This camp at Chelmno demanded special attention because during the German
occupation only a few people in Poland ever knew of its existence and the hundreds of thousands
of its victims.
The village of Chelmno is situated nearly 9 miles from the town of Kolo, through
which runs the main railway line from Lodz to Poznan,
which is connected to Chelmno through a branch line.
In the village there was a country house surrounded by a park, which
was owned by the state and stood empty. There was also a pine wood which was too thick to get through. The park was enclosed
by a high wooden fence which concealed everything behind it. Inside were the house, and the granary plus 2 wooden huts. The
whole enclosure measured 5 acres and was to house hundreds of thousands of people to be killed.
Those who were brought here were convinced till the last moment that
they were to be employed in the east. They were told that they had to have a bath before going any further. They were taken
to the large hall of the house, where they were told to undress, then they were taken along a corridor to the front door,
where a lorry, fitted up as a gas chamber was standing. This was to take them to the bath house, they were told. When the
lorry was full, the door was locked, the engine started and carbon monoxide was piped in. After 5 minutes the screams from
the people inside were heard no more. It was then driven 2 miles away, to the wood, enclosed by a high fence, unloaded and
buried and afterwards burnt in one of the clearings.
The object of this camp was the extermination of the Jews from Warthegau,
the province of Poznania, the provence of Lodz and part of Warsaw,
consisting of about 450,000 Jews.
It was established in November 1941 and the process began on December
8th. The first Jews to arrive was in January 1942, from then on an average of 1000 a day was maintained until April
Besides those that came by train, some came by car. Besides those from
Poland, there were Jews from Germany,
Austria, France, Belgium, Luxemberg and Holland.
On top of the Jews, 5,000 gypsies and 1000 Poles and Russians were killed at Chelmno.
The final activities of the camp in 1944 differ from other times, in
that they were left overnight in the church, then taken straight to the woods, killed in the gas lorries and then burnt in
the crematoria that were built in about 43. The total killed in 1943 was about 10,000.
In 1944, in the autumn the camp was completely destroyed, the crematoria
was blown up, the huts taken to pieces and almost every trace of crime being carefully removed. Of all the Jews transported to Chelmno, only 4 survived.
Established near the village of the same name, 90 km north of Berlin,
this could have been idyllic. Located on the shores of Lake Schwed with forests and lakes all round, it would have been perfect
as a summer retreat. But this was no holiday camp as the inmates suffered the torments of hell.
Nazi Germany was not a place where women could express themselves. A
womens place was in the home, where she was expected to feed her man and breed her children. As a result there were few women
incarcerated in the first wave of arrests and imprisonment which followed Hitlers seize of power.
At first, the small number of women detainees could be accommodated at
fortress prisons like Lichtenberg. But the number of arrests mounted, especially when the Gestapo began targeting religious
opponents of the regime. It became clear that a camp for women would have to be started.
The SS chose Ravensbrueck because it was out of the way but which could
be reached from Berlin quickly. In 1938, 500 prisoners were sent to begin clearing the ground for the new camp. They built
14 barrack blocks, together with the usual kitchen block, roll-call area, detention centre, infirmary and guard housing.
The camp was officially opened on 15th May 1939 and on 19th
May the first prisoner transport arrived. Also transferring was Commandant SS-Hauptstrunfuhrer Max Kogel. The transport consisted
of 900 prisoners, mostly Jehovahs Witnesses, 400 gypsies arrived 10 days later.
By the end of the year, Germany was at war and the first Polish prisoners
had arrived taking the total up to 2,300. It was run as other camps but with 150 extra women overseers. Surviving prisoners
record that these women soon overcame any inhibitions and quickly became cruel and brutal as their male guards. Many came
from poor homes and lacked education. Most had come to work for the SS because the job offered better pay and conditions than
working on the land or in factories. A total of 3,500 overseers passed through in 2 years.
The prisoners lived in the barrack blocks, originally designed for 270
women but by 1945 they held 600 and sometimes more. Prison uniform was blue and grey striped dress of course fabric. A thin
coat was issued between October and March, together with stockings and footwear, generally clogs.
At the beginning of the war, prisoners were fed a daily ration of 500
grams of bread, about half a litre of vegetable soup and potatoes. At weekends the ration was sometimes eked out with sausages,
cheese and jam. By 1942 however, the bread ration had dropped to less than 200 grams. The soup was made of cabbage and turnips
and the jam was thinned down. By 1944 the poor diet, allied to heavy labour and minimal healthcare meant malnutrition and
the diseases thereof.
Unless they were literally at deaths door, sick inmates were sent back
to work. Lung diseases were rife, as were heart and kidney disorders. Injuries were common, as was frostbite in winter and
most women had ulcers and abscesses due to poor hygiene. There was also the risk of epidemic, with people sleeping 3-4 on
the plank beds.
Although the whole camp was an instrument of terror, the detention block
took that terror to unimaginable heights. Known to the inmates as the bunker, the block had 78 cells on two floors. The cells
were generally bare, with a folding plank to sleep on. People could be sent to the bunker for a wide variety of reasons, from
refusing to work to not making the bed properly.
Standard punishment was 25 strokes of the birch or cane. This was administered
by lashing the prisoner to a block. Dorothea Binz was perhaps the most brutal of all, using belts, high pressure hoses and
her two dogs.
By the end of 1941, there were 12,000 prisoners, by 1943, 40,000 and
a year later nearly 80,000. Not all of these were in the camp at any one time. Most were farmed out to satellite camps, making
25,000 permenant residences of Ravensbrueck.
Of the horrors of the camp, the fate of the children were the worst.
Many hundreds were incarcerated with their mothers and were expected to work as well. Those too young to work were killed.
Pregnant women were forcibly aborted or allowed to have their babies which were then killed in front of their eyes.
In 1945 the SS evacuated the camp forcing 20,000 women on a death march
ahead of the advancing Red Army. The camp was liberated on 30th April. The Soviets found just 3,000 women, mostly
ill and around 300 men. In six years around 130,000 women had passed through the Ravensbrueck system and as many as 92,000