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Nazi extermination camps in Germany and General Gouvernement (marked with black and white skulls)

Chełmno extermination camp, also known as the Kulmhof concentration camp, was a Nazi German extermination camp that was situated 70 kilometres (43 mi) from Łódź, near a small village called Chełmno nad Nerem (Kulmhof an der Nehr in German). After annexation by Germany Kulmhof was included into Reichsgau Wartheland in 1939. The camp was opened in 1941 to kill the Jews of the Łódź Ghetto and the Warthegau.

At least 153,000 people were killed in the camp, mainly Poles, Jews from the Łódź Ghetto and the surrounding area, along with Gypsies from Greater Poland and some Hungarian Jews, Czechs, and Soviet prisoners of war.



The "killing center" consisted of an unused manorial estate in the town of Chełmno itself and a large forest clearing about 4 km (2.5 mi) northwest of Chełmno off the east side of the road to Koło and abutting the village of Rzuchów to the south. These sites were known respectively as the Schlosslager (manor-house camp) and the Waldlager (forest camp).[1] On the grounds of the estate was a large manor house, which contained the reception offices, including rooms for undressing and for relinquishing valuables. The SS and police staff and guards were housed in other buildings in the town.[2] The manor house and the grounds were encircled by a high wooden fence. The clearing in the forest camp, which contained space for mass graves, was likewise fenced off. The camp consisted of three parts: an administration section, barracks and storage for plundered goods; and a burial and cremation site.

Basic operation of the camp

The death camp operated from December 8, 1941 until April 1943 when it was closed down and the manor house was blown up. The furnaces were blown up by the camp authorities on April 7, 1943. Two new furnaces were constructed in 1944 when the camp activities were resumed. At first, the ashes and remains of bones were removed from the ash-pit, ground in mortars, and thrown into ditches dug for the purpose; later, from 1943 onwards, bones and ashes were secretly carted to Zawadki at night and thrown into the river there.[3] A special SS Sonderkommando called Sonderkommando Kulmhof gassed people with exhaust fumes and then burnt them. It operated three gas vans using carbon monoxide.

Command structure

The SS and police carried out killing operations at Chełmno on the authority of the Higher SS and Police Leader for Wartheland District, SS General Wilhelm Koppe. Koppe entrusted the leadership of the special detachment deployed at Chełmno to SS Captain Herbert Lange of the Commander of Security Police and SD station in Poznan. Lange was replaced in April 1942 by SS-Captain Hans Bothmann. Lange and some of his fellow officers had had experience in mass murder of institutionalized Poles with disabilities in 1940. Under the leadership of Security Police and SD officers, the rank and file of the so-called Special Detachment (Sonderkommando) Lange -- later called the SS Special Detachment Bothmann -- was made up of Gestapo, Criminal Police, and Order Police personnel. The maximum strength of the Special Detachment was just under 100, of whom around 80 belonged to the Order Police.

Killings begin

The SS and police began killing operations at Chełmno on December 8, 1941. The first people brought to the camp to be murdered were the Jewish population of Kolo. These people had been collected from the ghetto on 6–7 December 1941 and housed in the synagogue there. The 2,000 Jewish inhabitants of Kolo were brought to Chelmno in stages by truck and gassed there. In late January 1942 the secretary of the local council, Stanisław Kaszyński, and his wife were arrested and executed three days later for trying to bring public attention to what was being perpetrated at the camp.

Murder procedure

Gas van in Chełmno extermination camp

During the first five weeks, the victims were Jewish residents of nearby areas in Wartheland District. The SS and police transported them by truck from the places in which they lived to the grounds of the manor house in Chełmno. Guarded by members of the Special Detachment, the victims disembarked one truck at a time in the courtyard of the manor house. SS officials, often wearing white coats to induce the impression that they were physicians, explained to the deportees that they would go to Germany as laborers, but first had to bathe and have their clothes disinfected. Occasionally they would be greeted by a German officer dressed as a local squire would be with a feather cap. He would thank them for coming and say some would be staying to work there. The Jews then entered the manor house. Once inside they were led to a heated first floor room where they undressed and handed over their valuables against receipts to a Polish civilian, who was employed by the special detachment. SS and police personnel led the naked prisoners to the cellar, where they had to walk down a ramp sloping into the back of a large paneled truck that could hold 50-70 people. When the back of the van was full, the doors were closed and sealed. The mechanic on duty attached a tube to the van’s exhaust pipe and then started the engine, pumping carbon monoxide gas into the space where the prisoners were crowded, killing them by asphyxiation. After the victims were dead, the tube was detached from the exhaust pipe, and the van, now full of corpses, was driven to the forest camp, where the bodies were transferred into previously excavated mass graves. Any victims found to be still alive as the corpses were being unloaded were shot by SS and police officials on duty at the forest camp.

Murder of Jews from the Łódź ghetto

On January 16, 1942, the SS and police began deportations from the Łódź ghetto. German officials transported the Jews from Łódź by train to Koło, six miles (10 km) northwest of Chełmno. There SS and police officials supervised the transfer of the Jews from the freight trains to a train running on a narrow-gauge track, which took them to the Powiercie station,[4] three miles (5 km) northwest of Chełmno. As round ups in Łódź normally took place in the morning, it was usually late afternoon by the time the victims arrived. Therefore they were taken to a disused mill at Zawadki some two kilometres from Powiercie where they spent the night.[5] The following morning the Jews were transported by truck in amounts which could be easily killed from Zawadki[6] to the manor-house camp, where they were forced to enter into the killing process.

