chelmno kommandantur

Chelmno Kommandantur

The death camp in the village of Chelmno in the Kolo County in central Poland became operational on 8 December 1941. The name given by the German occupation authorities to Chelmno was Kulmhof. The entire Jewish population from the Warthegau was to be exterminated there by means of poisonous gases. The Wartheland, a territory incorporated into the Third Reich, included both the Wielkopolska and the Lodz Provinces. The reasons for choosing the village of Chelmno as a site for an extermination camp included – its location by the road connecting the town of Kolo The town was called Warthbrücken during the occupation, an important regional centre, with a Jewish population of approximately 2300 people. Kolo station played an integral part in the history of Chelmno, as it was on the main line between Lodz and Poznan.

 Deportees arrived from Lodz and other places in the Warthegau in closed cattle wagons. Here they were transferred to the narrow gauge railway for the trip to Powercie, and then by truck or foot onto Chelmno. Another reason for choosing Chelmno was its proximity to a forest and to an abandoned palace on the edge of the village just 150 meters off the road. Thus the access to the palace was convenient, and at the same time the distance from the road was far enough to avoid unwanted outsiders. The palace was renovated and adapted to receive the intended victims. The church near the palace was transformed into a point for the concentration of victims before they were directed into the camp. The granary and several other buildings were also part of the death camp. The Ner River flowed by the church, although it was not very deep, it posed a serious obstacle for potential runaways and made it easier for the guards to isolate the camp. The village of Powiercie, eight kilometres from Chelmno, is linked to Kolo by a narrow- gauge railway. Thus the Nazis could transport their victims by trucks, as well as by rail.

 The palace in Chelmno was one of two extermination facilities. The second one was located in the clearings in the Rzuchow Forest, four kilometres from the palace. The bodies of the murdered Jews were buried in mass graves in three clearings, referred to as the Forest Camp (Waldlager) Later at this location the Germans built crematories in order to obliterate the evidence of their crimes. For the purpose of mass killing specially adapted trucks were deployed. Such trucks had been previously used by the Einsatzgruppen, who carried out mass killings in the Soviet Union. The vehicles were reinforced to carry heavy loads and equipped with tightly sealed doors. The exhaust pipe was redirected to a vent in the middle of the truck, which would fill the rear compartment completely with gas. The camp at Chelmno had three such vehicles at its disposal.

 In the beginning of November 1941 two groups of Nazis arrived in Chelmno, they formed the personnel of the Chelmno death camp. The first small group consisted of 15 people – members of the Sicherheitspolizei. These were SS-men earlier employed in the centre of mass extermination of the ill and handicapped in Dzialdowo, Warminsko- Mazurskie Province. About 25,000 people suffering from tuberculosis, mainly Poles were executed there as part of Hitler’s Euthanasia ProgramThe other group consisted of about 100 people – members of the Schutzpolizei from a battalion stationed in Lodz.  Both groups formed the personnel of the camp called the “Sonderkommando Kulmhof”. SS- Hauptsturmführer Herbert Lange, the commander of the group of the Sicherheitspolizei, became the commandant of the camp. Because of this fact, the name “Sonderkommando Lange” often appears in some German documents. After a few months Lange was transferred from Chelmno and his post was filled by SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Bothmann, SS-Obersturmführer Herbert Otto became the second in command.

 All the commanding posts were held by the SS-men from the Sicherheitspolizei. A group of gendarmes from the Schutzpolizei was divided into three sub-units called commandos. These were the transport commando, the palace commando, and the forest commando. The first of these sub- units was responsible for escorting the deported prisoners from the railway station in the village of Powiercie, as well as guarding those brought directly to Chelmno. The palace commando kept guard of the victims already in the grounds of the palace. The forest commando was responsible for sentry duty around the camp grounds in the Rzuchow Forest, burning and burying the corpses, as well as obliterating the traces of the crimes committed there.  A group of eight Polish prisoners from the Fort VII in Poznan was assigned to assist the camp personnel. Their names were Lech Jaskolski, Marian Libelt, Henryk Maliczak, Henryk Mania, Franciszek Piekarski, Stanislaw Polubinski, Kajetan Skrzypczynski, Stanislaw Szymanski.

