Readers of the New York Times found on July 2nd 1942 page 6 an unusual item. Under the title "Allies are Urged to Execute Nazis," it was reported by a call of the Polish government in exile in London, initiating threats of retribution(Vergeltungsdrohungen) against German citizens living in western countries abroad. Through reliable reports from occupied Poland it had become known that meanwhile 700 000 Jews were killed. Knowing that Nazi Germany would be held accountable for all crimes, this call did nothing to millions of people in the face of death. For this reason, it was recommended the liquidation of Germans in the U.S. and other countries as a deterrent. After listing the main sites of mass murder in eastern Poland, it was said in the article: "In early winter the Germans methodically continue to kill all Jews. They sent special mobile gas chambers to western Poland, into territories incorporated into the Reich. In places like Chelmno near Kolo, ninety people were put at once into those gas chambers. The victims were buried in graves that they themselves had dug in the forest of Lubarski. Between November 1941 and March 1942 about 1,000 people a day from the residential districts of Kolo, Dabie, Izbica and other places as well as the 35 000 Jews from Lodz were killed during the period 2-9 January. Two thousand Gypsies were murdered, they probably were prisoners from Yugoslavia and considered to be terrorists".
What happened in the tiny village of Chelmno, now called Kulmhof since early December 1941 was a"Secret Reich Matter"(Geheime Reichssache), but you could just over half a year later take note of an international assessment in an American newspaper what was going on. The small village of Kulmhof in the district of Warthbriicken (Polish Kolo) was one of only 300 inhabitants, but here were between 8 December 1941 and July 14, 1944 more than 150 000 people murdered in gas vans. Today, it belongs to the more familiar topographic points of the Holocaust. For a long time it lay in the historiographical shadow of the German death camps such as Auschwitz in present day Poland or that of the "Aktion Reinhardt" camps in the General Government. The history of this death camp, almost all facets of the events can be perceptively analysed. The question of the German decision-makers in different hierarchies illuminates the tension still exists between the central office in Berlin and the regional administration in Posen.
FROM IDEA TO REALISATION
For almost any other crime of the Holocaust, the planning of mass murder of Jews by poison gas can not be more clearly shown than that at Chelmno. In a letter dated July 16, 1941 the leader of the SD-Guiding Section of Posen(Leitabschnittes) informs Adolf Eichmann in Berlin, that in the Regional Administrative Centre of the Reichsgau Wartheland, "we are holding currently various discussions giving thoughts to a centralised treatment of the "Jewish Question" in the Reich. SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Höppner sent a summary of various proposals to the Department IV B 4 of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in Berlin's Kurfürstendamm, which are 'partly fantastic', but also would 'certainly be feasible' to introduce".
Höppner noted in his plan, that all Wartheland Jews be put into a centralised labour camp in the vicinity what was known as the coal freight railway line between the Upper Silesian coal basin and the Baltic port of Gdingen (Gdynia) . There, they could probably be used on double tracking the railway as well as the rail links with the fast train connection (Schnellzugverbindung) from Warsaw to Poznan. In addition within the projected prison camp for 300 000 people economic and trade enterprises should be developed, where the able-bodied Jews had to work. To limit the "Jewish Question" for the next generation, it was suggested to have Jewish women of reproductive age sterilised in the camp. Moreover, such a concentration camp, the ghettos and the many outstanding Jewish neighbourhoods would become obsolete. This in turn would allow savings in personal of police forces guarding the Jews and contain the risk of recurrent diseases to a single location. The crucial point in the note read: 'There is a risk this winter, that not all the Jews can be fed. It must be seriously considered if it is not the most humane solution for the Jews, unless they are fit for work, to use some fast-acting agent on them. In any case it would be more convenient than let them starve to death'.
DEPORTATION TO DEATH CAMPS
In retrospect, those suggestions described by Höppner during the discussion of the inside circle of the Reich Government qualify only as a little-thought musings of the writer. Take alone the projected size of the camp, compared to a little later, camps built at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek or Salaspils and the difficulties they experienced there shows, that a camp for 300 000 people had no real chance of being ever established. In addition, the regional policy of persecution of the Jews at that time was more designed to close as many scattered quarters lying in the administrative districts of Litzmannstadt and Hohensalza by re-locating the Jews into one large urban ghetto at Litzmannstadt. Also, the risk of food shortages, which served as a justification for the proposed mass murder of Jews that were unable to work, was an invention. Only a few days earlier after extensive discussions at the State Food Office issuing set standards of nutrition values in a circular pertaining rations for Jews living in the Gaugebiet, which showed, the Jews who worked, received the same amount of allowances granted to normal Polish consumers. Non-working Jews should be treated the same as Polish prisoners of Justice. A shortage or bottlenecks in food supply at that time did not exist.
