, three miles (5 km) northwest of Chełmno. Beginning in late July 1942, the victims were brought to the camp directly after the regular railway line linking Koło with Dąbie was restored; the bridge over the Rgilewka River had been repaired.
As round-ups in Łódź normally took place in the morning, it was usually late afternoon by the time the victims arrived by rail. Therefore they were marched to a disused mill at Zawadki some two kilometres from Powiercie where they spent the night. The mill continued to be used after the railway repairs, if transports arrived late. The following morning the Jews were transported from Zawadki by truck, in numbers which could be easily controlled at their destination point. They were processed immediately upon arrival at the manor-house camp.
German authorities selected Jewish prisoners from incoming transports to join the camp Sonderkommando, a “special unit” of 50 to 60 men deployed at the forest burial camp. They removed corpses from the gas-vans and buried them in the mass graves. The graves were quickly filled and the smell of decomposing bodies began to permeate the surrounding area, including nearby villages. In the spring of 1942, the SS ordered burning of the bodies in the forest. The bodies were burned on open air “grids” constructed of concrete; pipes were used for air ducts, and long ash pans were built below the grid. Later, the Jewish Sonderkommando had to exhume the mass graves and burn the previously interred bodies. In addition, they sorted the clothing of the victims, and cleaned the excrement and blood from the vans.
A small detachment of about 15 Jews worked at the manor house, sorting and packing the belongings of the victims. Between eight and ten skilled craftsmen worked there to produce or repair goods for the SS Special Detachment.
Periodically, the SS executed the members of the Jewish special detachment and replaced them with workers selected from recent transports. The SS held jumping contests and races among the prisoners, who were shackled with chains on their ankles, to deem who was fit to continue working. The losers of such contests were shot.
The early killing process carried out by the SS from December 8, 1941 until mid January 1942, was intended to kill Jews and Poles from all nearby towns and villages, which were slated for German colonization (Lebensraum). From mid-January 1942, the SS and Order Police began transporting Jews in crowded freight and passenger trains from Łódź. By then, Jews had also been deported to Łódź from Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, and Luxembourg, and were included in the transports at that time. The transports included most of the 5,000 Roma (Gypsies) who had been deported from Austria. Throughout 1942, the Jews from Wartheland were still being processed; in March 1943 the SS declared the district judenfrei. Other victims murdered at the killing center included several hundred Poles, and Soviet prisoners of war.
During the summer of 1942, the new commandant Bothmann made substantial changes to the camp’s killing methods. The change was prompted by two incidents in March and April of that year. First, the gas-van broke down on the highway while full of living victims. Many passers-by heard their loud cries. Soon after that, the Sauer van exploded while the driver was revving its engine at the loading ramp; the gassing compartment was full of living Jews. The explosion blew off the locked back door, and badly burned the victims inside. Drivers were replaced. Bothmann’s modifications to the killing methods included adding poison to gasoline. There is evidence that some red powder and a fluid were delivered from Germany by Maks Sado freight company, in order to kill the victims more quickly. Another major change involved parking the gas vans while prisoners were killed. They were no longer driven en route to the forest cremation area with living victims inside. One of the author Franz Kafka’s sisters, Valeria Pollakova (Valerie or Valli, born September 25, 1890) was deported to the Łódź ghetto on September 10, 1942. That is the last place she was documented. She may have been deported to Chełmno and killed there, or she may have died before that.
After having annihilated almost all Jews of Wartheland District, in March 1943 the Germans closed the Chełmno death factory, while Operation Reinhard was still underway elsewhere (other death camps had faster methods of killing and incinerating people). Chełmno was not a part of Reinhard. The SS ordered complete demolition of Schlosslager, along with the manor house, which was levelled. To hide the evidence of the SS-committed war crimes, from 1943 onward, the Germans ordered the exhumation of all remains and burning of bodies in open-air cremation pits by a unit of Sonderkommando 1005. The bones were crushed on cement with mallets and added to the ashes. These were transported every night in sacks made of blankets to river Warta (or the Ner River) on the other side of Zawadka, where they were dumped into the water from a flat-bottomed boat or from a bridge. Eventually, the camp authorities bought a bone-crushing machine (Knochenmühle) from Schriever and Co. in Hamburg to speed up the process.