 The Chelmno death camp was under the direct command of SS- Gruppenführer Wilhelm Koppe, the SS and Police Leader in the Warthegau, who was under the direct command of Heinrich Himmler, but Koppe in many cases acted in co-operation with Artur Greiser the Gauleiter of the Warthegau. On 8 December 1941 the first victims were brought to Chelmno death camp. These were Jews from the nearby ghetto in Kolo, The previous day all the residents of the Kolo Ghetto were ordered to assemble in front of the Jewish Council building (Judenrat) which was located next to the local synagogue. They were told they would be transported to different places in order to work in the fields and construct a railway. They were allowed to take hand baggage only. The Jews from Kolo had already experienced brutal deportations to the forced labour camps. When they assembled in front of the Jewish Council building they thought the worst thing that could happen to them was another deportation to a forced labour camp. They were aware of the consequences of being deported during a severe winter, yet they could not predict the horrors awaiting them. That day 800 Jews from Kolo, in groups of dozens, were transported in trucks to Chelmno. None of the 800 Jews survived. The Jews from Kolo led to the trucks had no idea of the final destination of their journey. Neither could they imagine what was going to happen to them in a few hours time. They must have been confused when after a short drive the trucks came to a halt in front of the closed gate leading to Chelmno palace. A German guard opened the gate, let the trucks in, and the gate was closed again. Since then, there was no way out. The fate of the Jews had already been sealed.

 In the courtyard everybody was ordered to get off the trucks with their hand baggage. The SS-men in the courtyard did not show any signs of brutality. On the contrary, the commandant Lange spoke to the newcomers in a comforting manner. They were told that they would be assigned to work in a labour camp in Austria. Before, the long journey, however they had to wash themselves in the bathhouse and their clothes had to be disinfected. After the reassuring speech the Jews were ordered to leave their baggage in the courtyard and go into a heated hall on the ground floor of the palace. There, all the personal belongings were collected in the baskets carried by Polish prisoners. In order to keep up appearances, the belongings were numbered and the numbers were written down in a notebook, next to the names of the owners. Even at this stage, the SS-men were still succeeding in misleading their victims. From the hall the Jews in groups of 35 –40 were led through a staircase to a corridor at the end of which there was a door to two linked rooms. There, the people were told to undress. Armed SS-men made sure the orders were carried out properly. The naked Jews were then led through a brightly –lit corridor, on whose walls were the inscriptions “To the bath-house”. The same inscriptions could be found along the staircase leading to a brightly-lit basement.

 However, the next stages happened much faster. Armed members of the Schutzpolizei began to rush the people brutally in the direction of the back entrance of the palace. There was a wooden ramp guarded by a two metre –high fence. The rushed Jews started to sense the danger, they could not however realise, what kind of danger it was. Whoever attempted to stop before the ramp was violently pushed into it by the armed Germans. Those already on the ramp quickly moved towards the bottom of it. It was impossible to withdraw or even pause for a second. The ramp led to a vehicle – a gas van with the back door opened. The victims were thus moving along the ramp straight to the inside of the gas-van. The moment the last of the group of 35 –40 victims stepped into the vehicle, the German soldiers locked the hermetic door. Then the driver connected the exhaust pipe with a vent in the floor of the gas chamber. After the engine had been started, the exhaust gases spread quickly within the chamber suffocating the people locked inside. The driver then took the suffocated victims to the forest camp (Waldlager) where the corpses were buried in the graves prepared in advance. The drivers were usually SS-NCO’s Walter Burmeister and Gustav Laabs. The personnel of the Chelmno death camp applied the procedure on a daily basis from 8 December 1941 to spring 1943, with hardly any intervals.

 Having murdered the Jewish people from Kolo, the German authorities went on with the extermination of all the Jews from nearby locations such as Dabie, Nowiny Brdowskie, Klodawa and Izbica Kujawska. They too perished in Chelmno. Between 5 January and 12 January 1942 about 4,300 Gypsies were transported to Chelmno and murdered. They belonged to the Lalleri tribe and came from Austria. In the first days of November 1941 they had already been deported to Lodz and imprisoned in the Gypsy camp consisting of a few blocks within the ghetto. The camp was guarded by the gendarmes from the 132ndSchutzpolizei battalion and commanded by Eugen Jansen. After a short time many of the Gypsies died of hunger and extremely poor sanitary conditions. The survivors were to be exterminated in Chelmno. They were brought in groups and murdered in the same manner as the Jews from the nearby towns. None of them remained alive.

 The next community to be murdered were the residents of the Lodz Ghetto.  

