Establishment and Operation of the First Extermination Camp in Kulmhof

The mass extermination camp in Kulmhof (Polish Chełmno nad Nerem, changed by the Germans into Kulmhof) played special role in eradicating the Jews from the Wartheland. It was the first camp of its type in Europe and its technological innovations were subsequently replicated in other extermination camps. They included mobile gas chambers (Spezialwagen or Sonderwagen) that used combustion gas and the administrative pretense of encouraging victims to shower before entering them. Construction of the Kulmhof killing center began in October-November 1941 and the facility went into action on December 8, 1941. The first stage of its operation was completed on April 7, 1943. It was reactivated in the summer of 1944.

The Camp at Kulmhof

The extermination camp at Kulmhof on the Ner was the first permanent mass-murder facility established during the Holocaust. It was located in the village of Kulmhof, about 14 kilometers from Koło and about 60 kilometers from Łódź, on the Łodź-Kutno-Poznań railway line. Kulmhof was connected to Koło via a narrow-gauge track. The Kulmhof extermination center was set up in two different localities about four kilometers apart. The first was in the village itself, in an abandoned palace owned by the state that was unused at the beginning of the German occupation. A large park approximately 2.7 hectares in area surrounded the premises; when the death camp was established, it was encased in a board fence to make the camp difficult to view from the outside. The local Polish population was expelled from the village; except for a few forced laborers who were put to various ancillary tasks, Kulmhof was inhabited by Germans during the war. In the park next to the palace brick building that had once housed a granary stood. Two additional barracks were also built in the park. The second site was in the Rzuchów forest; the corpses were incinerated there. Organization of the camp began in October or November 1941, after the mass murders perpetrated by Sonderkommando Lange (Special Kommando Lange) in the Kazimierz Biskupi and Długa Łąka forests north of Konin. These crimes may be considered “experimental phase” for the next phase of the murder of Jews in the Warthegau, since immediately after them the Sonderkommando and its commander, SS-Obersturmfuhrer Herbert Lange, sought a convenient place to establish a permanent extermination center. In December 1941, when the camp was ready for operation, 262,000 Jews still remained in the Warthegau, 31,440 of them in Inowrocław Regierungsbezirk (government district). The location of the camp was carefully chosen. Situated in Koło County (in the south of which was Inowrocław government district) and bordering Łódź area, it allowed the rapid extermination of Jews from the neighboring ghettos in Koło and Turek counties. Again, witnesses who could report the Germans crimes had been removed. It was relatively close to the Łódź ghetto, and thus solved the problem of getting rid of “unproductive” Jews there. When the latter ghetto was partly emptied, able-bodied Jews from the provincial ghettos, which had been gradually dissolved, were sent there to replace them.

Jews transported to the camp in Kulmhof by train. (public domain)

Notably, Kulmhof was not what would become a typical camp like Bełżec, Sobibór, or Treblinka. The main difference is that the other camps were built several months after Kulmhof and used experience gathered in Kulmhof killing center to improve their mass-murder capabilities. Kulmhof killed Jews on a massive scale but did so in a logistically cumbersome way. In its first stage of activity, victims were delivered from several transfer points using relatively difficult means of transportation, entailing extensive coordination and administrative effort. Furthermore, as noted, two locations were used—the palace grounds in the town of Kulmhof and the Rzuchów forest. Therefore, Kulmhof would be better described as an extermination center than as an extermination camp, although the latter name is in common use. Its capacity for murder and incineration did not exceed 1,000 per day; other camps under Aktion Reinhardt had six times that capacity, if not twelve. Auschwitz- Birkenau, at the peak of its activity in 1944, attained the unprecedented murder and cremation capacity of up to 20,000 people per day. The essence of Kulmhof lies in the fact that it was the first to develop method of killing victims, mostly Jews, on a massive industrial scale and pace. It served as an experimental center for the Aktion Reinhard, that begun in spring 1942. Part of the staff of Kommando Lange as well as the methods of killing were alsready used during the Aktion T4 – Euthanasia program of mentally ill and physical disabilities in Nazi Germany, that begun in September 1939 and was directed against German citizens, mainly from psychiatric hospitals.

