Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler's First Death Camp

Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler's First Death Camp

Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler's First Death Camp

Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler's First Death Camp

Synopsis

As the first extermination camp established by the Nazi regime and the prototype of the single-purpose death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec, the Chelmno death camp stands as a crucial but largely unexplored element of the Holocaust. This book is the first comprehensive work in any language to detail all aspects of the camp's history, organization, and operations and to remedy the dearth of information in Holocaust literature about Chelmno, which served as a template for the Nazis' "Final Solution." Patrick Montague reveals events leading to the establishment of the camp, how the mobile killing squad employed the world's first gas van to terminate the lives of mentally-ill patients, and the assembly-line procedure employed in the camp to commit genocide on the Jewish population. Based on over 20 years of careful research, this book provides the first single-volume history of the camp and its handful of survivors and includes previously unpublished first-hand accounts and photographs. Chelmno and the Holocaust is a vital contribution to a critically important chapter in the history of the Holocaust.

Excerpt

The small Polish village of Chełmno was the site of the first Nazi death camp, which unlike the larger and better known death camps that followed—Belżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek—used mobile gas vans rather than stationary gas chambers. What has been known about the Chełmno camp until now in mainstream Western and Israeli Holocaust scholarship stems mostly from the investigation and trial of 12 defendants in Bonn in 1962–63. Invaluable as that investigation and trial were as a source of historical knowledge by virtue of the numerous judicial interrogations and interviews that it produced and preserved, its main purpose was to provide evidence and reach judgment concerning the actions of specific defendants, not to write a comprehensive history of the camp. But for historians without knowledge of the Polish language or access to Polish archives at the height of the Cold War, the trial records were the best source with which they had to work. What we now know, thanks to the meticulous and exhaustive research conducted by Patrick Montague, is that great quantities of vital evidence concerning Chełmno were also stored in Polish archives but had never been sufficiently accessed, examined and incorporated into Holocaust scholarship. The full incorporation of this vital evidence from Polish archives into our historical knowledge of the Chełmno death camp is one of the major achievements of Patrick Montague’s book.

Equally important, Patrick Montague has written a book that allows the reader to hear the multiple voices of witnesses who experienced the camp in one way or another. In addition to the chilling testimonies of perpetrators taken for postwar trials, the reader encounters the vivid accounts of others: Heinz May, the German forester who supervised the land that became the site of the death camp’s mass graves and crematoria; various Polish villagers, as well as Henryk Mania and Henryk Maliczak, Polish prisoners of the Germans who temporarily ascended to a position of privileged collaborators at Chełmno before descending to the position of victim prisoners at Mauthausen; and above all the harrowing accounts of four escapees, Szlama Winer, Mordechai Żurawski, Michał Podchlebnik and Szymon Srebrnik—the latter two now known to those who have seen Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah.

Historical scholarship is a collective endeavor that builds on past achievements and grows as each historian adds his or her own contribution . . .

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