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