Remains of a mansion in Chełmno, January 1945. (public domain)

Actions and Transports

Aktionen involving Kulmhof began unexpectedly – very often at night or in early morning. People were rushed out of their apartments, expelled into the street, and usually directed to one building, most often a church or synagogue. They were packed into the building, typically without food or water, and left there for up to several days. Those who tried to escape were killed. In Włocławek, a group that had received consecutive numbers beforehand spent several days waiting in the open air for their transport from the ghetto. Gradually, within a few days, successive groups were transported to Kulmhof. While being loaded onto their means of transport, many people were hurt or killed.

A witness describes the deportation from the ghetto in Koło: “At the end of December 1941 (I do not remember exactly the date) the town of Koło was surrounded by units of the NSKK (Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps – National Socialist Motor Corps] (members of this organization were dressed in green “khaki” uniforms and black forage caps). Jews were taken from their apartments and transferred to the Jewish Committee building, which was adjacent to the synagogue. Wagons arrived and the Jews left the building with their families, carrying their luggage. Before departing, the Germans set up a table where an SS officer sat. This officer had a list of all the Jews living in Koło; the person signed that list before getting into the van. Luggage was loaded into a trailer. The guards who watched the Jews and members of the Jewish Committee said that Jews were being transported ‘to work on the railways.’”

About forty people were loaded into the vehicle. Two trucks that were driven by Germans transported Jews from Koło. Every day about 1,000 people were deported. The witness was completely oblivious to the true purpose of the journey. He demonstrated this by saying, “I went to the truck with my father, mother, sister together with her five children, and father’s brother with his wife and their three children took. I also helped to load the packages [into the trailer]. I even volunteered to go with my parents, but I was not allowed to do so.”

Before a community was eradicated, the members of the Jewish Council were often killed (e.g., in Żychlin and Krośniewice). After a ghetto was dissolved, a few Jews (fifty in Kutno-Konstancja, for example) would be left behind for cleanup duties. Alternatively, labor details were brought from the Łódź ghetto. Once the area was clean, after several days or weeks, the remaining people were executed or taken to Kulmhof.

Transports of Jews to Kulmhof were made by rail. A special train of about twenty carriages was put together for this purpose. Roughly, 1,000 Jews were placed in such a train. The train went as far as the Koło station. There, the passengers were transferred to a narrow-gauge train that went to Powiercie, where they were dispossessed of their luggage. A witness described how this worked: “The luggage was transported in the last two cars. After arrival at the junction of the road with the railway tracks, it was unloaded. On the same day, it was taken by cars to a big hut at Kulmhof, where it was sorted.” The people in the transport were then marched to the village of Zawadki, where they were put up in a large building that housed a motorized mill. The next day, they were taken by trucks to Kulmhof, about two kilometers away. Between 100 and 150 people were transported at one time; usually, about 1,000 people were transported to Kulmhof by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. The Jews behaved calmly during the transport because their guards behaved correctly.

A witness explains why they did so: “Bothmann (camp commander) issued instructions according to which Jews were not allowed to be beaten and should be handled well. The purpose was to keep Jews uncertain about their fate. If they knew what awaited them, it would have hindered the work. For example, only six police officers accompanied the total transport of Jews from Konin to Kulmhof. If they had known what awaited them, the Jews could have easily scattered.”

At the Rzuchowski Forest Camp

Victim-filled cars from Kulmhof arrived at a fenced-in area approximately 33 hectares large in the Rzuchowski forest, heavily secured by armed guards and patrolled all around. About eighty SS men guarded the forest of Kulmhof. When cars containing gassed people reached the camp, the doors were opened and the cars were ventilated for about ten minutes. One witness recalled: “The first car from Kulmhof arrived at about 8:00 a.m. When its door was opened, a thick whitish smoke belched out.” Despite having been exposed to the gas for several minutes, not all of the people were dead. A witness who unloaded gas wagons said, “The corpses were still warm. I did not notice any characteristic smell of gas. Some people were still alive and the SS men shot them in the head; most were shot in the back of the head.”

All subsequent operations were performed by a Jewish labor detail. At first, the members of this group unloaded the corpses from the car and inspected them thoroughly. Gold teeth were removed and any gold rings were taken off fingers, as well as all other valuable things.

