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Chelmno (Kulmhof - Poland)
Chelmno was established December 1941. The first commandant was Herbert Lange. The camp consisted of two parts: administration section, barracks and storage for plundered goods; burial and cremation site. It operated three gas vans using carbon monoxide. The camp began operations on December 7th, 1941 and ended operations on March 1943. It resumed operations June 23, 1944 and finally ceased operations January 17, 1945. The estimated number of deaths is 150-300,000, mainly Jews.
Chelmno: One of the three gas vans
Chelmno, also known as Kulmhof, was a small town roughly 50 miles from the city of Lodz. It was here that the first mass killings of Jews by gas took place as part of the 'Final Solution'. The murder process was set up by a 'Sonderkommando ', under the command of Herbert Lange. He was transferred to Chelmno directly from duties in the T4 euthanasia program, murdering psychiatric patients in Posen. Lange and his unit had developed much experience in the use of gas vans. These early models were equipped to pipe carbon monoxide from cylinders in the driver's cab into the van in which the 'patients were locked.
Lange's unit comprised 15-20 men of the SIPO and about 80-100 men of the 'Schutzpolizei'. They took over a run-down castle in Chelmno and converted it into their base camp with barracks and a reception area for deportees. Each afternoon, Jews were brought under guard by train from Lodz via Kolo junction (where they transferred to open rail cars running on a narrow-gauge track), or from nearer locations by lorry, to the castle or schloss. They were gathered in the castle courtyard, subdivided into groups of 50 and told to undress. They were forced to hand over all valuables. They were then told they were about to be transferred to a work camp, but first they had be disinfected and showered. They were taken down into the castle cellar to a 'washroom' which actually led via a ramp into a waiting van. Vicious beatings ensured that none hesitated or declined to go inside. After 50-70 persons were jammed into the van's freight compartment, the exhaust pipe was connected to an opening in the compartment and the engine switched on. After about ten minutes those inside were dead. The driver, usually a member of the 'Schutzpolizei', then drove the van 2.5 miles into the nearby Rzuchow Forest, to the second camp the 'Waldlager'. Here the SS had prepared mass graves, dug by Jewish slave labor, and later cremation pyres. A team of 40-50 Jews, wearing leg-irons to prevent their escape, hauled the bodies out of the van and dumped them in the graves. Another team of Jews sorted the clothes and objects of those killed so that they could be made available to Germans in the Reich. No less than 370 wagon loads of clothing were supplied by these means.
The technology was quite simple. The 'Sonderkommando' had three vans at its disposal. The only technical innovation was the specially constructed sealed compartments mounted on a Renault chassis. These compartments were lined with tin and had airtight, double doors. The floor of the compartment had a wooden lattice to facilitate the cleaning out of detritus. Beneath it was an aperture with a nozzle to which the pipe from the exhaust was connected. By the time Lange's unit came to use these vans, they had been tried and tested in the 'euthanasia program'.
A convoy arrives in Chelmno
By these means, about 145,000 people were murdered at Chelmno in the first phase of its operations. Gassings started on December 7th , 1941. The first deportees were Jews from surrounding communities and about 5,000 Gypsies who had been incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto. From January 16th to January 29th, 1942, 10,000 Jews were deported from Lodz to Chelmno and murdered. They were followed by 34,000 between March 22nd and April 2nd, 1942, 11,700 between May 4th and 15th, 1942, 16,000 between September 5th and 12th, 1942. In addition, 15,200 Jewish slave laborers from the Lodz region were gassed at Chelmno.
Amongst the deportees were Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who had been transported to the Lodz ghetto. After the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the annihilation of the Czech town of Lidice, 88 children from there were sent to Chelmno and murdered.
The church of Chelmno where the victims had to wait before being sent to the gas chamber...
By March 1943, most of the Jews of the Warthegau had been murdered. Only the 70,000 Jews in the Lodz ghetto remained. Chelmno camp was wound up and the schloss actually demolished. It was briefly reactivated on the same lines in April to July 1944 to assist with the liquidation of the Lodz 'ghetto'. In this period, a further 25.000 Lodz Jews were murdered at Chelmno. Afterwards, a unit of 'Sonderkommando 1005 labored to clean up the traces of mass murder. On January 17th, 1945 the work group, numbering 48 men, was to be shot, but the Jews revolted and in the ensuing melee a handful escaped.
Chelmno: photo of Jews taken just before their being sent to the gas chamber.
There were few survivors of the most intense phase of murder at Chelmno. In mid-January 1942, Yaakov Grojanowski escaped and made his way to Warsaw where he informed the ghetto leadership of what he had witnessed. As a result, fairly accurate information about the mass killings at Chelmno was transmitted via the Polish underground and reached London in June.
The deathcamp at Chelmno was established to kill the Jews of theWarthegau (the annexed Polish province of Poznan and parts of the vojwodships Bydgoszcz, Lodz, Pomorze and Warsaw). In 1939 4,922,000 people lived in these districts, among them 385,000 Jews.
Gauleiter Arthur Greiser declared the Warthegau as the "drilling ground" of National Socialism, where Nazi population policy would be undertaken. Poles, Jews and Roma were classified as subhuman creatures. Discrimination against the Poles was followed by the persecution and eventual extermination of Roma and Jews. Those who survived the initial excesses, were deported to forced labour camps and ghettos, the largest of the latter being situated in Lodz. Gauleiter Arthur Greiser ultimately received Heinrich Himmler's agreement to kill all Jews who were incapable of forced labour.
Chelmno SS Headquarters This first Nazi extermination camp was located in the small Polish village of Chelmno nad Nerem (German: Kulmhof). Chelmno is located 60 km northwest of Lodz and 14 km southeast of Kolo. Kolois located on the railway line Lodz - Poznan. Already before WW2 Kolo and Chelmno were connected by a narrow gauge railway, which ran from Kolo to Dabie.
The Nazis chose an empty manor house in Chelmno (called the "Castle") for extermination purposes. Several other buildings of the former estate were located within a 2.5-3 m high wooden fence and densely planted trees. The granary is still visible today. For security reasons the main gate to this site was constructed as a sluice: When the guards opened one gate, the other one was closed.
Herbert Lange The camp was constructed in November 1941, after the expulsion of nearly all inhabitants from the area. The extermination of Romany and Jews was carried out by the so-called Sonderkommando Kulmhof, also known as Sonderkommando Lange. This special unit was named after its first commander SS-Hauptsturmführer Herbert Lange. It was later called Sonderkommando Bothmann, after SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Bothmann, Lange's successor.
Herbert Lange already had gained some experience in killing mentally ill persons in Poland between late 1939 andJune 1940 utilizing gas vans. In Chelmno the Jews were destined to perish in such gas vans.
In the early stages of activity, the SS-Sonderkommando Lange was made up of about 15 members of the Security Police, who occupied all of the important positions in the camp; and 50 - 60 police men of the 1. Kompanie des Polizeibataillons Litzmannstadt (Lodz) as well as some police men of the 2. Company, divided into "Transport", "Castle" and "Forest Camp" details.
The regular police may have eventually numbered as many as 100. These SS- and policemen also guarded the entire vicinity. According to witnesses Artur Greiser and Heinrich Himmler visited Chelmno in its early stage.
All members of the Sonderkommando received special pay. There is conflicting evidence concerning the amounts involved. Bruno Israeltestified that he received an additional 13 RM per day, paid directly by Bothmann. The former head of police at the camp, Alois Häfele, stated that ordinary policemen received an extra salary of 12 RM per day, the NCOs 15 RM. The wife of Josef Peham, a police NCO, reported that the supplement varied from 10 - 13 RM per day. Whatever the precise figure, the Sonderkommando's" total salary, including the bonus, more than doubled their basic pay.
In early March 1943, at the end of Chelmno's first phase, Greiser arrived together with some members of the NSDAP. At the "Riga Inn" in Kolo (German: Warthbrücken) a party was organized, and each member of the Sonderkommando got 500 RM from Greiser (for one time only), combined with the promise that each of them can spend two holiday weeks at his private estate in Berlin. The party bill was sent to the NSDAP Gauleitung Wartheland.
Directly subordinate to the Kommando were group of former prisoners (mainly from Fort VII in Poznan) who had been selected during the euthanasia actions. They worked mainly, but not exclusively, in the forest camp. These men received many privileges, particularly after they had completed their day's work, and in effect were not treated as prisoners. Those comprising this special unit were Franciszek Piekarski, Henryk Mania, Kajetan Skrzypczynski, Lech Jaskolski, Stanislaw Polubinski, Henryk Maliczak, Stanislaw Szymanski and Marian Libelt. They worked in Chelmno in the first stage of the camp's existence, up to the time of the arrival of Bothmann.
Survey Map Most of the Jews were brought by train (1,000 persons usually, in 20 - 22 wagons) to Kolo station. Until mid-March 1942 each incoming transport was locked in the Kolo synagogue until lorries were available to ferry the people to Chelmno. Because the German administrative authorities complained about this method of imprisoning the Jews in the town centre, the procedure was changed from mid-March. From that time onwards, the Jews had to change trains at Kolo station, and board narrow gauge railway wagons, which carried them 6 km to Powiercie village. There the train stopped, and the victims were ordered to march 1.5 km through a forest to Zawadka village where they were locked in the mill for their last night. The next morning they were brought by lorries to Chelmno. Some other transports were taken by lorries directly to Chelmno where they spent the night before being gassed. According to witnesses Christian Wirth visited the location in spring 1942.
In the second phase of Chelmno (1944) the victims were transported by the narrow gauge railway directly from Kolo to Chelmno because the railway track has been repaired (the wooden bridge over the tributary of the Warta River betweenPowiercie and Chelmno had been destroyed by Polish troops during their retreat in 1939).
The "Castle" In Chelmno itself, the people arrived at the Schlosslager (Castle Camp). In the first phase the incoming Jews were addressed by camp commander Bothmann, his substitute SS-Untersturmführer Albert Plate, Polizei-Meister Willy Lenz, Polizei-Meister Alois Haeberle or Franciszek Piekarski, also member of the "Sonderkommando". He was disguised as the squire of the estate: feather hat, nice dress, jack-boots, smoking his pipe...
They told the Jews that some of them will go to work to Austria or further eastward, others will work at his estate. They would be fairly treated and receive good food. For sanitary reasons they had to take a shower first, and their clothes had to be disinfected. After this reassuring speech the Jews were led to the undressing room in the first floor. There the Jews had to undress and hand over their valuables. During Chelmno's second phase an SS man welcomed the Jews in possibly the same way.
Those valuables not embezzled by SS men were sent to Pabianice near Lodz, together with the victims' clothing. There the Lodz ghetto administration had set up some warehouses for the collecting and sorting of the loot. The spoils (e.g. furs) were first examined and then transferred to Germany or sold to Germans who lived in the Warthegau. On 9 September 1944 for example, 775 wristwatches and 550 pocket watches were sent from Chelmno to the Lodz ghetto administration. Much clothing was stained with dirt and blood. Some still had the Jewish stars attached. Many people in Germany must surely therefore have been aware of the fate of the Jews.