Deportations to the Chelmno death camp began on 16 January 1942 and lasted, with short intervals, until 15 May 1942. During this period 55,000 people were deported from Lodz Ghetto and murdered in Chelmno.The exceptional character of the deportations during this period was marked by the fact that they were carried out on the basis of lists of names prepared by the Jewish Council, whose Chairman was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. The deportations were carried out under false pretence of deportations to the forced labour camps. Any protests against the orders of the German authorities would lead to the liquidation of the ghetto, according to Rumkowski. Deportations of the Jews from Lodz Ghetto were carried out simultaneously with the liquidations of the ghettos in smaller towns of the Warthegau. However, after the first wave of the liquidations the German authorities decided to keep part of the Jewish communities in live in order to use them for forced labour. Brutal deportations now included a selection process – choosing the fit and healthy ones for forced labour. Those not selected for work were transported to Chelmno and murdered there. The people selected from the adjacent ghetto numbered 18,500 who were transferred to the Lodz Ghetto. Hans Biebow the German Chief of the Ghetto Administration played a major part in the selection process.

 By the end of summer 1942 all the ghettos in the Warthegau apart from Lodz Ghetto, had been liquidated. Among the victims brought to Chelmno the Germans from time to time selected groups of 30 young and strong men. They were used to form the so-called labour commando (Arbeitskommando) after being separated from the rest, who were put to death in the gas-vans. The fate of the members of the labour commando was to appear the most unfortunate of all. Their legs were shackled in order to prevent them from escaping. At night they were locked in a guarded cellar. After some time they were executed by a firing squad and replaced with newcomers. Some of them were employed as craftsmen providing services for the Chelmno camp personnel as well as maintenance work and collecting clothes left by the murdered victims. The fate of the others was much more tragic. Every day they were driven to the Forest Camp (Waldlager) in the Rzuchow forest. Tortured by the SS-men, they were forced to pull the dead bodies out of the gas-vans and bury them in mass graves.

 Whilst there is no idea of how many unsuccessful escape attempts there were, it is known that only four people managed to escape from the death camp at Chelmno. One of the four men was called Szlamek Bajler, also known as Yakov Grojanowski, who left the camp on 19 January 1942, after two weeks of forced labour as a grave- digger. He managed to reach the Warsaw Ghetto and made contacts with the Jewish Underground, and his written account of Chelmno death camp, is preserved in the Underground archives of the Warsaw Ghetto known as the Ringelblum Archives. Other escapees from Chelmno were Michal Podchlebnik, from Kolo who escaped and hid in Rzeszow till the end of the war, and Mordechai Zurawski from Wloclawek and Simon Srebrnik from Lodz, who both escaped from the Granary on 17 January 1945.

 Having liquidated all the Jewish communities in the Warthegau apart from Lodz, the German authorities decided to decrease the size of the Lodz Ghetto even more, they ordered the deportation of the children, the old and those who were ill, or in hospital. Between 5 September and 12 September 1942, no one was allowed to leave their houses, the infamous Gehsperre Aktion. Units of the German police searched the ghetto thoroughly apartment by apartment. Children, the old and ill were loaded into trucks with extreme brutality. Those who opposed were killed on the spot. The selected were taken to Chelmno and slain there. Almost 20,000 residents of the Lodz Ghetto were added to the Chelmno death camp toll. Deportations to Chelmno death camp were accompanied by the confiscation of all personal property, which was transported to a storehouse in Pabiance, which they were distributed among the German community who had resettled in the Warthegau.

 In March 1943 a decision was made to close down the Chelmno death camp, and on 7 April 1943 the Germans blew up the palace, along with a transport of Jews infected with typhus. The Germans who were afraid of being infected, ordered the Jews up to the first storey of the palace, whilst dynamite was placed in the basement, and the building was blown up. On 11 April 1943 the German personnel left Chelmno. After a month off, they were sent to Yugoslavia to form the SS-Division “Prinz Eugen”, whose role was to fight partisans. However, before the personnel left the camp, a party was organised by Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of Wartheland, in the “Riga” restaurant in Kolo (Warthbrücken) during March 1943. Greiser was the host and the main speaker at the party. The party attended by a large number of local German dignitaries, and marked the occasion of ending the camps activity, and Greiser wrote to Heinrich Himmler – RFSS, on 19 March 1943, praising the men of “Sonderkommando Kulmhof” and offering them the use of his private estate during their leave.Greiser visited Chelmno death camp personally to thank the Commando on their work, as did Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, who visited Paul Blobel in Chelmno in September 1942 to witness the extermination process, and the disposal of corpses. Adolf Eichmann also visited Chelmno in January 1942, just before the Wannsee Conference and he reported his findings to Gruppenführer Müller in Berlin.

