Chelmno and 500 years

Chelmno, the village turned death camp, is often overlooked but it should not be. Shameful things went on there — most of which we shall never know. I doubt if anyone is alive today who remembers the place. Chelmno was mainly a place to die.There weren’t survivors.

Once an inconsequential village it became the first Nazi gas extermination camp in existence, writes former Yad Vashem chief archivist Shmuel Krakowski in his masterful slim book,”Chelmno A Small Village in Europe” which was published in 2009 by Yad Vashem. Three special grey vans armed with lethal pumps, killed victims when the driver began the engine. Infants who survived this gas attack were subsequently killed by having their skulls bashed, writes Krakowski. Everyone was buried in a nearby forest where some early victims skipped the van stage and were boiled to death with hot lime thrown on them as they huddled, naked and frightened, in mass graves.

Though he had obviously nothing to do with the murder operation at Chelmno, I am writing this to mark 500 years since the famous German theologian Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, published his first Bible. Luther, despite being a very important 16th century theologian, a man who changed the world to a more rational place, was, like the 20th century Nazis , a crazed anti Semite, a fact not lost on the Nazi propagandist, Julius Streicher, who introduced Luther’s corporeal and very visceral antiSemitism into his defense at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. It thankfully didn’t sway the judges there but someone actually wrote a book on this topic, linking Luther and Hitler,so writes Joan Acocella in the New Yorker. She writes that its impossible to understand why Luther, a brave and brilliant former Augustinian friar, was so demented when it came to Jews. Is it a German thing? She doesn’t know but she quotes a contemporary German scholar who notes that everyone in Christian Medieval Europe disliked Jews and sums it up with a shrug by noting that anti Semitism was apparently the dark hole in Luther’s soul.

Chelmno was used to kill most of the Jewish population in what the Nazis called the — Warthegau— mostly small towns around Lodz. Plus others perished there….some 5,000 Roma Sinti, plus a large group of Soviet POWs. The so-called Warthegau area included the Lodz Ghetto. The deportees of the latter were also sent to Auschwitz. Some survived in Lodz hidden in sewers and other places (a very small number compared to what was) and some survived in Auschwitz which had a slave labor operation. Chelmno had a very small slave labour unit, from which two or three Jews managed to escape.

Indeed it is hard to figure out what Jews actually knew even with escapees testimonies around and the general atmosphere of worry about empty return trains. “We knew deportation was bad and we heard rumors about gas and death but no one believed this,” sums up my father, 95, a survivor. Indeed, the Nazis wanted everything to go smoothly and Chelmno like other camps was filled with deceit. Its unclear if people in the vans knew what had happened there just moments before.

Dr. Krakowski says the way it worked like this: People were shoved onto trains from their local towns or villages many of which had ghettoes and taken to the nearby village of Chelmno. There they were herded into either a church, or a former “palace” (or later to the forest in Chelmno) and then sent through a warren of rooms where they disrobed and parted wth their final possessions. From there they were forced to board the lethal vans and the next thing, they were dead and buried in the forest. At some stage the mass graves were dug up (by Jewish men who were then shot) and the bodies incinerated.
Chelmno was retired but then put back to use. My grandfather’s sister, Ruchtha nee Kapeluzsnik Bromberg, may have died there or in Auschwitz. She lived in the Lodz Ghetto with her ailing husband, Dovid, and she was still alive in 1944, “protected” by Chaim Rumkowski who himself perished in Auschwitz. How many people died in Chelmno is still unknown. Would Luther have approved. Well, Acocella writes that he supported burning down synagogues but didn’t condone the murder. But he didn’t have the chance.

About the Author
Netty C. Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report Together with Susan M. Weiss, she is co-author of "Jewish Marriage and Divorce Israel's Civil War," published by Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, December 2012.
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