Foundations of the Manor House
in 2004 After undressing, the people were brought downstairs again, to a corridor whose walls carried signs such as, "to the bath" and "to the doctor". There the SS told the Jews that they had to enter a lorry which would take them to the baths. Pieces of soap were given to the people. Three Poles, who were probably sentenced to death, hit the Jews with whips if they did not get into the gas van fast enough. The victims finally entered the gas van by passing up an enclosed wooden ramp which was placed in exact alignment with the door through which the Jews had to leave the building. The SS quickly closed the airtight doors of the van and the driver (Walter Burmeister among others / "The Good Old Days" - E. Klee, W. Dreeßen, V. Riess, The Free Press, NY, 1988., p. 219-220) switched on the motor, but allowed the vehicle to remain stationary. While the gas van was waiting for a new batch of victims, the driver connected the van's exhaust to the loading space (gas chamber) with a tube, so that the exhaust fumes could be discharged into the loading space. After 5-10 minutes of horrible screaming, all of the people in the loading compartment had been suffocated. In Chelmno one large gas van (probablyMagirus, for 150 victims) and two smaller ones (Opel Blitz and Diamond Reo, for 80 - 100 victims) were used. According to the witness Bruno Israel a fourth van was used for disinfection of clothing. The Sonderkommando may have used special petrol, mixed with poison. The van's engines were driven by petrol and not diesel.
Invoice After the gassing the lorry was driven to the Waldlager (Forest Camp) in the Rzuchowski Forest, about 4 km (2 1/2 miles) away. On the way to the Waldlager one day the back doors opened suddenly and some corpses fell out. Since that day this corner was called "Corner of Death". At the Waldlager the corpses were unloaded by the Jewish Waldkommando (Forest Command) prisoners. 10 minutes were allowed for evaporation of the exhaust fumes, then the loading space had to be emptied. The Waldkommando had to search the bodies for jewellery and gold teeth, which were extracted.Although an unknown number of Jews managed to escape from the Waldkommando, there were only three who survived to the end of the war to provide personal evidence concerning the manner in which the camp functioned:
Mordechai Podchlebnik from the camp's first period, Mordechai Zurawski, and Simon Srebnik from the second one. The first escapee from the Waldkommando to provide evidence of conditions in the camp wasSzlamek Bajler (also known as Yakov Grojanowski), who recounted his experiences to Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Until spring of 1942, the bodies had been buried in four long mass graves. From that time onwards the corpses were cremated. Two crematoria were built, which were probably complemented by two mobile field ovens. The latter were possibly installed to test their efficiency. It was at Chelmno that Paul Blobel first experimented with various methods of disposing of corpses, before perfecting the system used at other extermination sites in the East, including those ofAktion Reinhard. Despite all efforts remnants of human bones are still visible.
The members of the Waldkommando were killed after a short time and replaced by new arrivals. After the war, inhabitants of nearby villages confirmed that smoke rose constantly from the vicinity.
Adolf Eichmann and Rudolf Höß visited Chelmno in autumn 1942.
In May 1960 Eichmann testified during a (the?) first interrogation (following his capture) by the Israeli police captain Avner W. Less:
"Eichmann: I only know the following, that I have seen the following:
A room, if I remember exactly, perhaps five times as big as this one here, or it could have been four times larger. Jews were in it who were ordered to undress, and then a van drove up which was completely sealed; at the front (of the room) the doors were opened and the van drove up to a kind of ramp so to say. And there the Jews had to then get in. Then the van was closed and drove off.
Less: How many people did the van hold?
Eichmann: I don't know exactly. I was not even able to observe it. I didn’t look into it the whole time. I couldn't do it, couldn't, I had enough of that. The screaming, and, and, I was too excited here and so on. I also told that to Müller during my report. He didn't profit very much from my report. I then followed the van – carefully, with one of the people there who knew the way; and there I saw the most horrible sight I had seen in all my life until then. The van drove up to a lengthy pit, the doors were opened and corpses thrown out, the limbs so flexible, as if they were still alive. Were thrown into the pit; I still see a civilian there pulling out teeth with pliers; and then I beat it. Entered the car, and beat it, and didn't say any word anymore... I was fed up. I just remember that a doctor there, in a white coat, told me to look through a peephole when they were in the van. I refused. I couldn't, I couldn't say another word, I had to leave.
Then I arrived in Berlin and reported to Gruppenführer Müller. I told him exactly the same as now, I couldn't tell him more... `Terrible,’ I say, `that inferno, can't, it is, I can't do this,’ I said."
Rudolf Höß about his visit in Chelmno, on 16 September 1942:
"During my visit in Kulmhof I saw the extermination installations with the gas vans which were prepared for killing by exhaust fumes. The chief of the command there described this method as very unreliable because the gas was produced very irregularly, and often was not enough for killing."
Zychlin Deportation * Wloclawek Deportation * Chelmno's first phase lasted from 7 December 1941, until March 1943. The first victims were deported from nearby places: Babiak, Dabie, Deby Szlacheckie, Grodziec, Izbica Kujawska, Klodawa, Kolo, Kowale Panskie, Nowiny Brdowskie and Sompolno. In mid-January the SS started to exterminate the Jews of the ghetto in Lodz: Between 16 and 29 January 1942 10,003 Jews were killed, from 22 February - 2 April 34,073, from 4-15 May 11,680 and from 5-12 September 1942 15,859. Apart from Jews from the Lodz Ghetto, nearly all the other Jews of the Warthegauhad been killed by early 1943. Also among the victims were 15,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Luxemburg, 5,000 Romany, several hundred Poles and an unknown number of Soviet POWs, as well as 88 Czech children from Lidice.
On 7 April 1943 the SS blew up the manor house and the two furnaces. On this day a last unexpected transport arrived, with Jews who suffered from typhus. The Germans were afraid of being infected, and ordered them to go to the first storey of the palace building. Dynamite was placed in the basement and the building was blown up, together with the Jews.
Then Bothmann and his Sonderkommando were ordered to Italy / Yugoslavia to combat partisans (SS-Division "Prinz Eugen"). An important find is a beer bottle of the Dreher Brewery in Trieste, which was excavated at the rear of the chelmno palace in archealogical digs. It is a proof that at least one member of Bothmann's staff has been in Trieste, perhaps San Sabba. In addition a few other bottleswere found there.
Telex from Greiser to Himmler Sieradz Deportation * During Chelmno's second phase, in June and July 1944, a further 10,000 Jews from the Lodz Ghetto were murdered. Himmler andGreiser had decided on the ghetto's liquidation. For that purpose the Sonderkommando Bothmann was ordered back, the Waldlagerwas reactivated and two new crematoria were built at theWaldlager.
Now the Jews from Lodz were transported usually by train to Kolo(sometimes by lorries directly to Chelmno). From Kolo by the narrow gauge railroad to Chelmno village. There they spent the night in the church. The next day they had to wait on the place in front of the church from were they were carried by lorries to theWaldlager in groups of mainly 150.
At the Waldlager the people were separated into two large barracks, each about 20 x 10 m. Each barrack had two rooms, one for men, the other for women and children. Arrival at these two structures was a ruse to keep the intended victims from panicking. Both huts had a wooden fence extending on either side in order to make it appear as though the Jews had arrived at a transit or work camp. Each structure was falsely numbered and in addition signs were painted on them: - on the outside: "To the Bath", inside the barracks: "To the Doctor, Barrack Number…" etc. The SS kept this pretence of "resettlement" up until the last minute as the victims undressed, first the women and children followed by the men. When naked they filed through the door marked "Zum Bad" ("To the bath"). Behind this door a passageway 20 - 25 m long by 1.5 m wide, also enclosed by wooden boarding, turned sharply at its end to finish up on a ramp. From there the Jews climbed into the waiting gas vans. This method had been adopted, tried and tested at the death camps of Belzec and Sobibor. It was finally perfected in Treblinka. A simple, smaller version, copied from the Aktion Reinhard camps, was easily implemented at Chelmno.
It has to be added here that the enclosed camouflaged fences, adopted in the Aktion Reinhard camps, were far from "perfect" until the final "tube" (German: Schlauch) in Treblinka was established. The original "tube" (named Die Schleuse - English: "Sluice") in the Belzecextermination camp from July 1942 - December 1942 was straight in appearance; a "mistake", corrected at Sobibor by a "blind corner". Even so, the Sobibor Schleuse was far too long; therefore the Treblinka "Road to Heaven" (so-called in the Aktion Reinhard Camps) was curved, but neither too long nor too short for its murderous task.
The survivors Zurawski and Srebrnik, and the captured gendarme Bruno Israel, described the cremation facilities as follows:
"They were built deep in the ground and did not project above its surface. They were shaped like inverted cones with rectangular bases. At the top at ground level the furnaces measured 6x10 m (2Ox33 ft.) and they were 4 m (13 ft.) deep. At the bottom, by the ash-pit, they measured 1.5x2 m (5x6 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 Zawadkaat night, and there thrown into the river."
Lodz Monument at the
Rzuchowski Forest Map of the Memorial
at Rzuchowski Forest In order to speed up the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto the remaining 70,000 Jews there were deported to Auschwitz.
In September 1944 the crematoria in the Waldlager were dismantled. The Sonderkommando and the Waldkommando was still there and buried corpses in mass graves. All installations were destroyed in mid-December 1944 but Bothmann and his men still waited for orders.
New orders never arrived and Bothmann decided to dissolve theSonderkommando Kulmhof and wanted to execute the rest of theWaldkommando. Then the Jews which were locked in the granary, revolted. Two Nazis were shot, and two prisoners (Srebrnik and Zurawski) escaped. The remaining Jews were executed and the granary was set on fire.
The site was abandoned on 17 January 1945 due to the proximity of the advancing Red Army.
At least 152,000 people perished in Chelmno. All witnesses confirm that as a rule, about 1,000 Jews were brought to Chelmno each day, excluding the victims who arrived in lorries from the surrounding vicinity.
A private memorial stone has been erected at the former Schlosslager in Chelmno, donated by a German relative of a victim. Another memorial stone is at Kolo station, a third one in Powiercie, another one at the former Waldlager.
See the names of 7,168 individuals from Lodz who were transferred to the death camp at Chelmno, between June and August 1944 at "Lodz Transports to the Chelmno Extermination Camp".
Greifswald (DDR), 1951 and Güstrow (DDR), 1952:
El., Karl - 14 years
(Police Schupo Lodz)
Transport of about 30,000 Jewish men, women and children from the Lodz ghetto to KZ Chelmno, and participation in the loading of victims onto lorries in which they were killed by exhaust fumes. (...) May 1941 – February 1942.
Hannover, 1963 – 1964:
Bradfisch, Otto - 13 years
Fuchs, Günter - life sentence
(Polizei Gestapo Lodz)
Participation in the killing of the Jews from Lodz by the head of the Gestapo office Lodz and the head of department IIB. Deportation of many thousands of Jews from the Lodz ghetto to the Chelmno annihilation camp. Mishandling, in part with fatal consequences, and individual shootings of numerous Jews during the deportations. Shooting of Jews still found in the ghetto at the time of its liquidation in August. From 1944. From January 1942 till May 1942, in September 1942 and from June 1944 till August 1944.
Bonn, 1963 – 1965:
B., Heinrich Walter - no punishment imposed (par.47 MStGB - military penal code)
Burmeister, Walter - 13 years
Häfele, Alois - 13 years
Heinl, Karl - 7 years
H., Wilhelm - 13½ months
Laabs, Gustav - 13 years
M., Friedrich - 13½ months
Me., Anton - no punishment imposed (par.47 MStGB - military penal code)
Möbius, Kurt - 8 years
Sch., Wilhelm - 13½ months
S., Alexander - no punishment imposed (par.47 MStGB - military penal code)
(Haftstättenpersonal KL Chelmno)
Killing of altogether at least 150,000 Jewish (German, French, Austrian, Polish, Czech) men, women and children, as well as of about 5,000 Gypsies, who were deported in the course of a number of 'resettlement operations' from the Lodz ghetto and its immediate surroundings, to Chelmno, where they were exterminated in 'gas vans'. From December 1941 till March 1943 and June 1944 till August 1944.