In the initial period of the Kulmhof center – the cold winter months – the corpses, after being searched, were buried in enormous mass graves. One of these places of interment was 270 meters long, eight to ten meters wide, and six meters deep. The graves had been dug by Jewish workers and others. Burying large numbers of victims in the frost of winter had no consequences; however, problems arose in the spring. The Germans stopped receiving transports; two crematorium furnaces were hastily constructed (you could see the chimneys) and they started burning the corpses. Mass graves were excavated and the Jews, especially the Waldkommando (forest detail) were ordered to incinerate the corpses in crematoria. I heard that the furnaces were fueled by wood. Following the burning of corpses (the pause lasted about two months), Jewish transports started to arrive again.

It was not until the spring of 1942 that the construction of crematorium furnaces began. Local residents’ testimonies indicate that they had two tall chimneys. After the construction of two furnaces that spring, corpses of victims who were murdered on an ongoing basis and those that had already been buried and were now exhumed were incinerated.

The Extermination Method

After the Jews were driven to the deserted palace and removed from the trucks, a member of the German detail told them that they were going to the east, where they would work and enjoy better living conditions. An officer was speaking to those who had come. He said, among other things, “You will go to the east, there are large areas to work; you just have to dress up in clean clothes, which will be given to you, and to take a bath.” Applause rang out! Even at this stage of the extermination, the perpetrators went out of their way to spread disinformation by asking the deportees to write letters to their families in the ghettos. One witness attests: “The Jews, before they were gassed, wrote letters to their families about their trip. In every shipment, 10-15 Jews who were held back from the transport wrote such letters. How they were killed, I do not know. This was to reassure the remaining Jews in the ghetto and to facilitate our future work. To mislead the Jews as to the nature of their intentions concerning them, in the barracks where the Jews undressed before gassing were appropriate signs: Arzt, Baderaum (physician, baths). I would like to emphasize that the Jews were so misled that after Bothmanns speech, they applauded.

The next stage, they were told, was disinfection. The deportees were led into a large, heated room in the palace, led into where they had to undress down to their underwear and then move down the corridor to the bath. This explains the wording of the signs “Physician” and “Baths.” The undressed victims followed the “Baths” arrow down the hall to the exit door. Before reaching the door, they were told that they would be transported to the baths in a closed car. The exit door led directly to the closed vehicle, which stood on the road. Members of the German detail rushed the victims through the corridor and into the car so that they would not have time to figure things out and resist. Sometime later, we heard the shuffling of bare feet in the basement corridor – near the cellar, in which we were closed. The Germans shout: “Move it, move it!” while they were leading Jews through the corridor to the inner courtyard.

After the Jews entered the car, the doors were immediately closed and the engine was switched on. Thus began the process of gassing people. A witness remembers: “After a while I heard the rumble of the car doors being locked. There was shouting and knocking on the walls of the car. Then I heard the noise of the motor being turned on. When 6-7 minutes passed, the cries quieted and the car left the yard.” After the engine was turned on, the truck did not move immediately but remained motionless for about five minutes. During this time, the victims inside tried to escape; this explains their pounding on the door and walls of the chamber. Had the car been driven at this time, the Jews’ exertions might have caused it to wobble, making the trip difficult. Only after five minutes did the truck start moving toward the Rzuchowski forest, about four kilometers from Kulmhof.

As the transport set out from Kulmhof to the forest, the process of erasing the traces of the previous group of victims began. The floor was washed and clothes and shoes were removed. A witness recalls: We were called – that is, ten Jewish workers—to a large room on the upper floor in which women’s clothing, coats, and shoes lay scattered on the floor. We were told to quickly take the clothes and shoes to another room. In that room, there were a lot of other clothes and shoes. Shoes were put into a separate pile. The clothes were thrown through the windows into the courtyard. Then a group of Jews—workers—had to take them to the general pile of clothes that was in the garden. The pile was three to four meters tall and at least ten to fifteen meters wide. The police rushed us and mercilessly beat the Jews who were removing the clothing. Only after the area was cleared was a new batch of Jews brought to the palace.

Thus the people in the next transport to Kulmhof from Zawadki did not know what had happened to those in the previous transport. Surely they did not know that they had been murdered. There was no contact between one transport and another. Each step of the journey was a great unknown; the victims had no reason to believe that something wrong awaited them.

