The death camp at Chelmno is credited with being the first of the Nazi camps to have been built purely to kill Jews. It was also the first to use gas to kill on a mass scale. It wasn’t a concentration camp: its only purpose was to kill. Jews were brought to Chelmno to be killed in gas vans from a ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz, which was about 50 miles away.
By 1941 the ghetto was so congested that it was decided by the SS that the best solution to the problem was to round up those who were not able to work and take them to the extermination camp.
At first, the those who were sent to the camp were killed on a small and irregular basis that was change in 1942 - after the Wannsee Conference it was decided that the Nazi party would pursue its goal of wiping out the Jewish race and so concentration camps drastically increased the number of people they were killing. Chelmno became a factory of death - it was run like a business to enable the mass killing of Jews. It was used in different phases up until January 1945 and in this time it is believed that somewhere between 150,000 and 340,000 people were put to death there - around 5,000 of these are thought to have gypsies.
The camp became operational in December 1941. Its first commandant was Herbert Lange, an SS officer who had been in charge of the extermination of the mentally ill in Posen. Lange had operated a gas van that shuttled between hospitals to ‘euthanise’ patients using carbon monoxide. Three of these gas vans were sent to Chelmno.
Lange was in charge of a group of around 120 men at Chelmno. Trains and lorries took Jews to the camp, they were then stripped of their valuable before being led into the cellar of the castle. A ramp led from the cellar into the gas chambers, which were in fact large vans that could hold as many as 70 people. Once inside everyone would be dead within around 10 minutes and the van would then be driven to a mass burial site. Other Jewish prisoners would be forced to bury the dead bodies until later on, when due to an increase in the number of people being killed at the camp they introduced cremators.
In September 1944, the SS brought in more Jewish prisoners to exhume and cremate the remaining corpses and remove evidence of the mass murder operations. The SS killed the last of the Jewish workers on 18 January 1945, just before the German retreat from Chelmno. The Soviet army arrived two days later.
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