To say that Chelmno is a forgotten extermination camp would be an overstatement,however there are many people who have never heard of this camp.
Many think there were only a few concentration camps but in fact there were hundreds.
Chelmno was the first Nazi camp where gassing was used to murder Jews on a large scale. The site was chosen due to the village’s position in the Warthegau region (previously an area of Western Poland, but now part of Nazi Germany). It was 47 kilometres to the west of the Lodz ghetto where many of the victims came from.
A total of 320,000 people were murdered at Chelmno. These included Jews from the Lodz ghetto and throughout the area, in addition to 5,000 Roma who had been previously sent to the ghetto.
Chelmno consisted of two sites, just two and a half miles apart. The first was located in a large manor house, known as ‘The Palace’.
As there was no railway running through the village of Chelmno, the victims were taken by train to a nearby station. They then walked or were loaded onto trucks to the Chelmno camp reception area.
The first group of victims arrived at Chelmno on 7 December 1941. The following day the first exterminations took place. The killings continued throughout 1942. By March 1943 the camp was dismantled because all the Jews in the area had been murdered, except those in Lodz.
On arrival at the Palace camp, the victims were addressed by the camp commandant or one of his deputies, who was disguised as the squire of the estate, wearing a feather hat, jackboots and smoking a pipe.
The Jews were told that they would be fairly treated and receive good food in return for working on the estate, in Austria or in the East.
To put insult to injury they were held in a synagogue at Kolo near Chelmno before being murdered by the Nazis
They were then told that they needed to shower to become clean and that their clothes had to be disinfected. This was a huge lie. They were led to the undressing room, where they gave up their valuables and clothes. But, having been led up steps to the ‘washrooms’, they in fact found themselves in a gas van. The doors were closed and locked.
The driver then drove into the forest. After 10 minutes the gas fumes had suffocated all those inside the van. The victims were buried in mass graves.
The possessions of those brought to Chelmno were given or sold to Germans living in the region.
In April 1944 the Nazis planned to liquidate the Lodz ghetto, so they reopened Chelmno. Those who had previously worked at the camp were brought back to resume their work and carry out the killings. Between 23 June and mid-July 1944, more than 7,000 Jews were murdered and disposed of in the newly-erected crematorium. The camp was then closed as the killings were moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Nazis destroyed Chelmno in September 1944. They tried to erase all evidence of mass murder. They ordered the digging up and cremation of all of the bodies from the mass graves.
On 17 January 1945, the Nazis murdered 45 of the last 48 Jewish prisoners as the Soviet army edged closer to the camp. These last few Jews at the camp had fought against the fleeing Nazis, but only three of them succeeded in escaping.