Unlike Auschwitz, the name "Chelmno" did not bring terror to the hearts of the Poles or to the Jews of the Lodz ghetto exterminated there. For Chelmno, the first of the killing centers, was a secret. All camps were secret if that term is used to identify something the human mind refuses to accept, because it is repulsed or fearful. But Chelmno was truly secret. Its geographical isolation veiled its existence. In their pilot extermination camp, in deep secrecy, the Germans gassed as many as 340,000 human beings at Chelmno, 99 percent of whom were Jews, and burned their bodies in the nearby woods. The entire Jewish population at Lodz, the second largest Polish city, went up in smoke at Chelmno in 1939. Chelmno has no international survivor organizations, for of the more than 300,000 people brought there for extermination, less than 10 escaped. When the Polish government dedicated the monument, only four survivors stood in the crowd. 1
The village of Chelmno is located 14 kilometers from the town of Kolo, and 50 kilometers from Lodz. Not a stick of wood or a piece of concrete remains of the camp. The Germans destroyed all traces of Chelmno, excavating the buried corpses and burning them. The bones were crushed and together with the ashes dumped into the nearby river or thrown to the winds.
Chelmno today is a place or a group of places where something was. The original village no longer exists, nor does the manor house that was located in its midst, appropriated as the reception center for the "relocatees." No killing center had more than limited housing accommodations, but Chelmno had none. It was truly a camp on wheels. Why would food or housing be needed? The relocatees were exterminated the day they arrived. So add a few huts for the Jewish extermination squads, and house the soldiers in the village. No fuss, no costly building operation, no need for large Jewish labor squads. The only extermination machinery needed were the large trucks in which the victims were gassed as they rode from the manor house to the mass graves in the forests 4 kilometers away, or later to the crematoria. The best one can hope for today is to retrace the routes of doomed Jews, walk in the forests that held the graves, and ponder on the probable site of the vanished crematoria.