Nevertheless, this kind of creative impressions hid in itself evidence of problems for a real implementation. If one were to build a camp in the district along the banks of the main coal delivery rail-road who's inmates would improve the tracks, then the County of Warthbrücken (Kolo) was ideal. Because here crossed the North-South Railway as well as the route Warsaw-Poznan, but they were not yet connected by a switch systems for shunting. Such vast construction project would have to take place near the village of Schwarzenbach (Barlogi), about 15 kilometres east of the County Seat (Kreisstadt) Warthbriicken (Kolo). Even the most optimistic among the panellists in the Reich Government could hardly be of the opinion that such a major project and the necessary negotiations with the National Rail-road (Reichsbahn) until winter 1941/42 would be completed with success. However, if the onset of winter was in the eyes of the disputants creating a food crisis, it was decided in that case an extermination camp were to be built in the short term in order to kill in the long run in this district incapacitated Jews in a large Camp. And in fact, the death camp Chelmno was a few months later, about 13 kilometres south-east of Warthbriücken established.
The second aspect in the Höppner proposal was the eloquent method of murder - the 'fast-acting agent'. Here we already had in its possession practical experience and personal expertise. The 'Sonderkommando Lange', named after the SS Captain Herbert Lange of the Gestapo headquarters in Posen who murdered on the orders of the local Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF) since the end of 1939, inmates of psychiatric institutions in the districts Wartheland and East Prussia, where carbon monoxide had been used in gas cylinders.
Höppner himself probably felt that any quick response from Eichmann would not be forthcoming . In a letter to the Head of the RSHA, section IVB4 it was said he was grateful for the occasional opinion from Eichmann. Since the Reichsstatthalter and Gauleiter Arthur Greiser up to 16 July had not commented on these proposals, there was most likely no hurry. Greiser's silence is hardly surprising, after all, it was that the Reichsgau Wartheland was considered German territory. The project of a huge camp for Jews where 133 000 of them would live, was more than part of the entire Old Reich of the Sudentenland and Danzig put together and could not be based exclusively on a territorial decision. This was also true for the territorially limited license for mass murder as a construction project that would be under authority (Bauhoheit) of the Reichsbahn. Greiser would respond, but not before he had a realistic assessment of the proposals after consultations with his advisers.
Just two days after writing the file note on the subject, however, Greiser had the opportunity personally report to Hitler on the security of the Warthegau. This session date had surprised the Gauleiter obviously, because he was in the midst of an official visiting tour through the districts of his territory. Greiser took the opportunity during discussions to inserting as the only accessible authority in all legal proceedings against Poland, and informed his subordinate authorities shortly after Hitler's basic view: 'The Führer has repeated to me and only now in his last interview with me at his headquarters and expressed, that he took the view, that I would have in carrying out my duties in the Reichsgau Wartheland have far greater powers than are available in other parts of the Reich '.
It was already in the perception of the occupying power [Germany,sic], motivated by security threats that the conversation between Hitler and Greiser, not only raised the question of suppression of troublesome Poles which would have been acted according to state law, but the 'Jewish Question' was always a so-called security problem, and Greiser would have explored the acceptability of the mind set of his staff with Hitler. It should not be assumed that Greiser presented Hitler with elaborate camp plans or talked about concrete possibilities of mass murder. For the Reichsstatthalter, it was quite sufficient, in this conversation that the Führer did not object to anti-Jewish measures, which included the murder of regionally organised, basically unemployable (arbeitsunfähige) subjects. If you consider that Hitler envisioned two days before the strategy meeting over the violent subjugation of the occupied Sowjet Union and in face of Stalin's proclamation to a Partisan War, the opportunity to 'wipe out what is against us is,' and if one takes into account that murder was already performed in concentration camps on prisoners unable to work since a few months, so it is quite conceivable that Hitler, in his view, only another proposal at that time for 'action' was approved on the periphery.
After Geiser had heard on 18 September in 1941 through Himmler that the onset of deportations was imminent of Jews from the Greater German Reich and the first trains arrived at the Ghetto in Litzmannstadt (Lodz) it increased the need for a suitable place of extermination and the search was on . On 1 October, the Provincial Government Office (Landratsamt) Warthbrücken and the Sonderkommando agreed to lease a small portion of the County Nursery grounds in Chelmno. This area bordered directly to a dilapidated large farmhouse (Gutshof) within the tiny village. The decision was made that Herbert Lange's Execution Unit would be stationed there. The second measure Greiser took, was to anchor all regional responsibilities into his Reichsstatthalterei. The heads of the departments I (SS-Oberhührer(Senior Colonel) Herbert Mehlhorn) and (SS colonel Ernst Kendzia) were charged with the handling of all matters relating to the housing and the labour requirements of Jews and Gypsies in the Reichsgau Wartheland.
|Map of the Holocaust in Poland during World War II, 1939 - 1945|
This map shows all extermination camps (or death camps), most major concentration camps, labour camps, prison camps, ghettos, major deportation routes and major massacre sites.
