Forgotten Holocaust! Hitler’s first extermination camp where over 200,000 were murdered in four years

Although little-known, the camp in Chełmno nad Nerem stands out in the grim history of the Holocaust for serving as a model for later sites at Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec and Auschwitz II Birkenau. Public domain

About 70km north of Łódź lies one of the lesser-known horrors of WWII.

Between December 1941 and January 1945 Hitler’s Nazi thugs murdered around 200,000 people, mainly Jews, in the village of Chełmno nad Nerem.

Known in German as Kulmhof, the camp is the least known of Germany’s wartime extermination camps, and in many aspects it was unique.

Known in German as Kulmhof, the camp was the first Nazi-German camp set up specifically to murder large numbers of people.Stuart Dowell/TFN

It was the first German camp set up specifically to murder large numbers of people , among its victims were Polish, German, Austrian, Czech, French and Luxembourg Jews, as well as Roma and Sinti, Czech and Polish children.

Also included in the death toll were Polish soldiers, priests, elderly people from nursing homes and Soviet POWs.

Unlike other death camps, victims were exterminated within a village in which local people went about their business. Corpses were taken to a separate site a few kilometres away to be buried or burned.

It was also different from other extermination camps as it was a local initiative thought up by leaders of the Warthegau, the part of western Poland annexed to German after 1939, to cleanse the territory of Jews and Germanise the territory  and not initially part of the later Final Solution.

A Magirus-Deutz gas van used by the Germans for suffocation at the Chełmno extermination camp; the exhaust fumes were diverted into the sealed rear compartment where the victims were locked in.Public domain

The camp stands out in the grim history of the Holocaust for another reason. It served as a model for later sites at Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec and Auschwitz II Birkenau. Methods for tricking vast numbers of victims into taking bogus showers, murdering them with gas and disposing of their bodies were refined at Kulmhof and deployed at other killing centres.

Controversially, it was also the only extermination camp in which Poles, a group of eight, assisted killing operations as prisoners.

Yet, for all its importance in the largest planned mass murder in the history of humanity, the name Kulmhof does not resonate in Holocaust memory the way the names of other camps do.

In an attempt to keep the memory of what happened over 75 years ago alive, the Stacja Radegast museum in Łódź, which commemorates the railway station from where Jews were transported to Kulmhof and later to Auschwitz, takes groups of local people to the camp to learn its history.

The use of the killing centre at Chełmno for the mass murder of Jews deported to the Łódź Ghetto was initiated by Nazi monster Arthur Greiser.Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E05455 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Andrzej Grzegorczyk, an educator from the museum and the guide for my visit, explained: “It was the first camp but still it is not one of the symbols of the Holocaust. The museum was only opened in 1990 in the forest part and then in 1998 in  the village.

“It is the last museum of a former death camp to be opened in Poland. That’s why when people think about the Holocaust they don’t think about Chełmno.”

Arriving in Chełmno after an hour-long coach journey from Łódź, the scene is bucolic. The attractive village church where victims spent their last night there in the liminal space between life and death draws our attention. Today, it is hosting a wedding.

Bunting has been put up on the street outside the house where the camp commandant lived. A sign next to the village fire station where German security police were barracked guides revellers to the wedding party down the road.

The camp commandant’s house still stands on the site where hundreds of thousands were exterminated.Stuart Dowell/TFN

While the site functioned, the German perpetrators lived in barracks and private houses spread throughout the village, not behind barbed wire fences like in other death camps.

We enter the palace complex and gather on a newly constructed terrace that provides a view down onto the foundations of the destroyed palace where victims were processed.

The first transport of Jews arrived on 7 December 1941 from the Koło region. They spent the night in the church next to the camp and were murdered the next day. They didn’t know they were going to be murdered, being told they had arrived at a transit station on their way to work as forced labourers in the Reich.

In the morning they were informed they would have to undergo disinfection and medical examinations. SS-men wearing white coats pretending to be medics waited for them with a translator.

Andrzej Grzegorczyk from the Stacja Radegast museum in Łódź, which commemorates the railway station from where Jews were transported to Kulmhof and later to Auschwitz, takes groups to the camp to learn its history.Stuart Dowell/TFN

The victims were lead to a large empty room and ordered to undress; their clothing stacked for disinfection. They were told that all hidden banknotes would be destroyed during steaming and needed to be taken out and handed over for safe-keeping.