F., Gustav Wilhelm - 13½ months
(Haftstättenpersonal KL Chelmno)
Killing of, altogether, at least, 145,000 Jewish (German, French, Austrian, Polish, Czech) men, women and children, who were deported, in several 'resettlement operations', from the ghetto of Lodz and its immediate surroundings to KL Chelmno and exterminated in 'gas vans'. From March 1942 till March 1943.
Archiwum GK Komise *
Yad Vashem *
Arie A. Galles *: Part of his art suite "Fourteen Stations/Hey Yud Dalet", exhibited at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey.
See the artist's website: http://fermi.phys.ualberta.ca/~amk/galles/index.html
Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Kogon, Eugen; Langbein, Hermann; Rückerl, Adalbert; eds. Nazi Mass Murder, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993
DDR-Justiz, NS-Verbrechen Vol. IV, XIX, XXI, XXII
Bednarz, Wladyslaw. Oboz stracen w Chelmnie nad Nerem , Warszawa, 1946
Gulczynski, Janusz. Oboz smierci w Chelmnie nad Nerem, Konin, 1991
Dreßen, Willi; Klee, Ernst; Riess, Volker; eds. The Good Old Days, The Free Press, NY, 1988
The Testimonies of the Last Prisoners in the Death Camp Chelmno
Introduction by Shmuel Krakowski and Ilia Altman.
Introduction by Shmuel Krakowski and Ilia Altman.Translated from Hebrew by Ada Holtzman and Bianca Shlezinger
The document enclosed herewith, belongs to the rare type of documents, the most appalling ones from the days of the Holocaust, which were written in the death camps themselves, near the gas chambers and crematoria, while the events themselves were taking place.
The writers were prisoners whose fate was even more cruel than that of the other prisoners: they were engaged in forced labor in the death camps. Their situation gave them the opportunity to witness the mass murders committed by the Germans committing in the extermination camps, and they were well aware of the fact that having witnessed such horrible crimes against humanity, they were doomed; the Nazis would not let them live and testify. Defenseless and helpless, without any possibility to resist or to disrupt the crimes, they became possessed with the compulsion to do the only thing that they believed could still succeed: to tell the free world and the next generations what the Germans tried to hide - the genocide of the Jewish people and all the criminal acts involved. This compulsive passion they could fulfill by only one out of two ways: by running away, or by leaving a written testimony, hoping that one day it will be found, after the death of the writers. The most well known documents of these type, are those written and published in "Auschwitz Scrolls" written by the "Sonderkommando" who were engaged in the forced labor at the crematoria of Auschwitz.
It is now discovered that also in Chelmno there were efforts made to discover to the outer world the truth about the crimes of the Germans and the horrors they committed. Chelmno ("Kulemhof" as was called by the Germans) was the first extermination camp erected by the Nazis, by full clear intention to serve for mass killing by gas. The camp started to operate on December 8th 1941 and run until April 1943. In this period over quarter of a million human beings were murdered in it, mostly Jews from Ghetto Lodz and from the cities of Warthegau district and about 5000 Gypsies.
In April 1944 started again murder operations in the camp, at the same time with the programs to liquidate the Lodz Ghetto. From 23 June and until 14 July 1944, more than 7000 Jews from Lodz were killed. After 14 July, the Germans decided to rush the Ghetto liquidation and transported the remainder of its inhabitants to Auschwitz Birkenau, where the apparatus for mass murder was more efficient. At the meantime the Germans were occupied in the Chelmno site in erasing the traces of the mass murder - they burnt bodies, straightened the earth and planted woods.
Among the prisoners brought to the camp to murder them, few were selected and sent to forced labor. They buried the victims and then burnt the bodies. They were also groups with special expertise, chosen to do some kinds of services for the camp personnel. after a while, also the forced slaves were murdered and replaced by others.
Those prisoners witnessed the process of the mass extermination. They lived in a regime of special terror. They were starved, their legs were permanently chained in iron chains, and the guards bit them and tortured them all the time. There were a few trials of running away and some tried to smuggle letters to the outside world, with information about what happens in the camp, hoping that their written testimony will be found this way or another.
Already in January 1942, in the first days of operation, two prisoners run away from it - Michael Podchlebnik and Yacov Griwanowski.
Griwanowski even managed to get to Ghetto Warsaw and deliver a detailed report to the Jewish underground there2.
Except trials to run away, the prisoners of Chelmno tried to smuggle from it information about the camp by concealing written documents in various places, at places where they might be discovered. We shall never know how many such desperate trials were been done by the Jewish prisoners, and no doubt that the Germans managed to thwart most of them.
In spite of that, were found around the area surrounding the camp. The document revealed here is very unique in its scope and details. It has the date of 9 January 1945, and its authors were counted among the last group of the forced labor workers (47 only) who were engaged in the Chelmno camp.
Most of them were transported from Lodz, in gas vans in the period of 23 June to 14 July. Other authors were among the hundreds of Jews the German kept alive, temporarily, so that they will work in transfer of the victims belongings to Germany, after the liquidation of Ghetto Lodz. Few prisoners out of this group were transported to Chelmno on 16 September 1944.
In the night of 17 January 1945, the Germans executed all the 47 prisoners who were left: they transported them by groups of five, from the cellar where they lived and shot them. But two out of the doomed, miraculously survived; they were wounded but managed to escape from the Germans, and two days later the Russian Red Army entered the region and saved them. The two survivors are Mordechai Zurawski and Szimon Srebrnik .
On July 1945, both of them testified to the Polish Committee, headed by the judge Wladislaw Bednaj, which investigated the crimes of the Germans in Chelmno, and in time, they testified also in the Eichman trial in Jerusalem. For some reason, they did not mention the document which was written a short time before the last prisoners of Chelmno were murdered.
We don't know about the circumstances of the document writing, in the horror regime which prevailed in the camp. We don't know how they found pieces of paper, pencil, place and time to deliver quickly their messages. We don't know the identity of the man who found the document and delivered it to the front headquarters of the White Russia. There, this document had been translated and sent to the anti fascist Jewish committee in Moscow. This Committee was founded by the Soviet authorities right after the invasion of the Germans to Russia, to mobilize the help of the Jews from the free world to the war efforts of the Red Army. By the end of the war, its actions were considerably limited. A short while later the Jewish Committee was dispersed and the authorities seized its archive, including a lot of material about the destiny of the Jews under the Nazi regime in Europe.
The recent changes in the USSR brought, among other things, the opening up of archives which were closed until now. The documents of the anti-fascist Jewish Committee were kept in the State Central Archive in Moscow, and thus became material for research. here was found a translated copy of the document written in the death camp of Chelmno. After 46 years, we can finally read, research and investigate the testimony of the last murdered Jewish victims in the death camp of Chelmno.
Szimon Serbernik, the Only Witness Still Alive Today 24.4.1998
Memorial - at one of the mass graves in the forest between Kleczew and Kazimierz Biskupi Grave of Innocent Jewish Victims from Konin District Murdered by Hitler Executioners in the Years 1941-1944
In 1944, these graves in the forests were reopened, bodies were burned and burned bones were crushed like in Che?mno. It were made by most probably "Wetterkommando Legath" - code name special group organized by Gestapo from Inowroc?aw (Hohensalza) which were working in this area. That was a part of "Aktion 1005" - destroying all traces of all mass graves.How many people were murdered exactly in these forests - we don't know. Many Jews from the Konin district were resettled in the years 1939-1941 to "Generalgouvernement" and later died in extermination camps in this area. In rural ghettos mentioned in this list stayed in 1941 about 4.000-5.000 people. Some of them were sent to forced labor camps. In the mass executions in the forests were murdered about 1.500-2.000 people in each pit. Those were the first victims of the Holocaust in "Warthegau". Executioners were from "SS-Sonderkommando Lange" organized by SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Lange from the Gestapo in Pozna?. This same special unit, a month later, organized extermination center in Che?mno.
They had life... they had names... they had their joys and sorrows... they once had faces...
The Krzywanowski Family from Kleczew, murdered by the Germans in one of those mass graves, HY"D
The Testimony of Dr. Mieczys?aw S?kiewicz
Shmuel Krakowski, A Small Village in Europe Chelmno (Kulmhof), The First Nazi Mass Extermination Camp, Yad Vashem 2001, Chapter I, The Beginning of the Extermination, pp 19-21. Translated from Hebrew by Ada Holtzman
A Polish veterinary doctor, resident of the area, Dr. Mieczys?aw S?kiewicz, testified for the first time in front of a juridical Polish Committee on 27 October 1945 and again in June 1968 for the Polish Committee Investigating the Nazi Crimes in Pozna?.
Here are some parts of his testimony.
In the middle of November 1941, around 4:00 in the morning, the Gestapo men cane to the cell in the prison in Konin where I was locked and ordered me to get prepared to go. They chained my hands and brought me to a vehicle where other two of my comrades were already in. They were chained to each other in hands and legs. They were Walenty Ochrowski from Golina and Kazimierz Tyl?anowski from Rzgów. I sat near to them and then the Germans chained my legs also. We drove towards Kazimierz Biskupi... The auto passed the first path in the forest' reached the second one, drove back and stopped between the first and the second path... Then they released us from the chains and we were faced with the back to the clearing in the forest, where the mass graves are now… We stood there about half an hour, then they led us to the glade. Two pits were dug to the width of the glade. The first' nearer to the path, had length of about 8 meters, width of about 6 meters and depth of 2 meters. Almost parallel to this pit and all through the width of the glade another pit was dug, same depth as the other pit, width 6 meter and length of about 15 meters…
Around the glade, except in the side of the junction of the two paths of the wood, stood or sat Jews… I cannot describe their number, because they stood among the trees. In the mass were women, men and children, mothers with babies in their arms. I cannot tell if they were from Poland only. It was later said that they were fromZagórów. I noticed among them one tailor and one shopkeeper from Konin, but I do not remember their names anymore. On the paths, in the glade and around the forest, walked many Gestapo men. Except us who were brought from Konin, there were around 30 other Poles.
In the bottom of the bigger pit I saw a layer of unslaked lime. I do not know the thickness of that layer of lime. In the bottom of the smaller pit there was no lime. The Gestapo men warned us that the wood is surrounded and kept by them tightly so each one who will dare to escape will get a bullet in his head.
Then they ordered the Jews to get naked, and then to jump into the bigger pit. There were unimaginable cries and weeping. Most of the Jews jumped themselves to the pit and some opposed the command. Those who opposed were forced and pushed to the pit. We were ordered to collect the clothes and shoes of the victims. I saw Gestapo men who came to the sorting places where we put watches, jewellery, rings and other valuables. They took those valuables and pushed into their pockets…
In certain moment they ordered the Jews to stop getting naked because the pit was already full. Only on top we could see the heads of the victims strongly tight to each other. Those Jews who were named already were thrown by the Gestapo men to the pit, on top of the heads of the Jews tight together. All the time were forced to sort out and collect the clothes which were thrown away, shoes, food packages, blankets etc.