In late July 1942 the victims were brought directly to the camp without the need to spend the night at Powiercie. This was because the railway line linking Koło with Dabie was restored as the bridge over the Rgilewka river was repaired.[7] The mill continued to be used if transports arrived late. The distance from the railway station at Chelmno to the death camp was only about seven hundred metres.


A few Jewish prisoners were selected from incoming transports to form a forced-labor detachment (Sonderkommando) of 50 to 60 men deployed at the forest camp. They removed corpses from the gas vans and buried them in the mass graves. Because the graves quickly filled and the smell of decomposing bodies began to permeate the surrounding area, including nearby villages, the SS and police ordered some time in the spring of 1942 that in future the bodies be burned on open air "ovens" made of concrete with pipes used for air ducts and long ash pans in the forest camp.[8] Jewish Sonderkommando members were also responsible for exhuming the graves and burning the previously interred bodies. In addition, they sorted the clothing of the victims and cleaned the vans. Another small detachment of about 15 Jews worked at the manor house, sorting and packing the belongings of the victims. Between eight and ten skilled handicraftsmen produced or repaired goods for the SS special detachment. Periodically, SS and police officials would kill the members of the Jewish special detachments and replace them with laborers selected from more recent transports.

Deportations to Chełmno

The SS and police conducted killing operations in Chełmno from December 8, 1941, until March 1943 and then again for a brief period in June-July 1944 in the forest camp. From early December 1941 until mid-January 1942, the SS and police deported Jews by truck from nearby towns and villages; the first transports included Jews from Koło, Dąbie, Sompolno, Kłodawa, Babiak, and Kowale Panskie.

From mid-January 1942, SS and police authorities deported Jews in crowded freight trains from the Łódź ghetto to Chełmno. These transports included Jews deported to Łódź from Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia, and Luxembourg. Throughout 1942, the SS and police continued to deport Jews from Wartheland district region to Chełmno and killed them there. Other victims murdered at the Chełmno killing center included several hundred Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. Many of the 5,000 Roma (Gypsies) who had been deported from Austria to the Łódź ghetto in 1941 were also among the first victims of Chełmno.

Destruction of certain facilities

After having annihilated almost all Jews residing in Wartheland District (aside from those remaining in the Łódź ghetto), the SS and police ceased transports to Chełmno in March 1943. Deploying surviving members of the Jewish special detachment, the SS and police demolished the manor house and the open air ovens in the forest camp and then shot the last Jewish forced laborers.

Killing operations resume

In June 1944, the Germans renewed deportations to Chełmno to facilitate the liquidation of the Łódź ghetto. The SS Special Detachment Bothmann returned to the forest camp and supervised renewed killing operations. After one night in the village of Chełmno, the 1944 victims were driven to the forest camp, where the camp authorities had constructed two reception huts and two open air ovens. SS and police officials guarded the Jewish victims as they undressed and gave up valuables. Then they killed the Jews either by asphyxiation in a gas van or by shooting. From mid-July 1944, the SS and police deported the remaining inhabitants of the Łódź ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Exhumation and destruction of the bodies of the murdered

Beginning in September 1944, a group of Jewish prisoners, presumably brought from outside the Wartheland District, was forced to exhume and cremate any remaining corpses from the mass graves at Chełmno as part of Operation 1005 and to obliterate any other evidence of mass murder operations. The SS and police shot about half of the 80-man detachment after this work was done in November 1944. The Germans abandoned the Chełmno killing center on January 17, 1945, as the Soviet army approached. The SS killed at least 152,000 people at Chełmno between December 1941 and March 1943 and in June/July 1944. (Note: a 1946–47 report places the number closer to 340,000[3]).


Adolf Eichmann testified about the camp during his trial. He visited in late 1942.

A gas-van driver named Walter Burmeister testified: [9]

As soon as the ramp had been erected in the castle, people started arriving in Kulmhof from Litzmannstadt (Łódź) in lorries... The people were told that they had to take a bath, that their clothes had to be disinfected and that they could hand in any valuable items beforehand to be registered...

When they had undressed they were sent to the cellar of the castle and then along a passageway on to the ramp and from there into the gas-van. In the castle there were signs marked "to the baths". The gas vans were large vans, about 4-5 metres [13-16 ft] long, 2.2 metres [7.2 ft] wide and 2 metres [6.5 ft] high. The interior walls were lined with sheet metal. 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 commando 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 where the bodies were unloaded. In the early days they were initially buried in mass graves, later incinerated... I then drove the van back to the castle and parked it there. Here it would be cleaned of the excretions of the people that had died in it. Afterwards it would once again be used for gassing.

Only two people are known to have survived Chelmno extermination camp: Mordechaï Podchlebnik and Simon Srebnik.

See also


  1. ^ Alan Heath The Nazi Death Camp at Chełmno nad Ner
  2. ^ Alan Heath Chelmno, the route of death
  3. ^ a b Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, “GERMAN CRIMES IN POLAND (Warsaw, 1946, 1947)”
  4. ^ Alan Heath Unloading the Victims
  5. ^ Alan Heath Route to Zawadka
  6. ^ Alan Heath The Warta at Zawadki
  7. ^ Alan Heath Bridge over Rgilewka
  8. ^ Alan Heath The Destruction of Corpses at Chelmno nad Ner
  9. ^ Ernst Klee, W. Dressen, V. Riess. The Good Old Days. The Free Press, NY, 1988., p. 219-220

External links

Coordinates: 52°09′27″N 18°43′43″E / 52.1575°N 18.72861°E / 52.1575; 18.72861



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