Built near the village of Chelmno nad Nerem (known in German as Kulmhof), the Chelmno camp was one of the principal locations of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. A castle located near the village served as the epicentre of this horrendous enterprise. Near this castle (called the Schloss), the camp’s barracks were constructed in the immense forests of the area; the bodies of the victims were buried in mass graves or simply burned in huge pyres.
Chelmno was also one of the sites where the Nazis experimented in how to commit genocide, using for instance specially-developed gas vans, which piped exhaust fumes into the back of modified sealed trucks to murder their victims. A document found by accident in the archives of the SS specifically states that “in the space of six months, three of these vans have “treated” 97,000 items, without creating problems of any kind”.
At least 360,000 people died at Chelmno, mostly from the Jewish ghetto in Lodz. But to these victims, we can also add children who were gassed in the camp after being deported from Lidice, the Czechoslovak village that the Nazis wiped off the map in June 1942 in reprisal for the death of SS-Gruppenfurher Reinhard Heydrich.
Before they abandoned the camp in the face of the advancing Red Army, the Germans erased all traces of their activity at Chelmno, razing all its facilities to the ground and planting new trees over the mass graves. Chelmno was shut down and dismantled in January 1945. In its final moments, in the general confusion of the evacuation of the remaining prisoners, some detainees managed to overcome their guards, and stealing their weapons, tried to break out. Some were recaptured and shot, whereas a few others made it to safety, and later became the principal witnesses against the camp guards when the latter were finally made to answer for their crimes in court.