Chelmno, situated on a tributary of the Warthe, the Ner, and had been chosen not only because it was in the County of Warthbrücken. The village was connected by a narrow gauge railway line through the small village of Arnsdorf (Powiercie), which went about 13 km in a north-westerly direction through Warthbrücken and further north to the main trunk line Poznan-Warsaw. The narrow gauge railway carried on via Warthbrücken further north, linking several villages together before it branched off at Petrikau (Piotrkow Kujawski) in a north-westerly and north-easterly direction. Chelmno was located along a narrow country road, which linked the settlement of Eichstädt (Dabie). The village itself [Chelmno,sic] had only one road crossing, which took you to the little hamlets Ladau (Ladoruz) and after that to Schluchen (Rzuchow). Kulmhof (or Chelmno) consisted of about 40 small houses and twelve larger farms, which were managed by re-settled Volksdeutsche from Volhynia. Clearly visible was the uninhabited farm house [the manor house, sic] of a Polish state domain, which included a large farmyard.
|The church of Chelmno where the victims had to wait before being sent to the gas chamber...|
|The Chelmno "Palace"|
Until the camp was disbanded on 7 April 1943, the murder of the Jews of the Reich District Wartheland followed in an established pre-set manner: Upon arrival in Chelmno by truck, each one of these trucks drove through the open gate to the so-called castle [the manor house, sic]. Then the men, women and children had to get out. Initially, they were welcomed by a member of the Sonderkommando, in a loud voice, sometimes clad with a white coat, that they would now be transported next to a labour camp (Arbeitseinsatz). Prior to transport, however, all persons had to be showered and disinfected. This is done on the premises of the large house in front of them. Then the Jews entered the building via an outside staircase, where they were forced to strip in a large room. Valuables and clothing were recorded by a Polish worker for appearance sake only. After undressing, the Jews were herded into a sloping cellar, on the walls were the inscription: "Zum Bad" ("To the bath"). If people only reluctantly descended the stairs, here, for the first time the guards would beat the victims. The basement floor stretched over the entire length of the building and led at the other end up again to a staircase. Upstairs, the victims were now on a ramp, which was level at the same height of the three gas vans that stood with the rear tail gate open. Most of the time there were three such Benzin powered trucks, which resembled a dark painted removal van generally in use. The two smaller ones each could hold 60-80 persons, the bigger trucks took 100 to 120 people.
|One of the three gas vans|
[Interrogation of Adolf Eichmann in Isreal by Police Captain Avner W. Less:
I just know the following, that I only saw the following: a room, if I still recall correctly, perhaps five times as big as this one, or it may have been four times as big. There were Jews inside it, they had to get undressed and then a van, completely sealed, drew up to the ramp in front of the entrance. The naked Jews then had to get inside. Then the lorry was closed and it drove off.
Q.:How many people did the van hold?
A.: I can't say exactly. I couldn't bring myself to look closely, even once. I didn't look inside the entire time. I couldn't, no, I couldn't take any more. The screaming and, and, I was too upset and so on. I also said that to [SS-Obergruppenfuehrer] Mueller when I submitted my report. He did not get much from my report. I then followed the van - I must have been with some of the people from there who knew the way. Then I saw the most horrifying thing I have ever seen in my entire life.
The van drove up to a long trench, the door was opened and bodies thrown out. They still seemed alive, their limbs were so supple. They were thrown in, I can still remember a civilian pulling out teeth with some pliers and then I just got the hell out of there. I got into the car, went off and did not say anything else... I'd had more than I could take. I only know that a doctor there in a white coat said to me that I should look through a peep-hole at them in the lorry. I refused to do that. I could not, I could not say anything, I had to get away.
I went to Berlin, reported to Gruppenfuehrer Mueller. I told him exactly what I've just said, there wasn't any more I could tell him... terrible...I'm telling you... the inferno, can't, that is, I can't take this, I said to him.
Rudolf Höß about his visit to Chelmno on 16 September 1942:
"During my visit in Kulmhof I saw the extermination installations with the gas vans which were prepared for killing by exhaust fumes. The chief of the command there described this method as very unreliable because the gas was produced very irregularly , and often was not enough for killing". sic]
|Chelmno Forest Camp|
|The house where the belongings of Jews killed at Chelmno were kept|
Continued under Part 2