 In the spring of 1944 the German authorities decided to liquidate the Lodz Ghetto – at that time the last ghetto in the occupied Polish territories. The remaining 80,000 of its residents were to be exterminated over the coming months. To achieve this the forest camp was reactivated and the “Bothmann –Kommando” was recalled from Yugoslavia. Hans Bothmann was appointed Commandant and SS-Hauptscharführer Walter Piller was appointed Deputy Commandant. Two barracks built within the forest camp took over the functions of the destroyed palace. Those from Lodz to be executed were first brought to Kolo by train then by narrow gauge railroad to Chelmno station, or by trucks direct to Chelmno. They were held in the church next to the palace, which also housed Bothmann’s car.  From the church the victims were taken to the forest camp in lorries. They were taken to the front of one of the barracks built by the Sonderkommando, each of which consisted of two rooms, one for men and another for women, which had pegs and shelves for hanging clothes. The building was surrounded with a wooden fence. The Jews were ordered to line up in front of the barracks. In the forest there were only two barracks, which were about 20 meters long and about 10 meters wide.


In order to make the camp look like a larger temporary camp, the barracks were equipped with signs reading barracks numbers, and the gate had a sign that read “ To the Bathhouse”, while on the wall inside the barracks was a sign that read “To the Doctor”. In addition on both doors there were signs that read “Dressing Room” for men and women respectively. After 25-30 Jews got out the trucks and everyone was lined up in front of the barracks according to gender, the Jews were told they would have to work for Germany. They would go to cities such as Leipzig, Cologne etc.

 To avoid complications and to speed up the undressing, they were further informed that they would be living in newly built barracks, and as much as possible with their entire families, but first they had to be deloused. To make them undress quickly, they were also told that the transports would leave that very day and they should hurry up. Valuables were to be placed on the shelves above the pegs, while bread, tobacco and matches and lighters were to be wrapped in handkerchiefs or small bags and placed separately, because the filthy clothes had to be cleaned chemically and any valuables left in the pockets would have been burnt. When everyone had stripped naked, first the women, followed immediately by the men, had to go through a door with a sign “To the Bathhouse”.

Behind the door there was a passage about 20-25 meters long and a meter and a half wide, enclosed with a fence made of wooden planks. The passage turned at a hard right angle and led to a ramp. Near the ramp was an enclosed gas-van, which the Jews had to enter. When 70 –90 people were inside the vehicle, the doors were closed and the loaded truck headed for the furnace located 200 meters away. While travelling Laabs the driver left the vent open so that the exhaust gases passed into the sealed compartment and killed the people inside in about six minutes. The furnaces were built by SS- Hauptscharführer Runge, with the help of Jewish workers from the Lodz Ghetto, he supervised one whilst Lenz was responsible for the other one. The furnace was described in testimony given by former prisoner Mordechai Zurawski in 1945: In the forest there were two identical crematoriums. The tops of the crematoria were at the ground level (they formed a pit). The furnaces were four meters deep, six meters wide, and ten meters long. The sides of the furnace gradually narrowed towards the bottom and in the place where they reached the grate. The width was approximately one meter and the length one and half meters. The grate was made of the rails from a narrow –gauge railroad track, the side was made from chamotte brick and concrete. Under the grate, there was an ash pit linked with another pit to ensure the proper flow of air to the furnace. A layer of wood was set on fire, on which dead bodies were placed. The corpses had to be arranged in such a way that they did not touch one another. In the lowest lever there were twelve people. Their bodies were then covered with another layer of chipped wood and another layer of corpses. In this way the furnace could hold up to 100 bodies at a time. As the corpses burnt down, the free space created at the top was filled with another layer of bodies and wood. The corpses burnt quickly, they turned to ash in more or less fifteen minutes. The ash was then removed from the ash pit with pokers of a special type. These were long iron poles with a forty- centimetre –long iron plate at the end.

 Removing the ash was a difficult and hazardous job. No one could keep on with it longer than two or three days, after which the worker was unable to continue and was killed. The bones and ashes were packed in sacks made of blankets brought by the Jews on transports. But first the bones had to be crushed with wooden stamps on a special cement foundation. The sacks were driven out of the forest at night to Zawadka Mill and thrown into the River Warta. One of the furnaces was destroyed by August 1944 whilst the other furnace was destroyed in January 1945” The end of the SS-Sonderkommando came on the 17 January 1945, one night on the orders of Bothmann the whole unit was woken up and had to assemble. There they learnt from Bothmann that the Red Army had occupied Lodz, and the unit had to be dissolved immediately.