This way it continued until noon time, and them a truck arrived and stopped at the path near the glade. I noticed that on the top of the truck were things which looked like wash-tubs. Then the Germans connected a small engine, which was probably a kind of pump, and connected it with a pipe to one of those tubs. Two Gestapo men held the pipes and started to pour some kind of liquid on the Jews tight up in the pit. I think this was water' that how it looked like, but I am uncertain of that. During the pumping they connected the pipes to the other wash-tubs. Probably because of the boiling unslaked lime, the people in the pit started burning while alive. The cries were unimaginable. We, who sat near the thrown clothes tore pieces from them to shut our ears. To the horrible screams of the Jews who boiled inside the pit, were added the terrible cries and weeping of those Jews who still awaited their destiny. It lasted 2 hours…
On the following day we were ordered by the Gestapo to cover the pit with earth… Our work was interrupted when trucks arrived and then we were ordered to load the victims clothes and separately their other possessions.
Already in the afternoon a few times appeared a vehicle similar to an ambulance, dark grey, with doors in the back. After he doors were opened, corpses of human beings were thrown out of vehicle. They were Jews as well. Men, women, children. This grey vehicle came and go while I was there three times, with an interval of one hour from each arrival… The corpses thrown out of vehicle were connected to each other. Many were holding hands. Probably members of one family. The Gestapo men ordered us to separate the corpses. Later we had to put them in the small pit, condensing them, corpse by corpse… While I was there, 3 layers of corpses were led on each other, and still there was one vehicle which remained to be unloaded. The corpses who were brought by the grey vehicle were probably gassed by gas as the vehicle and the corpses smelled of gas.
I remember that during the murder of the Jews in the glade, one Gestapo man snatched a little child from his mother's hands and smashed his head on the auto. When the mother screamed, he threw on her the smashed head of the little child, then he took handful of lime and stuffed it into the mother's mouth. I also saw how a Gestapo man grabbed a young Jewish girl, tore her dress and underwear, hung her with her hands on a tree, and then with a Finn knife he cut her breast to pieces. This way the Jewish girl was dying on the tree. I did not know any of those Gestapo men.
"The Last Testimonies of the Last Prisoners of Chelmno"
The Death Van inside which the deportees of Ghetto Lodz were suffocated to death by the gas discharged from the truck's engine.
Breitman, Richard; The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution. New York: A. Knopf, 1991, p 202.
After the development of a mobile killing van in the fall of 1941, the device was tested on Soviet POW's in Sachsenhausen, and found completely satisfactory - three more trucks were converted, and initially put to use in the Ukraine. There was, however, an urgent need for them in the Wartheland.
In July one of Eichmann's subordinates had raised the idea of finishing off the Jews in the Wartheland 'in humane fashion,' saying at that time that the idea seemed fantastic but was practical . An extermination camp in the Wartheland could sweep Jews out of the Lodz ghetto....
...That fall Herbert Lange, commander of the unit that in 1940 had carried out gassings in vans using bottled carbon monoxide, rode around the Wartheland looking for a suitable site for a camp. He found an unoccupied castle along the New River, at a place called Chelmno, thirty-five miles northwest of Lodz, where a camp was established in late October or early November. Nearby was a forest where the gas trucks could operate discreetly. Gassings of Jews from the Wartheland were first carried out on December 8, 1941. Chelmno became, in effect, the first death camp in operation
This is a most unique document, which contains final testimonies of the last Jewish prisoners in the death camp of Chelmno. The testimonies were written on a notebook in Polish, which was handed over to the liberating Russian Red Army by a Polish peasant. The Russians gave it first to the anti-fascist Jewish Committee which was closed short time after the War and all its archive seized by the Soviet government. After 46 years, following the political changes in the USSR, this archive was opened and the document given to Yad Vashem. (1991).
The document belongs to the rare type of documents, the most appalling from the days of the Holocaust, which were written in the death camps themselves, near the gas chambers and crematoria, while the events themselves were taking place.
In the night of 17 January 1945, the Germans executed all the 47 prisoners who were left: they transported them by groups of five, from the cellar where they lived and shot them. But two out of the doomed, miraculously survived; The two survivors are Mordechai Zurawski and Szimon Srebrnik .
Szimon Srebrnik is the only survivor from Chelmno still alive.
The testimonies which contain also the victims' last requests and last regards to possible surviving relatives, were published in Hebrew, as a personal venture of Mrs. Ester Reiss from Jerusalem in a booklet named: "Chelmno - Death Camp For Total Extermination", Jerusalem, 1995. I translated them to English, together with the introduction of Shmuel Krakowski and Ilia Altman from Yad Vashem. Mrs. Bianca Shlezinger proofread the translation.
The booklet in Hebrew is available by the Publisher, Mrs. Ester Reiss, address:
12 Baal Sheiltot St.
The original notebook is kept for eternity in the Archives of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel.
Other Two Last Testimonies Kept in Yad Vashem
The testimony of the forced workers who were murdered in chelmno in april 1943 was found after the war. The document was written in Yiddish and Polish and published: Yehudit Kleinman (editor) "letters from no where - letters of Jews from the Nazi occupied territories", Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1988, pages 94-98.
The testimonies were also published in Hebrew in Ester Reiss book: "Chelmno" and in English, in the book: "Final letters, selected by Reuven Dafni & Yehudit Kleiman from the Yad Vashem Archive" Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London
ISBN 0 297 8II5I7
The two following testaments were written by Jewish prisoners in the Chelmno death camp and found there after the war. They were transmitted to Yad Vashem by the Polish 'General Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland'.
These are the Jews who have worked in Kulmhof (Chelmno) between Kolo and Dabie in the death camp:
- Herszkowicz, Josef of Kutno
- Plocker, Mojsze of Kutno
- Plocker, Fajwel of Kutno
- Szlamowicz, Szyje of Grabow near Lodz
- Radkiewicz, Nojech-Wolf of Lodz
- Charach, Chaskel of Leczyca
- Wachtel, Symche of Leczyca
- Wachtel, Jisroel-Chaim of Leczyca
- Jastrzebski, Beniek of Leczyca
- Nusbojm, Aron of Sanniki
- Sztrasburg, Ojser of Lutomiersk
- Sztajer, Gecl of Turek
These are the last Jews who worked for the Gestapo in Chelmno, which is situated between Dabie and Kolo. These are the last days of our lives so we give a signal maybe there still will be relatives or acquaintances of these persons. So you shall know all Jews who were sent away from Litzmannstadt (Lodz) were killed in a very cruel manner. They were tortured and burnt goodbye if you survive you must take revenge.
2 April 1943
This note is written by people who will live for only a few more hours. The person who will read this note will hardly be able to believe that this is true. Still, this is the tragic truth, since in this place your brothers and sisters stayed, and they, too, died the same death! The name of this locality is Kolo. At a distance of 12 km from this town [Chelmno] there is a 'slaughterhouse' for human beings. We have worked here as craftsmen, because among them [the Jews who were brought here] there were tailors, leather-stitchers, cobblers. There are 17 craftsmen there; I can give you their names.
- Pinkus Grun of Wloclawek
- Jonas Lew of Brzeziny
- Szama Ika of Brzeziny
- Zemach Szumiraj of Wloclawek
- Jeszyp Majer of Kalisz
- Wachtel Symcha of Leczyca
- Wachtel Srulek of Leczyca
- Beniek Jastrzebski of Leczyca
- Nusbaum Aron of Skepa
- Ojser Strasburg of Lutomiersk
- Mosiek Plocker of Kutno
- Felek Plocker of Kutno
- Josef herszkowicz of Kutno
- Chaskel Zerach of Leczyca
- Wolf Judkiewicz of Lodz
- Swzyja Szlamowicz of Kalisz
- Gecel of Turek
These are, then, the persons' names which I give here. These are only a few people from among the hundreds of thousands who died here!
Chelmno and Operation Reinhard
Konnilyn Feig, Hitler's Death Camps, New York, Holmes and Meier, 1981.
Before the Nazis developed the killing centers and extermination camps, they used the Einsatzgruppen to kill the Jews and other undesirables. But those massacres showed that there were glaring problems inherent in the extermination of masses of people, among them were the need of speed, efficient and complete body removal, secrecy, and disposal of belongings. Killing centers, however, provided both expediency and secrecy, and the later extermination camps made possible the full range of physical and psychological abuse that the Nazis wished to employ in the destruction of the undesirables.
Himmler designed the killing centers exclusively as places of secret and instant death. Today there is widespread misunderstanding and ignorance about the four killing centers, which were all on isolated occupied Polish territory and had short histories. Writers often confuse the centers with the camps. Very few people survived the centers, and those who did have seldom written about them; almost nothing remains of the centers; few people have visited them; all are located deep in rural Poland, and the Polish government would like them to remain obscure because they are reminders of a separate form of dying for Jews -- these factors all contribute to the confusion. The key to understanding is that the killing centers were only killing centers -- they had no other function. The prisoners there did not die on the way to death -- they were killed.
In 1941 Himmler called in his gassing specialist, Christian Wirth, known as the Technocrat of Destruction, and ordered him to design and implement an extermination program with Chelmno as the pilot project. Sometime in 1941 Hitler gave the verbal order for the Final Solution, treating it as a secret of the highest order. Hitler and Himmler created Operation Reinhard -- the camouflage term for the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka program -- under the command of Odilo Globocnik. Instead of reporting to the SS-WVHA, as did Majdanek, Auschwitz, and other concentration camps, Operation Reinhard reported to the office of the Fuhrer -- the Reich Chancellery Office. Although keeping the control of the program close to him, Hitler delegated responsibility for the practical aspects to Himmler. The staff turned to the euthanasia program (T-4) for ideas and trained personnel. They selected the sites and sent out construction teams. T-4 construction workers helped with the buildings. And high-level T-4 personnel came to the centers after the revolts to deliver funeral operations for their fallen SS comrades.
Operation Reinhard German camp workers were not told of the program goals and their precise duties until they reached the centers. Upon their arrival the SS officers oriented them by comparing center goals with the euthanasia program, which was very familiar to the workers. Then the SS swore them to absolute secrecy. Each worker signed a pledge that contained the following commitments:
1. I have been instructed that under no circumstances will I discuss with anyone outside or with co-workers anything dealing with the operation
2. I understand the top secrecy of any of the occurences of the so-called "Jewish Relocation"
3. I may not take any pictures
4. I promise to keep my word to the best of my ability
5. I understand that after completion of my service, this oath of secrecy will still apply [footnote 38]
Operation Reinhard issued in a new phase of mass murder. Himmler replaced the mobile killing units with stationary death factories, and the gas chamber period began. The authorities had no intention of accomodating prisoners in the killing centers for any length of time -- they exterminated them almost immediately upon arrival. Administrative structures were very simple. Because the centers were never linked to the war effort, only minimal industrial activity existed. And most inmates or transients were Jews, although there were some Polish Christians.
The Nazis built Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, and Chelmno as killing centers for the sole purpose of extermination the Jews of Europe and as many Gypsies as could be found. All four were constructed on Polish soil primarily because of the widespread Polish railway system, which had stations in the smallest towns. In addition, the Polish countryside, which was densely forested and thinly populated, made secrecy possible. Not one killing center existed longer than seventeen months. The SS obliterated each of them, intending to remove all traces. Polish scholars estimate conservatively that in these four camps, 2,000,000 Jews and 52,000 Gypsies, one third of whom were children, were killed. Yes, the concentration camps had their gas vans, their gas chambers, their crematoria, and their mass graves. People were shot in them, given injections, gassed, and hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease. But even in Birkenau, where some have estimated that 1,000,000 Jews were killed, there was a chance of life. In the killing centers the only inmates kept alive for a short time were those selected to process the bodies of their fellow Jews.
First came Chelmno -- the pilot extermination project -- rude and crude, conferring death by three gas vans, borrowed from the Eastern Front. No crematoria, just mass graves in the woods. Chelmno exemplified extermination in the primitive style. Then came Belzec with its diesel-run gas chambers, which were inefficient and time consuming, and its primitive open-pit burning to dispose of the bodies. Sobibor, in a small and obscure corner of Poland, was next. It too had gas chambers and mass graves.
