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  • Chełmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp by Patrick Montague
  • Peter Black
Chełmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp, Patrick Montague (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), xv + 291 pp., hardcover $75.00, e-book available.

Monographs on facilities established exclusively to annihilate the European Jews are, not surprisingly, rare. Auschwitz-Birkenau has received due attention: its concentration camp function permitted thousands to survive, precluded total destruction of documentation, and still draws worrisome if ineffective outbursts of Holocaust denial.1 Little exists on the Operation Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec) and Chełmno.2 Lublin-Majdanek recently has attracted outstanding scholarship, which, despite the titles, casts doubt on its characterization as a killing center.3

As is the case with the Reinhard camps, the dearth of survivors and the destruction of documents as well as both human and material remains, have kept source material on Chełmno thin.4 Seven “work-Jews” escaped Chełmno; six survived the war. Three were in Chełmno for only six weeks, and four others witnessed killing for less than a month in June–July 1944. None were questioned extensively after the war. Neglected, too, were the statements of two members of the Polish forced labor squad that worked Chełmno during both periods of its operation (1941–1943, 1944), and the unpublished memoir of German chief forest marshal Heinz May, whose jurisdiction included the Chełmno burial pits. Most remarkable among the surviving sources was the statement of Szlama Winer, who escaped Chełmno and reached Warsaw in January 1942, only to die in Bełżec later that year.

Author Patrick Montague examines the available sources thoroughly to identify the camp’s unique aspects. Chełmno was: (1) the first facility established exclusively to perpetrate mass murder (serving as “prototype” for Operation Reinhard killing centers); (2) a stationary facility using gas vans to kill; (3) the only killing center operating in German-annexed western Poland, the so-called Gau Wartheland (with Poznań as its seat) and the only one with a limited geographical scope; (4) the only killing center controlled by German civilian authorities; and (5) the facility most directly linked by method, personnel, chronology, and geography to earlier mass murder by gas of people with disabilities living in institutions. In autumn 1939, the Reich Security Main Office, working with the Führer Chancellery (Kanzlei des Führers), [End Page 123] tasked SS-Untersturmführer Herbert Lange to develop efficient means to concentrate and murder residents of facilities for people with physical or intellectual disabilities in German-annexed Poland. Lange assembled an SS-Police detachment, which began to experiment with carbon monoxide gas pumped from cylinders into sealed paneled trucks, as well as a Polish labor crew. Between November 1939 and summer 1941, Lange’s Special Detachment (Sonderkommando) murdered at least 6,273 people. Most of the victims were residents of Gau Wartheland, and virtually all were killed inside mobile gas vans (pp. 20–31). Having obtained Hitler’s permission in July 1941 to “solve” the Gau’s “Jewish question” through mass murder, Reich Governor Arthur Greiser turned to Lange; the latter selected a manorial estate in Chełmno village as the graveyard for Jewish residents of the Wartheland.

Lange and his successor, SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Bothmann, killed between 152,000 and 172,230 people at Chełmno (including 77,861 Jews and 4,300 Roma from the Łódź Ghetto). Most of the victims were Jews, and the majority perished between December 7, 1941 and September 14, 1942, asphyxiated in gas vans parked in the underground garage of the manor or while being driven to mass graves in nearby Ruchów Forest. Having “solved” Greiser’s “Jewish question” by late summer 1942, the SS and police used Jewish forced laborers to demolish the manor house, exhume and burn bodies, and, in March 1943, close the killing center. Having convinced Greiser to close the Łódź ghetto in spring 1944, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler recalled Bothmann’s detachment from Yugoslavia to restart the killing center at the Ruchów Forest burial site in June...


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