Chelm­no: A Small Vil­lage in Europe: The First Nazi Exter­mi­na­tion Camp

Shmuel Krakows­ki
  • Review
By – September 26, 2011

Locat­ed in the small vil­lage of Chelm­no (not to be con­fused with the city of the same name), in Kolo Coun­ty, Poland, the infa­mous death camp was renamed Kul­mhof by the Ger­mans fol­low­ing the occu­pa­tion of Poland. Although the Holo­caust is often asso­ci­at­ed with Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobi­bor, and Tre­blin­ka, among oth­er venues of mass mur­der, Chelm­no holds a cen­tral place in the his­to­ry of the Shoah. Chelm­no, which became oper­a­tive on Decem­ber 8, 1941, was the first per­ma­nent death camp where Jews were killed by poi­son gas on a mass scale. Indeed, Chelm­no was the Nazis’ major killing ground for Jews in the Warthe­gau region of the annexed part of Ger­man-occu­pied Poland. Pri­or to the camp’s found­ing, the Ger­mans had intro­duced gas vans in Poland, which trav­elled from place to place col­lect­ing Jews for mass mur­der. Sub­se­quent­ly, the Nazi per­pe­tra­tors con­clud­ed that it would be more effi­cient to estab­lish per­ma­nent exter­mi­na­tion camps and trans­port the Jews to these sites in order to gas them. 

This entire sor­did his­to­ry is told in detail by Shmuel Krakows­ki in his impor­tant account of Chelm­no which, com­pared to Auschwitz and the Aktion Rein­hard death camps, has had lit­tle writ­ten about it in the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the Holo­caust. This vac­u­um has been ably filled by Krakows­ki, who was born in War­saw and dur­ing the Holo­caust was con­fined with his fam­i­ly in the Lodz ghet­to. Sub­se­quent­ly, he was interned in Auschwitz and Buchen­wald. Fol­low­ing the war, Krakows­ki went on to receive his doc­tor­ate at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem and lat­er direct­ed the Yad Vashem Archives for many years.

Krakowski’s con­nec­tion to Chelm­no stems from the fact that no his­to­ry of the death camp can be writ­ten with­out fac­tor­ing in its rela­tion­ship to the Lodz ghet­to. In the first five months of 1942, for exam­ple, some 55,000 men, women, and chil­dren were deport­ed from the ghet­to and mur­dered in Chelm­no. Dur­ing the same five-month peri­od, 9,573 peo­ple died in the ghet­to of star­va­tion and epi­demics; thus the com­bi­na­tion of trans­ports to Chelm­no and mass mor­tal­i­ty sub­ject­ed the ghet­to to grad­ual phys­i­cal eradication.

Few sources exist about the Chelm­no camp, per­haps explain­ing the pauci­ty of research on the sub­ject. The Ger­mans, states Krakows­ki, went to great lengths to keep secret all traces of mass mur­der, and toward that end they destroyed much of the rel­e­vant doc­u­men­ta­tion. Nev­er­the­less, some doc­u­ments have sur­vived which, to the extent pos­si­ble, enabled Krakows­ki to describe the events relat­ed to the mur­der oper­a­tions and the func­tion­ing of the camp. 

Oth­er sources that inform us about dai­ly life in Chelm­no came from Jew­ish inmates from the camp who lan­guished under the most appalling of con­di­tions,” yet made every effort to doc­u­ment the events that tran­spired in Chelm­no. Accord­ing to Krakows­ki, these efforts were suc­cess­ful, as reports about Chelm­no appeared dur­ing the war and serve as valu­able doc­u­men­ta­tion about the death camp. But this is not all. Invalu­able doc­u­men­ta­tion about the camp’s his­to­ry and the gassing is con­tained in the tran­scripts of the tri­als of Nazis who were sta­tioned in Chelm­no. Both the Nazis them­selves and the local res­i­dents from the Chelm­no camp vicin­i­ty tes­ti­fied at these tri­als. By draw­ing on these three types of doc­u­men­ta­tion — the Ger­man, the Jew­ish, and the tri­al tran­scripts (much of the tes­ti­mo­ny is includ­ed in his book)— Krakows­ki achieves a more pen­e­trat­ing look, albeit still insuf­fi­cient­ly com­pre­hen­sive, at the hor­ror known as Chelmno.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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