And finally came Treblinka. Learning from the mistakes at the other three, Nazis were here able to construct an unusually efficient destruction instrument that managed to destroy the lives and bodies of 1,000,000 human beings in only twelve months -- a truely monsterous carnage. In order to create a killing center with such efficiency, it was necessary to invent the killing machinery and process. And for that, the SS technicians and experts had no precedents on which to rely. They had to depend on original thinking to accomplish the task. It was at Treblinka that the technicians finally triumphed over the insurmountable difficulties of secretly destroying the lives, bodies, and posessions of huge numbers of people in a short period of time.
After the Solibor Revolt, Himmler ordered the centers closed. He sent the German camp personnal to the Trieste area on the Adriatic Coast, to continue the operation there. Assigned to a group known as the Arm Unit, the men's task was to carry out the technical preparation for the mass killing of Jews in that area. In a rice factory near Trieste they set up a burning facility. Partesian activity, however, made program implementation impossible. On November 4, 1943, Globocnik wrote to Himmler from Trieste: "I have on Oct. 19, 1943 completed Action Reinhard and closed all the camps." He asked for special medals for his men in recognition of their "specially difficult task." Himmler responded warmly to "Globos" on November 30, 1943, thanking him for carrying out Operation Reinhard. By the end of the war, partesians had killed Wirth and Sobibor Commandant Reichleitner, Globocnik commited suicide"
Deposition of Walter Burmeister
Gas-van Driver, Chelmno Extermination Camp
Klee, E., W. Dressen, V. Riess. The Good Old Days. New York: The Free Press, 1988, pp 219-220.
"As soon as the ramp had been erected in the castle, people started arriving in Kulmhof from Lizmannstadt 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 meters long, 2.2 meter wide and 2 meter high. The interior walls were lined with sheet metal. On the floor there was a wooden grille. 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 Kommando member detailed as driver would start 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 were the bodies were unloaded. In the early days they were initially burned 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...
I can no longer say what I thought at the time or whether I thought of anything at all. I can also no longer say today whether I was too influenced by the propaganda of the time to have refused to have carried out the orders I had been given."
Deposition of Theodor Malzmueller
Member of SS staff, Chelmno Extermination Camp
Klee, E., W. Dressen, V. Riess. The Good Old Days. New York: The Free Press, 1988, pp 217-219.
"When we arrived we had to report to the camp commandant, SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer Bothmann. The SS-Haupsturmfuehrer addressed us in his living quarters, in the presence of SS-Untersturmfuehrer Albert Plate. He explained that we had been dedicated to the Kulmhof [Chelmno] extermination camp as guards and added that in this camp the plague boils of humanity, the Jews, were exterminated. We were to keep quiet about everything we saw or heard, otherwise we would have to reckon with our families' imprisonment and the death penalty...<>p> The extermination camp was made up of the so-called "castle" and the camp in the woods. The castle was a fairly large stone building at the edge of the village of Kulmhof. It was there that the Jews who had been transported by lorry or railway were first brought...
When a lorry arrived the following members of the SS-Sonderkommando addresses the Jews: (1) camp commandant Bothmann, (2) Untersturmfuehrer Albert Plate from North Germany, (3) Polizei-Meister Willy Lenz from Silesia, (4) Polizei-Meister Alois Haeberle from Wuerttenberg. They explained to the Jews that they would first of all be given a bath and deloused in Kulmhof and then sent to Germany to work. The Jews then went inside the castle. There they had to get undressed. After this they were sent through a passage-way on to a ramp to the castle yard where the so-called "gas-van" was parked. The back door of the van would be open. The Jews were made to get inside the van. This job was done by three Poles, who I believe were sentenced to death. The Poles hit the Jews with whips if they did not get into the gas vans fast enough. When all the Jews were inside the door was bolted. The driver then switched on the engine, crawled under the van and connected a pipe from the exhaust to the inside of the van. The exhaust fumes now poured into the inside of the truck so that the people inside were suffocated..."
Interrogation of Adolf Eichmann
Klee, E., W. Dressen, V. Riess. The Good Old Days. New York: The Free Press, 1988, p 221-222.
ANSWER: I just know the following, that I only saw the following: a room, if I still recall correctly, perhaps five times as big as this one, or it may have been four times as big. There were Jews inside it, they had to get undressed and then a van, completely sealed, drew up to the ramp in front of the entrance. The naked Jews then had to get inside. Then the lorry was closed and it drove off.
QUESTION: How many people did the van hold?
ANSWER: I can't say exactly. I couldn't bring myself to look closely, even once. I didn't look inside the entire time. I couldn't, no, I couldn't take any more. The screaming and, and, I was too upset and so on. I also said that to [SS-Obergruppenfuehrer] Mueller when I submitted my report. He did not get much from my report. I then followed the van - I must have been with some of the people from there who knew the way. Then I saw the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my entire life.
The van drove up to a long trench, the door was opened and bodies thrown out. They still seemed alive, their limbs were so supple. They were thrown in, I can still remember a civilian pulling out teeth with some pliers and then I just got the hell out of there. I got into the car, went off and did not say anything else... I'd had more than I could take. I only know that a doctor there in a white coat said to me that I should look through a peep-hole at them in the lorry. I refused to do that. I could not, I could not say anything, I had to get away.
I went to Berlin, reported to Gruppenfuehrer Mueller. I told him exactly what I've just said, there wasn't any more I could tell him... terrible...I'm telling you... the inferno, can't, that is, I can't take this, I said to him.
Enquires on the Killing of the Gombin Jews
Date: Fri, 25 Aug 1995 15:40:00 CDT
Subject: Gas vans, Chelmno
To: Multiple recipients of list HOLOCAUS
From: Leon Zamosc
I am trying to find a photograph or any other graphic illustration
of the gas vans used at Chelmno and other places. Has anyone seen
anything in books or elsewhere? I am also interested in pictures of
the Chelmno camp. Will welcome any reference.
University of California, San Diego
Date: Wed, 11 Oct 1995 11:28:00 CDT
Subject: Re: Gas vans in Chelmno
To: Multiple recipients of list HOLOCAUS
From: Jerzy Halbersztadt < HALBERUW@PLEARN >
Dr. Leon Zamosc was
interested few weeks ago in finding a graphic illustration of the
gas vans used at Chelmno.
I made some survey (with an assistance of Marek Jannasz)
and here are the results:
The case of Chelmno death camp was investigated by the
Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in
Poland (it was the commission's name at the beginning of it's
existence) starting from May 1945. The commission received the
information that in the town KOLO (ca. 12 km from Chelmno) in
the former factory of Ostrowski there was a van which, according
to the witnesses, was used in the death center at Chelmno. The
van was found, photographed and researched.
The photos taken then are available in the Main
Commission's Archives in Warsaw (signatures 47398, 47396,
47397, 47399; the best one is 47398). The captions of these
photographs are till today: "a car for killing people by the exhaust
fumes at Chelmno". One of these photos was reproduced in the
Fleming's book "Hitler and the Final Solution" with the
information that it is a photograph of a "gaswagon" used in
Despite of their captions, the photographs do not show the
gas van used in the Chelmno death camp. It is clear from the
testimonies of Polish witnesses kept in the same archives of the
Main Commission (collection "Ob", file 271 and others).
Witnesses to whom the van photographed in Kolo was shown did
not confirm that it was one of those used in Chelmno for killing
people. Some of them only said that it was similar to those
described in their testimonies, but not the same. The most
common answer was: "I didn't see this one".
The inspection of the van in Ostrowski factory, done on 13
November 1945 by the judge J.Bronowski, did not confirm the
existence of any elements of system of gassing of the van's closed
platform. The witnesses called this van "a pantechnicon van" (a
van to transport furniture). It was produced by "Magirus-Werke"
with a diesel type engine of "Deutz". The plate on the engine
stated: "Humboldt-Deutz A.G. "Magirus-Werke" Ulm (Donau)
Baujahr 1939 Lieferdat739 Abn-Stempel. Fahrgestell Nr. 9282/38
Nutzlast kg 2700 Fahgestell-Baumuster 023. Eingewicht 4980 kg.
Motor Baumuster FoM 513 zul. Gesamt gew. 7900 Leistung P.S.
105 cm3 7412. Zulaessige Achsendruecke vorn kg 2400 hinten
5500." The thickness of the car's wooden body was 7 cm, of the
door - 8 cm. The walls, door, ceiling and floor were covered from
the inside with the 2mm sheet iron. The car was painted in grey-
lead color. Under this paint the inscription was seen on the door
of the cab: "Otto Koehn Spedition Ruf 516 Zeulen.....da i.TH".
I cite all these details to make possible the further comments
to the story of this van. It is my feeling that there are some
unclear points in this story. Nobody explained for what purpose
this van was used? Its door was tightened with an impregnated
canvas. What for? Some witnesses had seen this car in the area of
the forest of Chelmno starting from the spring of 1942. It is
possible that it belonged to the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof,
too. I came across a version that this van was used for a
disinfection of victims' clothes but there are no grounds for it.
In 1945 the prosecutors came to the conclusion that this van
was not a gas van of Chelmno. The van was left incomplete and
not serviceable in Ostrowski's factory at least till 1950. The last
known documents (a correspondence between the Association of
Combatants "ZBoWiD" in Kolo and the Main Commission) of
April 1950 inform that there was an idea to move this van to the
museum in Auschwitz or Majdanek (till 1990 there was no
museum in the Chelmno forest; first monument was erected there
in 1964). Those plans were not accomplished and the van was
Thus, there is no reliable graphic illustration of the gas vans
used in Chelmno. However, the testimonies of witnesses contain
many important data on these vehicles. In 1945 and later Polish
authorities examined some Poles who stayed in the area of
Chelmno after the removal of the vast majority of the Polish
population to the GG in 1939-1940. The witnesses were able to
identify gas vans very well. They declared that there were three or
four gas vans, one of them was a bit bigger. All of them were
black. The cars' bodies were boxes made of boards. The length of
a biggest vehicle was 5.5-6 m. It was ca. 2.5 m high and 2.5 m
wide. Each vehicle was guarded all the time (even during the
repair in the local factories) by two watchmen, who did not give
anybody the access to the van and, especially, to the chassis and
the closed box (platform).
However, at least three witnesses were able to see the
vehicles from the short distance. Mr. Jozef Piaskowski (b. 1908)
was employed in the Reichsstrassenbauamt in Kolo (former
*Ostrowski factory). In the winter 1941/42 he was ordered to
repair the damaged cooler in the biggest of Chelmno vans.
Piaskowski was an experienced driver. He declared later that he
has never seen the motor of this type. "The motor was a bit odd".
"It was enormous". The most interesting in his report is the
description of the exhaust system. He has noticed that the exhaust
pipe was divided into three parts. First and third were done of
metal as in normal cars. But, the central part was done of the
elastic, "hydraulic" pipe which could joint both standard tubes or
could be screwed to the holen the van's floor. After the repair
of the cooler, when the motor was tested, so much exhaust fumes
were produced that the air in the garage (size 30 m x 12 m) started
immediately to be blue. The German bosses ordered to open all
windows and doors. The workers who spent a very short time in
the polluted air have got headache. The witness heard later their
comments that the motor of this car uses 75 liters of petrol per 100
km, so twice more than normal motors do. Piaskowski stated that
he had seen two military type gas-masks in the driver's cab.
