Chelm­no and the Holo­caust: A His­to­ry of Hitler’s First Death Camp

Patrick Mon­tague
  • Review
By – June 18, 2012

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.

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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