Chelmno and the Holocaust: A History of Hitler's First Death Camp
University of North Carolina Press
This prodigious work of scholarship draws on the eye-witness testimony of the Chelmno death camp’s operations as seen by surviving Jewish prisoners, the records of the perpetrators, and the memories of the local villagers. Chelmno was the first of the Nazi camps that used gas to murder their victims.
Montague, an independent scholar, used a Fulbright fellowship in Poland to conduct the initial research for this work which took him twenty years to complete. He begins by describing the Nazi euthanasia in Germany, which was initiated with the outbreak of war in 1939, and then continued with the invasion and defeat of Poland in the same year. Hitler’s order to murder “useless eaters” resulted in the death of thousands of asylum inmates, chronically ill patients, and other German “lives deemed unworthy of living.” The technicians who supervised these killings were subsequently sent to Poland, where they carried out the murder of mostly Jews and Gypsies in Chelmno, although Poles were also among the victims.
Before the construction of the Aktion Reinhard death camps Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, the SS at Chelmno were perfecting the use of gas for killing by using stationary trucks located in a mansion in Chelmno (Kulmhof). Victims were ushered into the back of the vans, the doors were then sealed and poison gas was released into the crowded “cargo” section, killing all within minutes. The trucks then proceeded to a wooded area outside of Chelmno where the bodies were unloaded by mostly Jewish prisoners and incinerated in makeshift wooden crematoria. Most of the Jews who were killed were deported from the close-by Lodz ghetto. Montague informs us that it is difficult to ascertain just how many Jews and others were killed in Chelmno but estimates around 160,000 to 200,000.
Embedded in this chilling history are portraits of the SS perpetrators, such as Herbert Lange and Hans Bothmann, the camp commandants, but also Arthur Greiser, the chief administrator of the Warthegau, the western part of annexed Poland, who personally sought the murder of 100,000 Jews, and the like-minded Hans Biebow, the administrator of the Lodz ghetto, who made a personal fortune from extorting the Jews of Lodz and the valuables of those murdered in Chelmno.
In chronicling the history of the first Nazi extermination camp at Chelmno, Montague shows how the camp broke the psychological barrier for establishing subsequent factories of death, and became the model for death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz.
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