 Mordechai Zurawski testified:

 On the night of 17 January 1945, the doors to the room in the Granary where about 20 Jews slept were opened; the rest slept upstairs above this room. Two SS –men entered, Lenz and Haase, shining their electric flashlights, and they ordered us to leave in fives. After the first five went out, we heard five shots, we were sure they were killed and so when another five were called, nobody wanted to go. So the SS-men forced them out, and again we heard five shots. I was supposed to go with the third group of five, that’s when I grabbed a knife that I had hidden and I knocked the flashlight out of Lenz’s hand. I started running away waving the knife to the right to the left. The closest SS-man hit me on my left leg with the butt of a gun, but I kept on running. They started shooting at me from all sides, I was shot in the right leg, but finally managed to get away. After I ran for about three kilometers, I noticed the building we lived in was on fire. Apparently the SS-men set it on fire. I also heard single shots – they shot at those jumping out of the flames, which I learnt about later.

 Walter Piller testified:

 So the prison remained in the palace courtyard in Chelmno with 40-45 Jewish workers. First the lower cell was opened to shoot those 20-25 Jews in front of the prison building. Every few minutes Lenz led five Jews outside at a time – then Bothmann, Lenz and I killed them with a shot to the back of the head.

 -While the third group was coming out of the prison, one of the Jews escaped – he was a cook and all I know is that his first name is Maks (Mordechai Maks Zurawski).Despite the chase taken up by Bothmann, an SS-member and four officers of the reserve forces, Maks managed to escape. In the guardhouse I informed all the gendarmerie posts, via telephone about the search, but he was not caught.

 Before Bothmann and the five other men started the chase, he ordered me to take care of the rest of the labour unit with a shot to the back of the head. Lenz brought out the remaining five from the lower cell. They were killed by Lenz and myself. But there were still the 20 craftsmen left in the upper cell. Without my order, Lenz took a certain Wachtmeister Schupo to the upper cell so that five Jews could be removed and shot in the same way as with the lower cell. As soon as Lenz opened the cell door, four Jews threw themselves at him and pulled him into the cell. Then they took his pistol away and opened fire at two Wachtmeisters standing by the door. The door on the ground floor was locked only after Bothmann had returned from the unsuccessful search for the escapee and had given the order to do so.

 After Bothmann, Hafele and I called out several times for them to release Lenz and leave the cell in groups of five, the answer was the firing of the pistol taken away from Lenz. Then one of the Jews called out that Lenz had hung himself. We could not check it out because the prisoners set fire to the prison and the flames were coming out of the roof. The fire spread twice as fast, because above the upper cell, wood was being dried to run the cars. Bothmann decided to let the prison burn down completely, despite the fact that Lenz was still inside. Judging by the fire, Lenz was no longer alive. The killed Jews lying in front of the prison were also carried into the burning building and abandoned to the flames.  

 In the morning of 18 January 1945 when the fire was slowly dying out, Bothmann instructed Piller and Gorlich to open a metal cabinet standing in one of the rooms and to burn all the secret documents kept there. The documents were burnt and the ash spread over open fields. The SS-Sonderkommando made its way to Kolo, where the police unit was left with the local gendarmerie, whilst the remainder went to Poznan via Konin.

 It is impossible to establish the precise number of victims murdered at Chelmno, but the German mayor of Kolo, Becht, informed his doctor Leo Brat, that until spring 1943 about 250,000 Jewish people were murdered. Bothmann told Karl May, a forestry official, in the summer of 1942 during a visit to the Waldlager, that about 250,000 people had been buried there and another 100,000 would be buried soon.

 However, the monument at the site of the former death camp, says 180,000 Jews were murdered here, 160,000 Polish Jews, and 20,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Luxemburg and 4300 Gypsies.



 Chelmno witnesses Speak – The District Museum in Konin 

W. Dressen, E.Klee, V.Reiss, Those Were the Days, published   by Hamish Hamilton, London 1991

Lucjan Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944 , published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1984

Cameron Munro, Chelmno Book 1 – Transport to Death, Mac Publication

Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1997

Photograph – Chris Webb Archive


Zdzislaw Lorek 

Dedicated To Artur Hojan 

 © Holocaust Historical Society 2014