Mementoes' witness to forgotten death camp

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THE pathetic belongings have lain beneath the dank Polish earth for more than half a century, forgotten like the tragic stories of their owners who were murdered by the Nazis.

The artefacts, including toys, shoes, glass bottles bearing the word ‘Passover’ and a cigarette case won in a motorcycle race, give humanity to a place once dominated by inhumanity and a voice to the people who were permanently silenced; victims of Hitler’s ‘final solution’.

Thanks to the painstaking work of a team of archaeologists these items have been finally brought to light, and with them some of the forgotten history of the Chelmno extermination camp - the first Nazi camp at which mass executions were carried out using gas.

Unlike the notorious camps of Auschwitz, Dachau or Birkenau, Chelmno was not a concentration camp where prisoners were kept alive to carry out slave labour. Between 1941 and 1945 as many as 300,000 Jewish men, women and children - mainly from the nearby Lodz ghetto - were transported there for one reason: to be murdered. They were herded into hermetically sealed trucks and killed using carbon monoxide. Their bodies were then dumped in mass graves or incinerated.

Retreating Nazi troops razed the camp to the ground, destroying or burying nearly every trace of its existence. In the absence of physical evidence all that remained was the testimony of witnesses and a handful of survivors.

However, the determination of archaeologist Lucja Nowak, director of the Konin Regional Museum, to reveal the truth of what happened in this bleak corner of northern Poland has led to the discovery of nearly 600 items. These include keys, scissors, pliers, knives, eyeglasses, thimbles, buttons, locks, toothbrushes, an inkwell, jewellery and Bayer aspirin tins.

Two broaches, crudely fashioned from wire and carrying the names Bela and Irka, were found in a pit of goods looted from victims from the Lodz ghetto. Medicine bottles were discovered that had come from as far afield as Germany and Luxembourg, and a cigarette case awarded to Jozef Jakubowski for winning a motorcycle race in 1936 was found in one of the pits.

The most moving find was the body of a three-month-old baby who had been buried on the site, alongside a knife engraved: "Keep the Sabbath." It appears the child was somehow kept alive by the Jewish women forced to work in a brothel at the camp.

Nowak, whose efforts have been chronicled in the renowned journal Archaeology, said: "When you say that 200,000 or 300,000 people were killed here, that doesn’t really say much. For me, when we find a small toy or a shoe, that represents a living person. Through these small things we re-create the history of people who had dreams and life plans."

In one section of the concrete wall of the camp’s crematorium, archaeologists found parts of a baby carriage which had been used to reinforce it.

Archaeologist Krzysztof Gorczyca said: "It’s one thing to hear about the crematorium, it’s another to stand inside an enormous pit that is filled with human bones. Only then did it occur to me just how many people were murdered there."

Holocaust researchers say what has been found at Chelmno is invaluable, not least because it gives the lie to the absurd claims of Holocaust deniers who say the Nazis never carried out the mass murder of Jews.

German researcher Andreas Hoeffermann said: "People so often just equate the Nazi Holocaust only with Auschwitz, but Chelmno was the evil from which all the other evils followed.

"Auschwitz was also in part a concentration and labour camp. Although over a million died there, there was a slim chance of life. This was not the case at Chelmno. It was constructed merely to kill.

"The revisionists like to say there were no mass murders, there were no deportations. What has been found in the blood-stained soil of Chelmno is proof of the slaughter, of the fact that people from all walks of life were brought here to die. Historically, this is invaluable stuff."

The Chelmno camp was initially designed to serve as a centre for the extermination of the Jews in the Lodz ghetto and the Warthegau region, which had been annexed to the Third Reich. It was located in the Polish village of Chelmno, 47 miles west of Lodz, on the site of a country estate which had once belonged to a Russian general. It was used as a ‘testing camp’ by the Nazis, who wanted to identify the most efficient method to carry out the ‘final solution’.

Victims were generally brought to the camp by train. They were rounded up in a courtyard of the estate and told they were being sent to a work camp. The prisoners were then taken in groups of 50 - men, women, and children together - to the basement of the estate’s main building and told to strip. Here their valuables were collected in baskets that would supposedly be marked with their names. They were then forced by the guards, who rained blows on them, to run down a ramp into a ‘gas van’ which had its back doors opened.

The enclosed space within the back of the van was from 13 to 15ft long, 6.75ft wide, and 6.5ft high and lined with galvanised tin. After the van had been filled with people, the driver closed and locked the doors, entered the truck’s cab, and switched on the engine which pumped lethal carbon monoxide into the back.

The first transports to Chelmno began on December 7, 1941, and the killings began the following day. The first victims were Jews from the communities in the area of Lodz as well as 5,000 gypsies. Soon victims from all over occupied Europe were being murdered there.

On the night of January 17, 1945, when the Red Army was approaching, the Nazis abandoned Chelmno, having spent several weeks prior to evacuation destroying all buildings and levelling the ground.

Today, only a scattering of cobblestones and a granary remain from the estate of a former Russian general, the nucleus of which formed the boundary of the camp.

Some of the artefacts found at Chelmno have now been transferred to the Yad Vashem Memorial Centre in Israel, where they will be put on permanent display in a new section of the museum.

Haviva Peled-Carmeli, responsible for artefact retrieval at Yad Vashem, said: "Until these finds it was believed that almost all the inmates’ personal belongings were destroyed. We discovered at least 570 individual belongings. In most cases these personal items are the only things left to tell the story of the Holocaust victims."

After the winter, a last dig will take place and a new memorial will be erected at the site. Then, finally, the victims of Chelmno may rest in peace.