The Final Extermination Phase
In April 1944, the Germans renewed deportations to Chełmno to liquidate the Łódź ghetto, where 70,000 Jews still worked making needed materials for the Germans. The SS Special Detachment “Bothmann” returned to the forest camp and supervised the renewed killing operations. They murdered an additional 25,000 Łódź Jews in the last phase of the camp. The victims were taken to the village church at Chełmno for the night, where they were directed to leave their bundles. They were driven to the forest, where the camp authorities had constructed two reception huts, and two new open-air cremation pits. The SS and police guarded the victims as they undressed and gave up valuables before entering gas-vans. In this final phase of the camp operation, all victims’ bodies were burned immediately after death. The Germans and Polish police also killed Jews by shooting them or putting them into the creamation pits alive. From mid-July 1944, the SS and police began deporting the remaining inhabitants of the Łódź ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In September 1944, the SS brought in a new Commando 1005 of Jewish prisoners from outside the Wartheland District to exhume and cremate any remaining corpses and to remove any evidence of the mass murder operations. A month later, the SS and police executed about half of the 80-man detachment after this work was done. The officials sent the gas-chamber vans back to Berlin. Shooting the remaining Jewish workers to death, the Germans abandoned the Chełmno killing center on January 18, 1945, as the Soviet army approached (it reached the camp two days later). The 15-year-old Jewish prisoner, Simon Srebnik, was the only one to survive the last executions. Historians estimate that the SS killed at least 152,000 people at Chełmno between December 1941 and March 1943, and in June/July 1944. Note: a 1946–47 report by the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland placed the number closer to 340,000, based on a statistical approach, as the camp authorities had destroyed railway records in an effort to hide their actions.
After the war, Chełmno extermination camp personnel were tried in court cases in Poland and in over a period of about 20 years. The first judicial trial of the former members of the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof took place in 1945 at the District Court in Łódź. The subsequent four trials, held in Bonn, began in 1962 and concluded three years later in 1965 in Cologne.
Adolf Eichmann testified about the camp during his 1961 war-crimes trial in Jerusalem. He visited it once in late 1942. Simon Srebnik, from the burial Sonderkommando, testified in both the Chelmno Guard and Eichmann trials. Nicknamed Spinnefix at the camp, Srebnik was recognised only by the Chelmno Guards by this name.
Walter Burmeister, a gas-van driver (not be confused with the camp’s SS-Unterscharfuehrer Walter Burmeister), testified in Bonn in 1967:<
As soon as the ramp had been erected in the castle, people started arriving in Kulmhof from Litzmannstadt (Łódź) in lorries… The people were told that they had to take a bath, that their clothes had to be disinfected and that they could hand in any valuable items beforehand to be registered…
When they had undressed they were sent to the cellar of the castle and then along a passageway on to the ramp and from there into the gas-van. In the castle there were signs marked “to the baths”. The gas vans were large vans, about 4-5 metres [13-16 ft] long, 2.2 metres [7.2 ft] wide and 2 metres [6.5 ft] high. The interior walls were lined with sheet metal. A wooden grille was set into the floor. The floor of the van had an opening which could be connected to the exhaust by means of a removable metal pipe. When the lorries were full of people, the double doors at the back were closed and the exhaust connected to the interior of the van…
The commando member detailed as driver started the engine right away so that the people inside the lorry were suffocated by the exhaust gases. Once this had taken place, the union between the exhaust and the inside of the lorry was disconnected and the van was driven to the camp in the woods where the bodies were unloaded. In the early days they were initially buried in mass graves, later incinerated… I then drove the van back to the castle and parked it there. Here it would be cleaned of the excretions of the people that had died in it. Afterwards it would once again be used for gassing.
Determining the identities of the few survivors of Chełmno had presented ambiguity because records used different versions of their names. One survivor may not have been recorded in the early postwar years because he did not testify at trials of camp personnel. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, a total of seven Jews from the burial Sonderkommando escaped from the Waldlager. Five escaped during the winter of 1942, including Mordechaï Podchlebnik, Milnak Meyer, Abraham Tauber, Abram Roj, and Szlamek Bajler (whose identity was later established as Yakov (or Jacob) Grojanowski). Mordechaï Zurawski and Simon Srebnik escaped later. Srebnik was among Jews shot by the Germans two days before the Russians entered Chelmno, but he survived.
Yakov (or Jacob) Grojanowski wrote about the operations of the camp in his Grojanowski Report. But Grojanowski was captured and murdered in the gas chamber at Bełżec extermination camp before the end of the war. Other of the escapees who have not been documented since the postwar period likely died during the war.
In June 1945, both Podchlebnik and Srebnik, then age fifteen, testified at a trial in Lodz, Poland of camp personnel. In addition to being included in the Holocaust Encyclopedia list, Mordechaï Zurawski is included as a survivor in three other sources each of which documents his testifying, along with Srebnik and Podchlebnik, about his experience at Chełmno at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. In addition, Srebnik testified in the Chelmno Guard Trials of 1962/3.
The French director Claude Lanzmann included interviews with Srebnik and Podchlebnik in his documentary Shoah, referring to them as the only two Jewish survivors of Chełmno, but he was in error. Some sources repeat that only Simon Srebnik and Mordechaï Podchlebnik survived the war but these are in error. Podchlebnik is sometimes referred to as Michał (or Michael), in Polish and English versions of his name.
In 2002 Dr. Sara Roy of Harvard University wrote that her father, Abraham, was one of “two survivors” of Chełmno. Her father is the “Abram Roj” noted as an escapee by the Holocaust Encyclopedia, as Abram/Avram stands for Abraham, and Roj appears to have been transliterated or anglicized to Roy. She was mistaken about the total number of survivors.