Chelmno Death Camp

Site of the Schlosslager (Castle Camp)

Hill above village of Chelmno with river Ner in the background

Photo Credit: Alan Collins

Chelmno was a Nazi extermination camp located in the small Polish village of Chelmno nad Neren (Chelmno on the river Ner), 60 kilometers northwest of Lodz, a major city in what is now western Poland. The camp, which was opened by the Germans some time in October or November 1941, was in the Warthegau, a district in the part of Poland that had been annexed into the Greater German Reich after the joint conquest of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.

Chelmno was called Kulmhof by the Germans and Lodz was known by the German name Litzmannstadt. The Warthegau had been a part of the German state of Prussia between 1795 and 1871. After the German states united in 1871, the Warthegau was in Germany until after World War I when it was given back to the Poles.

The Jews were brought on trains to the village of Kolo, 14 kilometers from Chelmno. Kolo was the closest stop on the main railroad line from Lodz to Poznan. At Kolo, the victims were transferred to another train which took them on a narrow gauge railroad line 6 kilometers to the village of Powiercie. From Powiercie, the victims had to walk 1.5 kilometers through a forest to the village of Zawadka where they spent their last night locked inside a mill. They were then transported by trucks the next day to Chelmno.

Alan Collins, the photographer who took these photos, wrote the following with regard to the fate of the Jews at Chelmno:

The victims were driven to the Castle Site during phase 1 which stared in December 1941, though the building is sometimes described as a Manor House. They were made to undress after being told they were going to be resettled in the east but required a shower before they left. They were forced through the ground floor of the building and via a ramp into a specially constructed lorry which was waiting at the end of the building. The exhaust of the lorry could be directed into the rear of the vehicle. The lorry was driven to the Forest Site in the Rzuchowski Forest, about 4km away and the victims disposed of. To add to the horror the Manor House was blown up by the SS on the 7th April 1943 with a group of victims inside the building. These people had arrived unexpectedly late and it was feared by the Germans that they had typhus so they were ordered to go to the first floor of the building which was blown up with them inside.

The photo below shows the location of the former Chelmno Castle camp. The Manor house or Castle was between the two buildings shown in the photo below. In the building on the left is a small Museum and the building on the right is the former granary used for storing grain. The Museum features old photos of the camp with all of the captions in Polish.

Manor house was formerly located between these two buildings

Photo Credit: Alan Collins

Tombstones stacked against the wall of the Museum

Photo Credit: Alan Collins

The Chelmno Schlosslager had neither prisoner barracks nor factories; its sole purpose was to murder Jews and Roma who were not capable of working at forced labor for the Nazis. In 1939, there were around 385,000 Jews living in the Warthegau; those who could work were sent to the Lodz ghetto where they labored in textile factories which made uniforms for the German army.

On January 16, 1942, deportations from the Lodz ghetto began; records from the ghetto show that 54,990 people were deported before the final liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944. The Jewish leader of the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, compiled the lists of people to be deported, although he had no knowledge that they were being sent to their deaths at Chelmno.

The gassing of the Jews at Chelmno was carried out in two separate phases. In the first phase, between December 7, 1941 and April 1943, Jews from the surrounding area and the Lodz ghetto were brought to Chelmno and killed on the day after their arrival. Although the Nazis destroyed all records of the Chelmno camp, it is alleged that around 15,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma, who were deported from Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg, were brought to Chelmno to be killed in this remote spot.

The victims of the Nazis at Chelmno also included Polish citizens and Soviet Prisoners of War. The POWs were taken directly to the Rzuchowski forest where they were shot. The Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem has a list of 12 names of children from Lidice who were sent to Chelmno, although other sources claim that the number of orphans from Lidice was far higher. These were children whose parents had been killed when the Czech village of Lidice was completely destroyed in a reprisal action after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Foundation of former Manor house called "the Castle"

Photo Credit: Alan Collins

After the first phase of the murder of the Jews at Chelmno ended, the Castle was blown up on April 7, 1943 by the SS. What is left of the foundation of the building is shown in the photo above. The second phase of the killing at Chelmno began in May or June 1944. Exact information about Chelmno is scanty because all the records were destroyed and there were only four Jewish survivors.

During this second phase, the Jews were housed in the Chelmno church on their last night of life. The church is shown in the photo below.

Church at Chelmno where the Jews spent their last night

Photo Credit: Alan Collins

The first phase of the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto began on June 23, 1944 and continued until July 14, 1944. Records kept by the Judenrat (Jewish leaders) in Lodz show that 7,716 Jews left the ghetto during this period of time. Upon arrival at Chelmno, the Jews from Lodz were told that they were going to be taken to Germany to remove the rubble from the streets of German cities following the Allied bombing raids. Instead, they were loaded into vans and killed with carbon monoxide from gasoline engines. In August 1944, the remaining Jews in the Lodz ghetto, except for a few who hid from the Nazis, were sent to either Chelmno or Auschwitz. A few who were sent to Auschwitz survived only because the gassing operation there stopped at the end of October 1944.

The building in the background is the granary

Photo Credit: Alan Collins

The Jewish workers, called the JudenKommando, who did the work of burning the corpses at Chelmno, were housed in the granary during the second phase of the killing at Chelmno. The granary is shown in the background of the photo above.

On the night of January 17 and 18, 1945, the SS men began taking the 47 Jewish workers out of the granary building and shooting them in groups of five, according to the two survivors, Shimon Srebnik and Mordechai Zurawski. The Jews defended themselves and two of the SS men were killed. According to the survivors, the SS men then set fire to the granary.