Piaskowski's colleague, Mr. Bronislaw Mankowski (b. 1882)
confirmed his story and added that he had seen the van when the
middle part of the exhaust tube was joint to the hole in the car's
floor. Mankowski declared that he looked inside the box when
the watchmen left their posts for a while. He had seen a hole
covered with a perforated sheet iron in the middle of the wooden
Another witness Mr. Bronislaw Falborski (b. 1910) was
employed in the "Kraft" company in Kolo where the vehicles of
the SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof were repaired starting from
1942. In summer 1942 he received the order to repair one of the
gas vans. His description of the exhaust pipe is in general the
same as done by witnesses cited above. The only (but important)
difference is the description of the connection of elastic pipe with
the hole in the car's floor. According to Falborski (who made
even a picture) they were joint by two fasteners tightened by four
screws. It seems that this connection was permanent, quite
difficult to change and only optionally substituted by the standard
connection of both metal parts of the exhaust pipe as in normal
cars. Falborski's report seems reliable as his task was to make
this connection air-tight by the change of the packing between
The cases of the repair of gas vans in the local workshops of
Kolo seem to be rare and exceptional. Probably it happened only
in necessity when it was impossible to use military- or SS-motor
The Chelmno death center stopped to operate many months
before the liberation of this site. The gas vans were very easy to
move from the area of Chelmno-Kolo and to change into standard
vans with very little signs of their previous function. It is very
difficult to think that SS murders (who tried to destroy all
evidences of genocide, like crematoria, camps, corpses, etc.) could
simply forget a gas van near to Chelmno or elsewhere.
University of Warsaw
and US Holocaust Museum, Washington, DC.
From: Leon Zamosc
Date: Wed, 11 Oct 95 13:27:48 PDT
I have learned much from the detailed report on the Chelmno vans
that you posted today. Two other scholars had already warned me
that there were problems with the picture in Fleming's book, and
your report shows that the matter is still far from clear.
I am doing some research about our relatives who perished
in Poland. In the case of my father's family, I know that they
were rounded up with all the other Jews of the town of Gabin
(Gostynin district) and taken to Chelmno on May 12, 1942. I
assumed that they had been killed in the gas vans (that is why I
made the enquiry about the vans). But recently I have found a
book that tells a different story. The book is DZIEJE GABINA DO
ROKU 1945, by Janusz SZCZEPANSKI (Warszawa : Panstwowe Wydawn.
Naukowe, c1984, Prace Mazowieckiego Osrodka Badan Naukowych /
Mazowiecki Osrodek Badan Naukowych ; nr. 42. ISBN: 8301039175). I
myself do not speak Polish, but a friend gave me a rough
translation of the paragraphs relevant to the end of the Jews
(pages 281-282). Based on testimony of a local German who seems
to have supervised the transport, SZCZEPANSKI describes the
killing of the Jews as a shooting execution, in which the victims
were first forced to dig their own graves, and then were
machine-gunned by the Germans.
I have talked to old people from Gabin living here in the US and
they do not know exactly how the Jews of Gombin died. So this is
something that must be clarified. I myself have doubts on the
veracity of SZCZEPANSKI's story, since there is no mention of
mass-killing by shooting at Chelmno in any of the materials I
have seen until now (GULCZYNSKI's book, KRAKOWSKI's chapter in
NAZI MASS MURDER, the Chelmno chapter in the Polish Commission
report GERMAN CRIMES IN POLAND, another Polish Commision report
from 1946 that I read in a book in Hebrew by ZEEV KIBEL, a
pamphlet in English from the Chelmno Museum, and references to
Chelmno in many other books on the Shoah).
So I am writing to you in order to ask if, in the course of your
research, you have seen any specific reference to the Jews of
Gabin. If nothing conclusive is known about the exact manner of
their death, did you ever come across any evidence or mention of
any cases of mass executions by shooting at Chelmno? I hope you
will find time to answer this query, which is very important for
us. Thanks a lot for your help.
Professor of Sociology
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093
Date: Wed, 01 Nov 95 01:59:29 CET
From: Jerzy Halbersztadt
Subject: Jews of Gabin
To: Leon Zamosc
Dear Leon Zamosc:
I tried to find some references to the Jews of Gabin, but there are
very few facts in the historical literature on this topic.
Apart from the books you mentioned, there are two articles which
could be interesting for you. However neither of them gives the
direct answer to your questions.
The first one is: D.Dabrowska, Zaglada Zydow w Kraju Warty
(Extermination of Jews in "Wartegau"), "Biuletyn Zydowskiego
Instytutu Historycznego", 1955, no.13 and 14, p. 145 - 172.
In Dabrowska's article there is a table. According to the data
in this table before the war there were 2313 Jews in Gabin, in
January 1940 there were 2100 and in 1942 - 2150 (including those
who came to Gabin during the war). April 1942 all Jews form Gabin
were taken to Chelmno. Please note that these numbers are not in
contradiction with the testimony in Janusz Szczepanski's book
(There was no exact number of Jews killed by shooting given in
The second one is: J.Wrobel, Getta w powiatach gostyninskim i
kutnowskim (Ghettos in Gostynin district and Kutno district).
This is an unpublished paper given during the conference in 45
anniversary of the extermination of Jews in "Kraj Warty", held
in Zdunska Wola, October 23, 1987. One fragment of this article
is directly connected with the question of extermination of Gabin
Jews. Here is the translation of this fragment:
"Ghetto in Gabin was liquidated in April 1942. First, 300 men
were taken and closed in the building of the fire-station. They
were beaten there and two men were shot by a German guard.
Finally all men, women and children were taken to the Chelmno
I will send you xerocopies of these two articles by snail mail.
It was really a great pleasure for me to do something for a
founding member of the Holocaust Museum. I hope I could be
helpful also in the future.
With best regards, Jerzy Halbersztadt
Announcement from Chaim Rumkowski, the "Jewish Elder", on the imminent deportation of western Jews from the Litzmannstadt ghetto, 29 April 1942
20,000 Jews and 5,000 Sinti and Roma were deported to Litzmannstadt during autumn 1941. The latter were murdered at the beginning of January 1942 at the Kulmhof (Che?mno) death camp. Around 44,000 Polish Jews were taken to this death camp between January and April 1942, and between 4 and 15 May 1942 a further 11,000 non-Polish Jews were deported there and murdered.
Announcement from the Jewish Council in Warsaw on the start of the deportation of all ghetto inhabitants "to the East", 22 July 1942
The large-scale deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp took place between 22 July and the end of September 1942. 240,000 died in the process. Adam Czerniakow committed suicide one day after this announcement.
All rights reserved. Memorial stones to the last victims murders at the Chelmno death camp in central Poland stand on the now empty fields. The "Final Solution" against Europe's Jewish residents began at Chelmo, where anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 persons (according to the camp's museum) were killed by carbon monoxide gas inside mobile gassing vans.
Documentation of Extermination
On the door there hung a note
legible only up close -
"Doorbell in order - please ring"
and three names:
To Mme. L. once,
to Mr. K. twice,
and to the Doctor three times…
The note was hung there
so people would know
then there was a selection
and - they took....
Mme. L. (once)
Mr. K. (twice)
and that Doctor (three times…)
The note "Please Ring"
hangs on the door
but the doors are open
and beyond the doors - terror…[…]
Documentation of extermination
"The German invasion of the Soviet Union added the most terrifying link in the unending chain of suffering Jewish masses, the Ausrottung, the physical extermination of the Jews "responsible" for the war, to an extent unknown in previous centuries. This second stage strikes with ruthlessness and unprecedented thoroughness."
Report by Oneg Shabbat for the Polish Government-in-exile in London, April 1942
(A?IH Ring I/469)
Paper, manuscript, ink, in Polish. 20 x 26 cm (A?IH Ring I/938). Typed copy also exists.
The Nazis murdered the majority of the Jewish inhabitants of S?onim on October 15, 1941. Report from Szlamek ("Jakub Grojnowski") about the death camp in Che?mno on the Ner, elaborated by Bluma Wasser in February 1942
Paper, typescript, in Yiddish. 20.5 x 28.5 cm (A?IH Ring I/412)
Szlamek was one of three escapees from the Che?mno death camp. He gave Oneg Shabbat a report about the murder of Jews and Gypsies in mobile gas vans. His report covers the period from January 5-19, 1942. "On Monday, January 5, 1942 the gendarmerie in Izbica summoned the members of the Judenrat, demanding people for labour; they asserted that this order had to be carried out without delay, as opposed to previous orders from the Arbeitsamt which, as they put it, the Jews had ignored. That same day approximately 40 men turned up at the police station, whose names were on a list drawn up by the gendarmes. The gendarmes took away their documents and ordered them to report the next day with shovels or spades and a supply of bread for one or two days. They were told that they were supposed to return home after a couple days. I was among them. I know the names of some of the gendarmes: 1. Lieutenant Johanne; 2. Meister; 3. the gendarme-VolksdeutschSchmalz. There were seven of them altogether. I'm certain that they knew what we would be used for. I repeat once again: they knew perfectly well, one hundred per cent, what was going to happen, and yet they didn't warn any of the Jews. Quite to the contrary, we were painfully deceived. Truthfully speaking, I didn't want to show up for work. Nevertheless my parents urged me to, thinking that I could thus avoid going to a labour camp. I had already managed to avoid going to a camp three times. Fifteen men showed up on Tuesday morning. We waited until eight o'clock, but no one else appeared, so the police carried out a random round-up. From the streets and from house searches they took additional 19 people, five of whom were released since they were either debilitated or children. There remained 14 of them, and together with those who appeared by themselves, 29. The gendarmerie made a list of these 29 names. Meanwhile an auto with gendarmes arrived. They counted us once again and loaded us onto a truck. Each of us had a knapsack containing his things. Our truck attracted widespread attention; our parents were convinced we were being taken to a labour camp. Polish passers-by reacted in a variety of ways; some of the young people sneered and mocked us, while older people were crying.
We drove off in the direction of Ko?o. Then we turned into a road towards Che?mno. That town was already notorious in the surrounding area, since four weeks earlier there had been a resettlement from Ko?o and D?bie on the Ner. Various odd rumours were circulating that no one sent to Che?mno ever returned. Yet we didn't know exactly what was happening there. We had heard rumours from messengers, but we hadn't found out any details. The truck stood on the road in Che?mno about half an hour, then we drove to a palace. It was now an uninhabited hovel left from the last war; it was on the right side of the road, while the church and village were on the left side. The Gestapo had requisitioned for themselves all the buildings around the church.
We had arrived in Che?mno at twelve-thirty. Gestapo guards stood at both gates of the palace, while the gendarmes stood guard elsewhere. At the second gate we were led out of the truck, ordered to put down our packs and form a line. From then on we were given orders by SS men in black uniforms, high-ranking Reichsdeutsche. They ordered use to turn over all the money and valuables in our possession, then counted out 15 of us, myself included, and led us under guard to one of the cellars. I later learned that there were more than a dozen such underground cells. The 15 of us were locked in one of them, while the remaining 14 were locked in another. Although it was still light out, the cellars were dark. We received a bit of straw from the Volksdeutsch workers; at night we received a lamp. At about eight in the evening they gave us black, unsweetened coffee and nothing else. We were in a desperate mood, prepared for the worse. Everyone was crying, kissing and saying good-bye. It was very cold, so we nestled close to one another and that way we survived that freezing night. We kept talking about Jews who had been previously been driven out of Ko?o and D?bie. Based on what we knew, we became convinced that we would never get out of there.
