'The commander was an absolute pioneer in gassing Jews'

80 years ago this month, Nazis invented ‘industrial murder’ at quiet Chelmno

In a small Polish village outside Lodz, German SS leaders discovered how to bring the Jewish genocide ‘to scale’ and hide evidence of their crimes by cremating the human remains

Jewish children deported from Lodz ghetto to Chelmno death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland (public domain)
Jewish children deported from Lodz ghetto to Chelmno death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland (public domain)

When the Nazi death camp Chelmno began operations 80 years ago this month, a new phase of the Holocaust was launched in a small Polish village along the Vistula River.

At Chelmno, home to 35 families, the German SS pioneered methods of mass murder later deployed at death camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Known as Kulmhof in German, the killing site was also home to experiments in corpse disposal on an industrial scale.

In the Reichsgau — or Nazi-made administrative subdivision — of Warthegau, which surrounded Chelmno and included industrial Lodz, the Germans played elaborate shell games to deceive victims and bystanders. Tactics included issuing contradictory messages and forcing victims to send postcards with fake destinations.

“The SS covered up where the Jews were going to,” said historian Nicholas Terry, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter. “The theme of deception and secrecy allows us to see what it meant for the perpetrators, the bystanders, and the victims.”

The first Jews gassed at Chelmno were deported from provincial ghettos during early December 1941. For many months into 1942, most Jews in the Warthegau region’s 57 ghettos believed deportees were headed for labor and resettlement.

Among Nazi death camps, Chelmno was the first to deploy gas. Inside custom-rigged “mobile killing vans,” vehicle exhaust was funneled into a sealed compartment where up to 50 victims were packed. At least 172,000 Jews were murdered at Chelmno during two periods of the camp’s operation, as well as 5,000 Roma and Sinti people.

Memorials at former ‘Forest Camp’ at Chelmno, where victims were buried and later cremated, 2017 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

To confuse the outside world as well as Jews imprisoned in the region’s ghettos, some transports were sent back and forth between — for example — Germany, Lodz, and places east of Lodz, camouflaging Chelmno as the true destination.

“These reports of Jews being resettled were widely believed outside Europe,” Terry said. “And at the end of the war, there was a hope against hope that more Jews had survived.”

The German strategy of “toying with the outside world” inevitably led to degrees of “self-deception” among victims and bystanders, said Terry. For example, only after the Germans demanded the Lodz ghetto Jewish council hand over thousands of children for deportation did most Jews realize “resettlement” meant death.

War crimes investigators examine a burned-out mover van near Chelmno, of the type used by the SS to murder people (public domain)

“The uncertainty has not been emphasized as much, in terms of the bystander responses,” said Terry, adding that Chelmno has been “overshadowed” in general.

“It is one of the best-documented killing sites,” said Terry, pointing to German documents, among others, on materials used to make “field ovens” that cremated corpses. There are also “a multiplicity” of eyewitness accounts of gassings at Chelmno, said Terry, including one given by a Jewish prisoner who escaped the death camp in 1942 and fled to Warsaw.

‘An absolute pioneer’

At Chelmno, Jews were taken to a dilapidated schloss, or castle, and greeted in the courtyard by the so-called “squire of the manor.”

For the first time in the Holocaust, people were told they must take disinfection showers before the journey’s next stage. After being forced through a narrow corridor in the basement, victims were packed into what appeared to be a small room.

Jews en route to Chelmno death camp from Kolo, where they transferred to a narrow-gauge rail and wagon cars (public domain)

Before people had time to react, the wagon was sealed and the engine started. After a 20-minute drive through town to the “Forest Camp,” the asphyxiated victims were unloaded and buried by Jewish prisoners. Every few weeks, the team of prisoners was executed to ensure secrecy.

“The role played by Chelmno in the Holocaust was pivotal,” researcher Chris Webb told The Times of Israel. “For example, the camp’s first commander Herbert Lange was an absolute pioneer in the development of gas vans.”

An amateur historian, Webb has researched Chelmno and the three Aktion Reinhard (Operation Reinhard) death camps — Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka — for more than 40 years. His books include “The Chelmno Death Camp,” co-authored with the late Artur Hojan.

“The only difference between Chelmno and the Aktion Reinhard camps is that Chelmno used vans instead of static gas chambers,” said Webb.

German soldiers help deport Jews from Zychlin ghetto to Chelmno death camp (public domain)

After the three Reinhard camps surpassed Chelmno’s capacity for murder in the summer of 1942, SS officers reinvented the village-based killing center with a new task: Germany might not win the war, so evidence of the Final Solution — specifically corpses — had to be exhumed and destroyed at death camps and hundreds of mass graves throughout Eastern Europe.

At Chelmno, Paul Blobel of the SS carried out gruesome experiments involving flamethrowers and incendiary bombs. Eventually, he settled on using railroad tracks stacked with layers of corpses and firewood. Methodically, Blobel created “improvised crematoria” that were more sophisticated than crematoria at the Reinhard camps, said Terry.

‘Working toward the Fuhrer’

Chelmno is arguably the most obscure death camp, but there are more physical traces of the Holocaust at the village than exist at most killing sites, according to experts.

‘Schloss’ manor house converted into part of the death camp at Chelmno, as seen in 1939, two years before the SS began using mobile killing vans on-site (public domain)

“There’s more to see at Chelmno than at Treblinka,” said Webb, referring to the Aktion Reinhard camp where 900,000 Jews were murdered. At Treblinka, no structures associated with the genocide stand today. Decades ago, 17,000 quarry stones were placed atop the mass graves to evoke communities destroyed there.

By way of contrast to Treblinka, Chelmno remains largely as it looked during the war, including the church where victims were held overnight during summer 1944 transports from Lodz. The manor house was blown up by the Nazis in 1943, before the camp’s second phase of operation, but the basement’s foundations and a staircase have been excavated.

From the perspective of Terry, Chelmno is a “spatially diffused site” with a “staggeringly multi-staged killing process,” he said. “It’s almost a misnomer to call it a camp. It’s an extermination site.”

Despite Chelmno’s confusing layout, it was easy for villagers to piece together what took place there, said Terry. In the spring of 1942, townspeople witnessed victims falling out of an overturned gas van. For months, stench and smoke wafted in from the Forest Camp cremation pyres, while the camp’s German guards were billeted with families in town.

War crimes investigation photo of Jewish victims’ belongings left at the Kolo synagogue, where Jews were imprisoned overnight before transport to the Chelmno death camp (public domain)

Chelmno’s SS officers “worked toward the Fuhrer” — Nazi-speak for administrators to anticipate and execute Hitler’s orders beforehand. When it came to solving the “Jewish question,” Chelmno’s leaders improvised the transition from open-air massacres in the east to what became death camps with fixed gas chambers, a more centralized and discreet model.

“At Chelmno we saw there was a degree of decentralization and improvisation in the genocide of European Jews,” said Terry. “Regional authorities could improvise or experiment.”

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