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Chelmno Extermination Camp

Highlighting: “Chelmno, A Small Village in Europe: The First Nazi Mass Extermination Camp” by Shmuel Krakowski. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem. 2009. ISBN: 978-965-308-322-5.

Chełmno is a small village in Kolo Country, Poland, approximately 30 miles northwest of Łódź along the Ner River, writes Shmuel Krakowski, who for many years directed the Yad Vashem Archives and served as a researcher at Yad Vashem’s  International Institute of Holocaust Research. After the Germans conquered Poland in September 1939, they renamed the city Kulmhof. This “placid village” became the first standing location for “intensive mass murder by gassing” with the ultimate goal of murdering European Jewry. After technical, administrative adjustments and improvements were completed, the methods were duplicated in the other extermination camps. As the Germans refined the process of annihilating Jews, the daily death toll increased from hundreds to thousands and then to tens of thousands within a short period. “The horrific practice had its start at Chełmno,” Krakowski noted.

The Germans decided that all the Jews living in the Reichsgau Wartheland (the Wartheland or the Warthegau for short) were to be murdered at Chelmno. After they occupied the western and central parts of Poland in 1939, they annexed the western portion of the country and divided it into three regions: Pomerania, the Warthegau, and Upper Silesia. In central Poland, they established a new administrative entity known as the Generalgouvernement with four districts: Warsaw, Lublin, Radom, and Krakow. The Warthegau, which was established on October 25, 1939, consisted of 43,905 square kilometers, and incorporated the former Polish districts of  Poznań (Posen), which was redivided into three districts: Łódź, Poznań and Inowrocław (Hohensalza in German). Before WWII, there we 420,000 Jews in the Warthegau residing in 150 towns and village, though the majority lived in Łódź, Poland’s second largest city known the  textile-manufacturing center. More than half of the Jews in Łódź worked in industry.

Poison Gas and Establishment Of the Camp

After having experimented with murdering Jews in gas vans that travelled to assemble Jews in each area, they realized that it would be far more efficient to establish permanent camps where Jews could be transported in order to murder them with poison gas in a stationary place. Hitler most likely ordered the camp to be built in late October or early November 1941. The murders began on December 8, 1941 and continued until March 1943 and then from June-July 1944. On January 17, 1945, the camp was vacated as the Russian Army was near.

The site was selected for several reasons. The primary one was because of the abandoned compound, containing an old palace near the edge of the village, approximately 50 meters from the road. There was easy access to the compound and the murders could be hidden from those in the area. The Ner River, which was 83 miles long and wide, precluded the Jews from escaping, although seven Jews did manage to escape. In addition to trucks being used to transport Jews, a “narrow -gauge” railway that passed by Chelmno could be employed to transport Jews the camp. The Nazis expelled most of the 250 Polish residents of the village and replaced them with Germans.

Evidence of Mass Murder

There is no exact number of Jews who were murdered at Chelmno or died of suffocation on their way in the freight trains or the trucks. Among the non-Jews who were murdered at the camp were 5,000 Gypsies. From data provided by railway workers, a Polish judge estimated that 330,000 were murdered at the camp. The reason for not having precise information is clear. Only a limited number of relevant documents about the camp exist, since the Germans went to out of their way to hide their crimes and destroyed as much evidence as possible. Yet some records did survive, including information about the transports that took Jews to the camp, which because of their organization and execution, were an integral part of the process of destruction. Significantly, the Jewish prisoners in the camp went to great lengths to alert the world about the camp and to document the extent of the murder being conducted there. From German and Jewish sources and transcripts from the trial of the Nazis, we know about what transpired at Chelmno, even though it is “still insufficiently comprehensive.”

A Final Note

The Germans managed to transform many formerly foreign locations into sites of mass murder that have now been forever etched in the memory of the Jewish people and the entire world Krakowski observed. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec, Babi Yar, and Ponary have become eternal symbols of humanity’s attempt to purge the Jews from the face of the earth. Among these infamous names, “the village of Chełmno commands a central place.”


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI).

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