Chelmno death camp was the first of its kind to be opened by the Nazis. Chelmno had no other purpose than to kill – in the case of Chelmno, it was the Jews in the ghetto at the nearby city of Lodz, some fifty miles away. The ghetto at Lodz was already overcrowded, but the deportation of Jews from Hamburg after the Allied bombing in 1941, added to the congestion in the ghetto. The SS decided that the only alternate was to find those in the ghetto who could not work and kill them. Chelmno was built 50 miles outside of Lodz and the authorities there used gas vans to murder their victims.
The camp started operating in December 1941. Its first commandant was Herbert Lange. He had been transferred from work in the Nazis ‘euthanasia’ programme in Posen. In this capacity, Lange had developed a great deal of knowledge on how to kill people using carbon monoxide. In Posen, Lange had used gas vans – and three were sent to Chelmno.To start with the murders were on a small-scale and done on an ad hoc basis. But after the 1942 Wannsee Conference, the running of the death camps became more urgent and business-like. By the time Chelmno shut, possibly as many as 600,000 had been murdered there.
Chelmno was a run-down castle and Lange, with his unit of 120 men, received Jews from Lodz each afternoon. They came by train or by lorry and were made to gather in the castle’s courtyard. After handing over their valuables, the Jews were forced to undress and then forced into the castle’s cellar. From here a ramp had been built that led to the gas vans. Each van could take between 50 to 70 people and the whole process took about 10 minutes. Once all inside were dead, the van was driven to a mass burial site where the victims were buried by Jews forced to do the work. Later, as the number of deaths increased, cremation pyres were used.
Jews were not the only group murdered at Chelmno. 5,000 gypsies were also killed there.