Gas vans were first used in the Warthegau to murder the mentally ill and the disabled in the autumn of 1939, as was discussed earlier. They were also used for killing the mentally ill from Kochanówka Hospital near Łódź in March 1940. We may assume that the gas-chamber vehicle used to murder patients from Kochanówka Hospital was a prototype; it was a van converted from a vehicle used by Kaiser Kaffe Wien Gas wagons were also employed in the massacres in the Kazimierz Biskupi and Długa Łąka forests in late September 1941. After the establishment of the killing center in Kulmhof, such vehicles were regularly used in both the first and the second period of this extermination center. There were three such cars, imported from Berlin. One could hold about 150 people; the others were smaller, with a capacity of 80-100.


A Magirus-Deutz van found in Koło after the war, suspected as a gas van used for murder in Chełmno camp. (public domain)

The gas wagons used to kill the victims in Kulmhof are known only by their descriptions. In 1944, after the liquidation of the mass-murder center, they were taken to Germany. Information about them comes from the mechanics who worked in the Kraft and Reichstrassenbauamt garages in Koło and from other witnesses. During the investigation of the Kulmhof center, eight Poles employed in the garage were interviewed and gave details about the design of these cars. The largest vehicle was about six meters long and 2.5-3 meters wide. The smaller cars were 4.5-5 meters long and 2.3-2.5 meters wide. Their bodies were constructed of closely placed boards. The interior was enclosed and hermetically sealed with a laminate. The vehicles were painted dark gray. An exhaust pipe passed underneath the car and extended into the interior at half of its length. The outlet was secured by steel mesh to prevent jamming. A wooden grille was placed on the floor of the car. According to the mechanics, the engines of the vehicles had been produced by the Saurer firm. Near the cab was the inscription: “Baujahr 1940—Berlin ” (year of construction 1940—Berlin). The drivers wore gas masks.

Sonderkommando Kulmhof

A special unit responsible for the murder of Jews at Kulmhof was called Sonderkommando Kulmhof or SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof. This SS unit numbered around twenty people. The rest of the German detail comprised over one hundred people from various agencies, mostly the German military and civilian police. They performed auxiliary guard duty at the palace in Kulmhof, watched over the camp in the Rzuchowski forest, and patrolled surrounding areas. This brought the strength of the whole detail to 150-180.

The Jewish commando

Most heavy physical work was performed by the Jewish detail. Jews were employed in two squads—one, called the Hauskommando, at the Kulmhof palace and the other, termed the Waldkommando, in the forest. Some members of the Waldkommando unloaded the corpses from the gas wagons and searched their bodies for valuables; others transported the corpses, after the search, to the crematorium. A special group was responsible for incinerating corpses and removing ashes. In total, the Jewish detail had about seventy people. The camp also recruited Polish prisoners from concentration camps. The Jews who worked in the palace (the Hauskommando) did cleaning labors and removed and sorted victims’ clothing. In Kulmhof, all workers lived in the granary—tailors and shoemakers on the upper floor and the Waldkommando and Hauskommando on the bottom floor.

In early March 1943, Arthur Greiser, Reich Governor and Gauleiter of Wartheland was at Kulmhof. He organized a party for members of the Sonderkommando, during which he gave each member of the Sonderkommando RM 500 and invited everyone for a four-week vacation on his property. Heinrich Himmler was in Kulmhof in 1944. Further details of his whereabouts I do not know Kulmhof was also visited frequently by representatives of the police and administrative authorities of Łódź, including Dr. Otto Bradfisch and Hans Biebow.

Last prisoners were eliminated by the guards on the night of January 17-18, 1945. During this period, statements about the purpose of the place – the extermination of Jews – were repeatedly transmitted to field officers by high-ranking German officers. Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler speech on October 4, 1943, to senior SS officers in Posen (Poznań), is the best example. On this occasion, he was very specific in explaining his views and orders regarding the extermination of Jews.

Despite the fact that Kulmhof was not very large death camp, and the number of its victims is estimated at around 200,000, it played an important role as a training and experimental center in the construction of the next death factories that the Nazis established in occupied Poland.

More about these events we can read in the book The First to be Destroyed: The Jewish Community of Kleczew and the Beginning of the Final Solution published by Academic Studies Press in 2015, co-authored by the author of the above text.

About the Author
Historian and political scientists. Living and working in Israel for over 20 years, observing fascinating developments in the Middle East and Europe. His interests include history, archeology, politics, photography, sport and traveling.
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