Chelmno: Hitler’s First Death Camp

Nazi, Poland, Chelmno, Holocaust,, Genocide,
Chelmno 2009 – Photograph Credit: Matthew Feldman

In my last article for the CARR Blog, I wrote a summary of my book on Auschwitz which was published in April by ibidem-verlag. I thought for this month I would tell you a bit more about my next work, which will cover the Chelmno death camp.

This book has been co-written with my late friend and historical researcher Artur Hojan, who started to write his own book on Chelmno, and we worked together on this, before his untimely and tragic death in December 2013, aged just 40.

Both Professor Matthew Feldman and I travelled to Chelmno in 2009, as part of the Tiergarten 4 Association in Berlin, co-founded by Cameron Munro and Artur Hojan, and the experience of visiting Chelmno on this trip, left a lasting impression on us all.

Chelmno, or ‘Kulmhof’ as it was known during the Nazi occupation, is a village on the River Ner, in the county of Kolo, in West-Central region of Poland. Poznan is 135 km from Chelmno, and is the regional capital. During the German occupation this area was annexed to the Reich and re-named the ‘Warthegau’.

The Germans selected an abandoned manor house, often known locally as ‘The Castle’ served by a narrow gauge railway which ran from the town, Kolo, to the village of Dabie. Kolo is some 14km from Chelmno. Kolo was where the transports from the Ghetto in Lodz, known as ‘Litzmannstadt’ during the Nazi occupation, disembarked for the final journey to Chelmno.

The camp was constructed in November 1941, under the command of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Herbert Lange. The method of liquidating the Jews was gas-vans, which had previously been used by Lange to murder mentally-ill and disabled people in the Warthegau and East Prussia.

The victims were transferred to the ‘Castle’ in Chelmno, where they undressed and walked down a corridor in the basement to the ‘baths’ which led to a wooden ramp, and the back of gas-wagon. The victims were then gassed in a stationary gas-van, and usually died a horrible death within 10 minutes. After the gassing was completed, the gas-van was driven to the so-called ‘Waldlager’ (or Forest Camp) in the Rzuchowski Forest which was located about 4km from the ‘Castle.’ At the ‘Waldlager’, the corpses were unloaded by a Jewish Waldkommando and buried in mass graves. From the summer of 1942, the corpses were cremated instead of being buried. It was at Chelmno that SS-Standartenfuhre, Paul Blobel, experimented with various methods of disposing of the corpses by burning. It was here in September 1942, that Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, witnessed the method of burning corpses in open air pits. It was this method that was used in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp to dispose of corpses murdered in the two converted farmhouses, which had been turned into gas chambers.

The exterminations commenced in Chelmno on December 8, 1941, with the murder of the Jews from Kolo, and surrounding areas. Following the destruction of the Gypsy Camp in the Lodz Ghetto, the mass murder of Gypsies, who had been resettled in Lodz, took place in Chelmno during December 1941, and January 1942.

The Chelmno death camp was used as the main focal point of the destruction of Jews incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto. This also included a vast numbers of German Jews, who were deported from the Reich. The first phase of operations ended at Chelmno on April 7, 1943, when the ‘Castle’ was blown up and the furnaces in the Waldlager were demolished. The Sonderkommando Kulmhof, now commanded by Hans Bothmann, had been given new orders to fight partisans in Yugoslavia.

In June and July 1944, the Waldlager camp under Hans Bothmann was put back in operation, in order to deal with the final liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto. Approximately 7,000 Jews were murdered and cremated in the Waldlager. The remainder of the Lodz Ghetto was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.

During September 1944, the crematoria in the Waldlager was dismantled and the camp was abandoned on January 17, 1945, due to the advances of the Red Army. At least 172,000 people perished at Chelmno.

Our book covers the construction of the camp, its unique position in history as the first of Hitler’s death camps in Poland, albeit using gas-vans rather than static gas chambers to murder its victims. Detailed accounts from Jewish prisoners who worked in the Waldlager, burying corpses, and who escaped to tell the world about what the Nazis were doing at Chelmno, are included.

The book includes comprehensive biographies of the perpetrators, which builds on original research conducted by Artur Hojan, as well as various accounts of them, including statements at war crimes trials and biographies of the Polish Arbeitskommando, which assisted the Nazis in the liquidation process, in a unique development, in the annals of the Holocaust.

A major feature of this work is the Jewish Rolls of Remembrance that covers the few brave survivors who escaped from Chelmno, as well as biographies of Jews deported from the Reich to Lodz and then onto Chelmno, where the vast majority of prisoners met their deaths. Whilst it would be too overwhelming to include every name of those deported, using the online resource, it has been possible to include every surname, and thus give a representative picture.

The book concludes with accounts of personal visits to Chelmno and the surrounding areas, and is richly illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs and documents. If all goes to plan the book should be published next spring. I am honoured to have co-authored such a book, as Chelmno has received scant coverage compared to other camps.

Mr Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Founder of the Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.

©Chris Webb. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).