On Wednesday, January 7 at seven in the morning the gendarme on duty banged the door shouting 'Get up!' But none of us had slept on account of the cold. An hour later they brought us bitter black coffee and bread from our packs. That raised out spirits a bit, and we whispered that were still under God's mercy and would be going to work. At eight-thirty (nights were long at that time of year, so that's why it was so late), we were led out into the courtyard. A few were made to stay behind and were led to an adjoining cellar in order to carry out two Jews who had been hanged (I don't know their names). They were prisoner-gravediggers from K?odawa. The bodies were thrown on a small truck. We rejoined the remaining prisoners from Izbica. We had barely come out of the cellar when we where surrounded by 12 gendarmes and Gestapo men with machine guns. In the truck were 29 prisoners, along with the two bodies and six gendarmes. A car with ten gendarmes and two civilians drove behind us.
We drove along the road in the direction of Ko?o. After driving about seven kilometres, we suddenly turned left, deep into the woods. There was a beaten track a half-kilometre long, at the end of which SS men stopped the vehicle, ordered us to get out, undress and line up in twos (we were in our boots, underwear, trousers and shirts). We had to leave our coats, caps, sweaters and gloves on the ground in spite of the extreme cold. The two civilians brought spades and axes, distributing them among us. Only eight of us didn't receive tools; they were ordered to pull the two corpses from the truck. There were 21 of us with axes and spades, in the rear eight men with the two corpses, and encircling us were Germans with machine guns.
As soon as we had reached the woods, we immediately saw prisoners from K?odawa who had arrived before us. They were working in just their shirts. They were also guarded by about 12 policemen, so in all we were surrounded by 30 gendarmes.
As we got near to the pit, the men from K?odawa greeted us in whispers, asking 'Where are you from?' We replied, 'From Izbica'. They asked, 'See what a misery it is here? How many of you are there?' We replied, 'Twenty-nine'. We spoke with each other without interrupting our work. We threw both corpses into the pit. They had been carried over by those who still hadn't received spades. They didn't have long to wait however, before the next truck arrived with new victims. The truck was specially constructed; the size of a normal truck, grey-coloured, hermetically sealed with two rear doors. The interior was covered with metal, and there were no seats. The bottom was covered with wooden boards as in a bathroom, and covered with a mat of straw. […]. There were two such trucks; the driver was always the same. He wore an SS uniform with a skull and crossbones, and was probably around 40 years old.
The truck stopped at a distance of about eight metres from the grave. The leader of the guard team, a high-ranking SS officer, was exceptionally sadistic. He ordered those eight men to open the truck doors and immediately there was a sharp, strong odour of gas. Gypsies from ?ód? had been killed in the truck. Their belongings were lying in it: accordions, violins, quilts, even watches and gold jewellery. After waiting at the open doors for about five minutes, the SS officer shouted: 'Ihr Juden, herein und schmeisst alles raus'. The Jews ran up to the truck and removed the bodies. Since at first the work wasn't easy and went rather slowly, the supervising SS-man pulled out a whip and yelled out, 'Helblaue, ich komme sofort zu euch!' - lashing heads, ears, eyes wherever the whip landed, until everyone had fallen to the ground. Whoever didn't manage to get up was immediately shot to death with a machine gun. Seeing that, the others tried with what remained of their strength to get up and finish the work.
The bodies of those who had been gassed to death were thrown from the truck like rubbish onto a pile. They were pulled by their feet or hair. Two men stood at the top and threw bodies into the bottom of the pit, where two others stood arranging the bodies in layers with their faces in the ground in such a way that the head of one body lay at the feet of another. A special SS man was in charge of this. If there was a small open space, a child's body was crammed into it. The one at the top stood with a pine branch in his hand, indicating where to place a head, feet, children and things. Everything was accompanied by mad shouts of 'Du Sakrament!' There were about 180 to 200 bodies. After every three loads, about 20 of the men were gathered to bury the bodies. At first it worked out to two times. Later, when the number of truckloads reached nine (with 60 bodies each), they were buried three times. At noon the SS commander ('The Whip') ordered: 'Spadel stehen lassen'. He aligned us in twos and counted us, then ordered those at the bottom to come up. Guards still surrounded us, not leaving us even when the call of nature required us to relieve ourselves right where we were working. We approached the place where our belongings were lying. They ordered us to sit on our packs. We were constantly under guard. They gave each of us a mug of cold coffee and a piece of frozen bread. That was dinner. We sat like that for half an hour, after which we lined up and were counted, then led back to work.
What did the dead look like? The bodies were by no means scorched, nor were they black. The colour of their faces remained unchanged. Almost all were covered with excrement.
We finished work at about five o'clock. The eight who had carried the bodies were ordered to lie down on the corpses with their faces down, after which the SS man shot each one in the head with a machine gun. 'The Whip' shouted. 'Helblau, flink sich anziehen!' We got dressed quickly and took our spades with us. They counted us and, under the guard of gendarmes and SS men, led us to the trucks, where they ordered us to leave the spades. They counted us again and packed us into the trucks. We drove back to the palace. The trip took about 15 minutes. The men from K?odawa were also with us, and we talked with them quietly. I told them that my mother had always dreamt of leading me under the white wedding canopy, but now she wouldn't even be able to accompany me to my final black marriage. Everyone burst out sobbing, but in a way that the gendarmes sitting behind us didn't hear. We spoke very quietly...". Letter from Szlamek to Hersz Wasser about Be??ec, sent from Zamo??, early April 1942
Paper, manuscript, ink, in Polish and Yiddish (in Roman alphabet). 11 x 18 cm (A?IH Ring I/596)
"....it is as freezing as in Che?mno. Are we next in line? The cemetery is in Be??ec, which has already eliminated the shtetlach (small towns) I mentioned in this letter."
Because they were afraid that the Gestapo would find him, the leaders of Oneg Shabbat sent Szlamek to Zamo?? in the south of Poland, where he had family. This letter to Hersz Wasser is one of the first reports to reach the Warsaw Ghetto about the Be??ec death camp. The camp was in operation from March 1942. Postcard informing of the death of Szlamek, send by his relatives in Zamo??, April 24, 1942
Postcard, print, manuscript, ink, in Polish. 10.5 x 14.5 (A?IH Ring I/596)
On April 11, 1942 the Nazis deported 3,000 Jews from Zamo?? to the death camp in Be??ec. List of those shot on April 17-18, 1942
Paper, typescript, in Polish. 21 x 30 cm (A?IH Ring II/158)
"On the night of April 17-18, from Friday night to Saturday morning, fifty-two people were murdered in the Jewish district. Among them were a couple of good, talented social activists, a few youths organised in a union, a couple of wealthy bakers, the plutocrats of the district and a few random victims. None of these individuals anticipated death at the time. …Thirty-year-old Menachem Linder, a superb economist, popular activist and expert on Jewish folklore, was killed at the square on Mylna Street…. The neighbourhood grew numb. … These April murders were presumably intended to destroy those individuals capable of leadership, in order to prevent the organisation of any kind of defence." Gustawa Jarecka Announcement, July 22, 1942
Paper, printed, in German and Polish. 48 x 69 cm (A?IH Ring II/186)
From July 22 until September 21, 1942 approximately 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered by the Nazis in the death camp at Treblinka. On July 23 Adam Czerniaków, chairman of the Jewish Council, committed suicide, unable to prevent the transport of people to their death. Armband worn by the Jewish Police
Linen, printed with blue and black ink, in German. 10 x 38 cm (A?IH Ring II/293) Summons by the Jewish Police to report at Umschlagplatz for "resettlement", July 29, 1942
Paper, printed, in German and Polish. 45 x 58 cm (A?IH Ring II/188)
On July 28, 1942 Abraham Lewin noted in his diary, "The Aktion continues at full speed. Many volunteer. Two families have left their flats and turned themselves in. Reason: terrible hunger." It was not until August 9 that he wrote, "We found out that 99% of the resettled people are murdered". (A?IH Ring II/202)
The people taken from Umschlagplatz were unaware that their journey would end in immediate death. This information did not reach the majority of the Ghetto residents, or they did not want to believe it. Armband from the Czyste Hospital, adjoining Umschlagplatz
Heavy paper, averse with print in German and Polish; reverse with manuscript in crayon, in Polish. 10 x 38 cm (A?IH Ring II/293)
On the back of the armband its owner recorded when relatives had been brought to Umschlagplatz: 9/9/42 6:00 am - sister; 9/10/42 - parents. Report by Abram Jakub Krzepicki about Treblinka. Recorded by Rachela Auerbach
Paper, ink, manuscript in Polish. (A?IH Ring II/295)
The first to escape Treblinka probably reached the Warsaw Ghetto on August 7 or 8, 1942. Abram Krzepicki was taken to Treblinka on August 25, 1842, and escaped 18 days later.
Description of his arrival at the camp 15.5 x 19.5 cm;
Plan of the camp and key to the plan 20 x 31 cm
List of tenants of the abandoned flat, autumn 1942
Paper, ink, manuscript in Polish, 7.5 x 22 cm (A?IH Ring II/492)
In 1942, a Warsaw underground newspaper, the Liberty Brigade, makes public the news of the gassing of tens of thousands of Jews at Chelmno, a death camp in Poland-almost seven months after extermination of prisoners began... On June 1, 1942, the story of a young Jew,Emanuel Ringelblum, (who escaped from the Chelmno death camp after being forced to bury bodies as they were thrown out of the gas vans), was published in the underground Polish Socialist newspaper Liberty Brigade. The West now knew the "bloodcurdling news ... about the slaughter of Jews," and it had a name -- Chelmno.
Szymon Srebrnik Testimony
Protocol of the Interrogation of the Witnes On June 29 1945 in Kolo
Simon (Shimon, Szymon) Srebnik
Examining Judge of District Court in Lodz – Wladyslaw Bednar Assisted by Recording Clerk In the presence of the parties - heard a testimony (not under oath) of the witness mentioned below. After the witness had been informed of criminal responsibility for a false testimony and acquainted with the text of article 106 of the Code of Penal Proceedings, he testified the following:
Up to March 1944 I had been in the Lodz ghetto, from where I was then driven off to Chelmno. In Lodz I worked in the ghetto in the so-called metal department.
Besides me there were 50 other Jews on the truck. Among them were Zydenfeld, Berek, Modownik, Kalmuszewicz, Huskiel. I cannot recall any other names.
In March 1944 the Germans organised a round-up. They caught me while I was on a street car and led me to Balucki Square where there were some cars from Chelmno. We were loaded inside and driven off.
The Germans took us a granary on the grounds of the Chelmno palace. There were no other Jews. We found out that we were in the Sonderkommando camp. An hour later the prisoners were divided into two groups. The stronger and better workers were sent to the woods, they formed the so-called “Waldkommando.”
The “Waldkommando” chief was Lenz. Other Germans employed in the woods were Runge and Kretschmer. TheHauskommando chief was Hafele.
The Waldkommando consisted of about 40 Jews, the remainder was assigned to the Hauskommando. We were all shackled. The shackles prevented us from walking in a normal way. We had to take very short steps. The shackles on our ankles were also chained to our waists.
We slept in the granary on a cement floor. It was very cold. The members of the Waldkommando told us that they were building two furnaces in the wood. They did not know what purpose they would serve, but they expected the furnaces might be used to make charcoal.
The furnaces were very primitive they stood on a cement foundation and were narrow at the bottom, gradually becoming wider at the top. They were approximately three metres (10 feet) tall. The width was about the same.
The fire grate was made of narrow-gauge railroad railings. There was neither a chimney nor a special trench for better draught. Later I was in the woods a few times so I could see the furnaces.