In the palace there was a waiting room where the victims undressed. The men were allowed to keep their underpants on and women their slips. From there the Germans directed the victims to the cellars, telling them that they would be deloused and undergo medical examination.

At this stage all pretence was dropped. The Germans used clubs to drive the victims up the stairs, through a long corridor, towards a ramp, and then forced them into trucks that had been specially adapted to gas them to death.

In the first few months at Kulmhof, carbon monoxide in cylinders was used. Later, victims were killed with exhaust fumes from the trucks. At the beginning of the camp's operation, two smaller trucks were used that could hold up to 80-100 victims. Later, a larger truck was brought to the camp that held 175 victims.

Children from the Łódź ghetto during deportation to the camp in Chełmno nad Nerem.Public domain

Initially, victims were gassed on route to the burial site, but this was changed as the panicked thrashing of those inside could turn the truck on its side. On one occasion, the truck broke down and local people could hear the screaming of victims coming from inside the truck. Under new rules, victims were gassed while the truck was stationary at the palace complex.

The bodies were then taken to a forest clearing at Rzuchów 4 km away from Chełmno. A group of Jewish prisoners buried the corpses there in hand dug graves ranging from 60 to 230 metres long.

Grzegorczyk delivers these facts to the group, who listen intently. We enter the only surviving building, the granary, where a video plays of Szymon Srebnik, who at the age of 15 was selected from a transport to join a work detail and who escaped after being shot in the back of his head at close range two days before the Russians arrived in 1945.

The room is fringed with objects from the camp in display cases – a spoon, a bowl, a comb –  creating a tragic visual collage familiar to those who have visited the exhibitions at Auschwitz.

Burial pits: After having annihilated almost all Jews of Warthegau district, in March 1943 the Germans closed the camp. The SS ordered the complete demolition of the palace buildings and to hide the evidence of their crimes they ordered the exhumation of all remains and burning of bodies in the open-air cremation pits.Stuart Dowell/TFN

We clamber back onto the coach and travel along the country road in silence to the forest site where the mass graves are located.

By the spring of 1942, the Germans faced a serious problem. The grave pits had soon filled up and the decomposing and bloated bodies were causing the ground to move and swell. A terrible smell permeated the whole area and the Germans were terrified of an epidemic. Tests using bombs to destroy exhumed bodies were unsuccessful as the weapons set fire to nearby forests. The most effective method was found to be burning the victims on huge pyres made of concrete slabs and rail tracks.

After having annihilated almost all Jews of Warthegau district, in March 1943 the Germans closed the camp. The SS ordered the complete demolition of the palace buildings and to hide the evidence of their crimes they ordered the exhumation of all remains and burning of bodies in the open-air cremation pits.

Jewish prisoners were ordered to crush larger bones that hadn’t fully burned with mallets. The ashes were transported every night in sacks to the Ner and Warta rivers. Sometimes these sacks were sold to farmers as fertilizer. Eventually, a bone-crushing machine was brought from Hamburg to speed up the process.

The attractive village church where victims spent their last night in the liminal space between life and death.Stuart Dowell/TFN

In June 1944, killing commenced again at the camp to complete the annihilation of the remaining Jews from the Łódź ghetto. Extermination was carried out directly in the forest.

When the killings ended, the final group of Jewish prisoners, numbering around 47, were held in the granary next to a demolished palace. On the night of 17 January 1945 when the Germans finally evacuated, the SS carried out the last executions. Prisoners were lead out of the granary in groups of five and murdered by being shot in the back of their heads.

Finally, the desperate prisoners locked in the granary revolted and killed two of the guards. The Germans set the granary on fire and the remaining prisoners burned to death.

A thick humidity blankets the forest and we end the tour at the gate of remembrance where individuals, families and organisations have placed plaques remembering the victims.

A solitary Star of David looks over a mass grave at the former extermination camp.Stuart Dowell/TFN

The group has so far absorbed the horrific details in relative silence. But now, given the chance, they pepper Grzegorczyk with questions. Did the victims know they were going to be killed? Did the locals in the village know what was happening? What happened to the perpetrators after the war?

Emotions rise to the surface – disgust, anger, despair and sadness are written of their faces as they try to comprehend what had happened in their region over 75 years ago.

Their pained response is visible proof of the value of the museum’s educational tours.

“People want to understand. If they understand, maybe in the future they can change something,” says Grzegorczyk.