Officers Runge and Kretschmer were responsible for the construction of the furnaces. The construction process lasted about two weeks. Jews building the furnaces were sometimes killed for entertainment
Lenz and the Sonderkommando Chief – Commissioner Bothmann showed extreme cruelty. At times out of 30 workers sent to the woods, only 14 returned. The group of workers were constantly supplied with new men brought from Lodz.
Although each of eight transports brought 30 workers, it was still not enough, because so many of them were killed. When the first transport arrived, there were only 18 Jewish workers in Chelmno. The rest had been killed. The corpses were buried in a pile of sand. After the furnaces became operational, the bodies were burnt.
The workers were given 200 grams (7oz) of bread a day, some coffee in the morning, and one half litres (1 pint) of soup for dinner. Only after the first transport had arrived, did we get any blankets. We were constantly beaten during work. They hit us with their hands or spades. Obviously blows from a spade resulted in death or mutilation, which actually equalled death, as those unable to work were finished up. The Germans killed in the following way: they called a Jew named Moniek Reich, who had to remove the shackles from those to be killed. Then they ordered them to lie on the ground and shot them in the back of the head. The first transport came at the beginning of April from Lodz. In the morning Bothmann ordered the Hauskommando out of the granary. We were ordered to move baggage that had been unloaded near the narrow – gauge railroad track, in the place where it met the road.
Mordechai Podchlebnik, one of the two known survivors of Chelmno-Schlosslager
Simon Srebnik should have died in 1945. As a teenager, Srebnik was a prisoner at the Chelmno extermination camp, where he managed to stay alive thanks to his agility and melodious singing voice, both of which pleased the SS guards. Two days before the Soviet troops arrived, the guards began killing all of the remaining Jews at the camp, shooting each in the head at close range. Incredibly, Srebnik survived, later regaining consciousness in the now-abandoned camp, surrounded by dead bodies. It is a miracle that he was still with us almost forty years later when Claude Lanzmann sought out stories for his epic documentary Shoah. He returned with Lanzmann to Chelmno, now a tranquil spot bearing no evidence of the horrors that once took place there. We only have the memories of people like Simon Srebnik to make us understand what it was like to be a Jew in this particular time and place, and to bear witness to unimaginable atrocities on a day-to-day basis.
For 9½ hours, Shoah presents these memories to us. Lanzmann spent more than a decade tracking down and interviewing people who had been involved in the Holocaust in some way – victims, perpetrators, witnesses – compiling over 350 hours of footage that he subsequently edited into one 567-minute monument to those who died as part of the Nazis’ “final solution.” Watching the whole film in one day, as I did recently, is an extraordinary, singular experience. Taking breaks and a lengthy Lanzmann Q&A into account (during the latter, Lanzmann coped well with the unbelievable crassness of a question comparing Holocaust deniers with climate change deniers), the event lasted for almost 12 hours and I have never been left feeling so exhausted – physically and emotionally – by a single film. Shoah is a torrent of words, and those words conjure images capable of breaking the heart many times over.
It’s hard to know where to begin when dealing with a film as immense as Shoah, so perhaps it’s wise to begin, like Lanzmann, with small details. Lanzmann has said that he didn’t want to ask big questions on the subject of the Holocaust during his interviews because he was afraid he would only receive inadequate answers. Instead, he asks specific and seemingly banal questions about the steps involved in the extermination process: “How much time elapsed between unloading at the ramp and the undressing? How many minutes? Exactly where did this happen? How many people were present?” Through this gradual accumulation of details, Shoah creates a vivid portrait of life and death inside an extermination camp. When he interviews Franz Suchomel, a former guard at the Treblinka camp, Lanzmann puts up an aerial map of the site and hands Suchomel a pointer with which he explains where and when everything took place in a coolly descriptive fashion. This encounter is one of Shoah‘s most fascinating, with the meeting being filmed via a hidden camera after Lanzmann can be heard assuring Suchomel that his words would not be recorded and his identity would not be revealed. As he has stated in reference to this scene, Lanzmann’s insistence on getting the truth at any cost trumped any concerns for journalistic ethics.
The remains of Chelmno extermination camp
Lanzmann’s determination to get answers is at the heart of one ofShoah‘s most troubling sequences. The interview subject is Abraham Bomba, a barber in Israel who performed the same function in Treblinka, cutting the hair of naked, terrified women who would be killed in the gas chamber minutes later. Bomba answers Lanzmann’s questions while cutting the hair of a client in his shop, delivering his recollections in the same straightforward, emotionless manner as most of the interviewees. But when he remembers the wife and sister of a friend walking into the gas chamber, he suddenly stalls and says, “I can’t, it’s too horrible. Please.” Lanzmann is relentless in his questioning and resolute in his insistence that the interview must continue: “You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and I apologise” he says, “Please, we must go on.” The camera never leaves Bomba’s face as he dabs away the tears and takes deep breaths in an effort to compose himself, before finally continuing with his story. It is agonising to watch.
There are many upsetting and disturbing scenes in Shoah, but the Abraham Bomba interview is the one that finally broke my resistance and moved me to tears. I wept because I could see the anguish on Bomba’s face and it made me think about just what he must be going through as he dredges up these horrific memories. How difficult it must be for these people to put the most unimaginable evil into words and share things they experienced, witnessed and did decades earlier that still haunt them to this day. Lanzmann has said that he avoided the use of any archive footage in Shoah because he believes audiences no longer feel the effect of such images. He also dispensed with other accepted tropes of documentary filmmaking, such as a musical score or contextualising voiceover, because he understands that nothing is more powerful than human testimony. Archive footage would have made the subject seem like a historical event and maintained a distance between us and the Holocaust, but the use of people delivering first-hand accounts makes it feel real and relevant; a living, breathing, deeply felt horror.
At times, Shoah is overwhelming, and I was grateful for the breaks that occurred every 2½ hours when I saw the film, giving us a chance to recover from the intensity of what we had just witnessed, but Lanzmann also gives us crucial interludes between interviews. These scenes often consist of a train trundling through the countryside – recalling the trains that brought countless Jews to their death decades earlier – or simply quiet shots of the sites where the death camps once stood. Through these shots he allows us to contemplate and digest the contents of the previous interview, but they also remind us of all the lives that were lost at these locations, and of all the people who aren’t here to share their story. Lanzmann once said that “the subject of my film is death itself, death and not survival,” and even those whom Lanzmann meets are sometimes spoken of as if they are ghosts. When Lanzmann interviews Mordechai Podchlebnik, the only other survivor of Chelmno, who hides his pain with a near-permanent smile, he asks through a translator “What died in him in Chelmno?” Podchlebnik replies, “Everything died.”
Shoah is not an easy film to watch but it is an essential one. Some may balk at spending more than nine hours sitting in front of one film and listening to a litany of unspeakable horrors, but when faced with the enormity of what those involved suffered, and what Lanzmann went through to put this film together, one is immediately humbled. When I told people that I was going to attend an all-day screening ofShoah, some of them asked how I could subject myself to such an experience, and my answer should have been, “How can I not?”Shoah is a film that stands alone. It documents the darkest period in 20th century history with clarity and intelligence. Its contributors were ready to bare their souls for future generations, no matter how painful looking back into the past may have been. They had the courage to speak. We have a duty to listen.
August 15, 1944
Children standing behind the ghetto fence in Lodz, Poland
From January to May, 1942, 55,000 Jews were from Lodz sent to their deaths in Chelmno death camp. From September 1942 until May 1944 there were no more deportations. After May, the deportations to Chelmno were renewed. In early August, the Nazis rerouted the deportations to Auschwitz. By August 30, 1944 about 70,000 Jews from Lodz had been sent to Auschwitz.
Chelmno: deportation of Jewish children
Jewish children being deported from the ?ód? ghetto, Poland, to the Chelmno death camp.
Dorka Lewin [ABOVE] in the Klodawa ghetto.Dorka sent this photo to her friend, Gina Tabaczynska, in the Warsaw ghetto in December 1940. Dorka later perished in the Chelmno death camp.
Special commando Kulmhof (Chelmno) was made up of a party of only 20 SS-men. However, these 20 SSers were assisted by over 100 members of the regular German police. The latter mainly served as sentinels and guarded the neighboring roads. The Sonderkommando oversaw the extermination process in the death-camp as well as the work in the nearby forest where the corpses were burnt and buried.
Left: Herbert Lange - Right: Hans Bothmann
What follows are the names of some of the perpetrators, all German officers and N.C.O's who participated in the crimes against Jews and Gypsies in the Chelmno area. The first commandant of Chelmno (Kulmhof) was SS Sturmbannführer - SS-Major Herbert Lange. He was followed in March of 1942 by SS-Hauptsturmführer - SS-Captain Hans Bothmann. Successively, Bothmann had two assistants, Otto Platte and Willi Hiller.
SS-Untersturmführer - SS-2nd Lieutenant Walter Filer, deputy to Bothmann
SS-Untersturmführer - SS-2nd Lieutenant Alois Häfele, the 'specialist' in charge of all activities.
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Albert Richter, division commander
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Wilhelm Lenz, Chief woods commando
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Johann Runge, Chief in charge of the crematoria
SS-Unterscharführer - SS-Sergeant Erich Kretschmer, deputy to Runge at the crematoria
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Erwin Burstinger, in charge of the fuel and all the gas vans
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Gustav Laabs, driver of the gas vans
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Herman Gilow, driver of the gas vans
SS-Unterscharführer - SS-Sergeant Walter Burmeister, in charge of the gold
SS-Rottenführer - SS-Corporal Wilhelm Gürlich, deputy to Burmeister, expert in gold
SS-Hauptscharführer - SS-Master Sergeant Schmidt, in charge of the dinning room
Site at which the SS shot and burned the last 45 of 48 prisoners at Chelmno. The other three prisoners escaped. Chelmno, Poland, 1945.
Dabie, Poland, June 1945.
Postwar photograph of a building in Dabie where the possessions of Jews killed at the nearby Chelmno camp were stored. Dabie, Poland, June 1945.
Family members say goodbye to a child through a fence at the ghetto's central prison where children, the sick, and the elderly were held before deportation to Chelmno during the "Gehsperre" action. Lodz, Poland, September 1942.
Isadore Frenkiel Born: Gabin, Poland ca. 1898
1898~ May 1942
Isadore and his wife, Sossia, had seven sons. The Frenkiels, a religious Jewish family, lived in a one-room apartment in a town near Warsaw called Gabin. Like most Jewish families in Gabin, they lived in the town's center, near the synagogue. Isadore was a self-employed cap maker, selling his caps at the town's weekly market. He also fashioned caps for the police and military.
1933-39: Isadore felt the pinch of the Depression, but although business was poor, he was able to provide for his family. Shortly after the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, they occupied Gabin. Ten people were shot in the street; others, such as doctors and teachers, were taken away. The Germans rounded up the Jewish men and held them in the marketplace while soldiers doused the synagogue with gasoline and set it on fire.
1940-42: In 1941 the Frenkiels heard rumors that the Germans were evacuating some towns and deporting the Jews to a death camp. A cousin visited the family after escaping from a transport and said the rumors were true. "They put you in trucks, gas you, then throw your body into a burning pit," he said. Isadore's 3-year-old son ran to his mother crying, "Will they burn me, too?" Isadore urged his cousin to tell the Jewish elders. He met with them, but they did not believe his story and told him to leave town.
In May 1942 Gabin's Jews were deported to the Chelmno death camp. Isadore, Sossia and four of their sons were placed in a sealed van and asphyxiated with exhaust fumes.