Friday, June 16, 2017

Sonderkommando Kulmhof in German Documents - Origin and Foundation

Author: Hans Metzner
Mass Killing Unit of Warthegau

Sonderkommando Lange in German Documents:

Sonderkommando Kulmhof in German Documents:

On 16 July 1941, officials of the Reichsgau Wartheland discussed the "solution of the Jewish question", which was picked up by the head of the SD and Umwandererzentralstelle (migration centre office) Posen Rolf-Heinz Höppner and forwarded to Adolf Eichmann with the request "to have your reactions sometime". Höppner himself considered the proposals "in part fantastic, but in my view...thoroughly feasible". Among mass sterilisation and erection of a huge camp for the Jews of the Warthegau, it was discussed "to finish off those of the Jews who are not employable by means of some quick-working agent" as "this winter there is a danger that not all the Jews can be fed anymore" (Document 15). The feasibility of the secret mass killing of people in the Warthegau had been previously demonstrated by the clearing of the asylums by Sonderkommando Lange with its carbon monoxide gas van (see the previous posting of this series Sonderkommando Lange in German Documents: Euthanasia 1940/41). On 2 September 1941, Höppner urged Eichmann for a policy decision: [1]
"It is by the way essential that it is entirely clear from the start what shall happen with those evacuated ethnic groups, which are undesirable for the greater German settlements: if the aim is to permanently assure them a certain life or if they shall be wiped out [ausgemerzt] entirely."

According to the historian Michael Alberti, the Reich Gouverneur Arthur Greiser obtained Heinrich Himmler's permission to murder 100,000 unfit Jews of the Warthegau on 19 or 20 September 1941 in exchange for accepting the deportation of Jews from the Altreich and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to the Warthegau requested by Himmler the day(s) earlier [2]. In contrast to this, the historian Peter Klein argues that Greiser received the authorization to kill the unfit Jews already on 18 July 1941 in his military headquarters Wolf's Lair from Adolf Hitler [3].

In any case, the Nazi mass murder of Jewish families in the Warthegau begun in September 1941 when the Konin district was cleared by Sonderkommando Lange. Correspondence of the local authorities indicates that the "district is free of Jews" by 3 October 1941 [4]. The Polish prisoner Henryk Mania assigned to the commando described the killings as follows in 1967: [5]
"...[F]irst we had to dig pits in the forest. Jews, I believe from Konin and surrounding towns, were transported to the forest in trucks. First, they completely undressed and entered the gas van, which then drove to a pit we had dug. I did not witness the loading and gassing of the Jews; I just assume this is what occurred based on previous experience. Our job was to unload the naked corpses and throw them into the pit. Entire families were gassed, as among the bodies were men, women and children. Following our work each day, we loaded the clothing into the gas van, which was driven to the Gestapo office in Konin. We then had to search the clothing for valuables. I am unable to say how long this operation lasted or how many victims there were, but it continued for several days. This was the beginning of the campaign of exterminating the Jews."

The use of the gas van is confirmed by the local resident (?) Kazimierz Szymczak, who saw "a large automobile, lined with sheet metal, in which a running engine pumped gases through a pipe" [6], and the Polish prisoner Mieczyslaw Sekiewicz, who was brought from Konin prison and observed "a large, dark gray ambulance-like car that opened in the rear...human corpses of men, women and children, also Jews fell out from the inside" [7]. The day before the gas van arrived, Sekiewicz also described what looks like the mass killing with quicklime and water or some other liquid in a pit, which is regarded as factual by historians and and as evidence that Lange was experimenting with killing techniques [8].

Next, Sonderkommando Lange turned to the unfit Jews of the district Kalisch (Kalisz). According to a report of the Schupo Kalisch of 22 November 1941, "a special delegation of the Secret State Police" deported the "unfit" in the period 16 to 21 November 1941 [9]. 127 victims were brought away from Kalisch on 18 November 1941, another batch of victims was fetched on 1 December 1941 [10]. From 26 November 1941, 700 Jews were driven away with a dark painted, closed truck from Kozminek [11].

The gas van was noticed on its way to the Jedlec forest by the Polish workers Antoni Ja. ("a big black automobile, which looked like a bus, but was without any windows") [12] and Michel Me. ("a closed, black automobile, looking like a bus, without windows") [13], by Jozef Go. ("a large car with the appearance of a bus, but no windows...I heard big noise in the car, as if someone was banging something against the walls") [14] and by Twardowski Wl., who observed the vehicle in the forest with binoculars ("...backwards to the grave and when the rear of the vehicle was opened, I saw the white interior and that the vehicle was half filled with people, like they were dead") [15].

So far, Sonderkommando Lange visited its victims and brought them to a nearby forest for execution and burial. The decentralised operation was feasible for the small scale mass killings, but at some point it was decided, likely for logistic and camouflage reasons, to transport the victims of the forthcoming large scale mass murder of the unfit Jews of the Warthegau to a central extermination site. 

The Waffen-SS driver Walter Burmeister, who joined Sonderkommando Lange already in July 1941 according to a proposal list for the War Merit Cross II with swords [16] and so could have been involved in the above described killings of Jews in Konin and Kalisz, described the erection of the extermination site as follows: [17]

"One day in late Autumn 1941, I received the order from the State Police office Posen for a trip with my vehicle with Hauptsturmführer Lange. We went directly or via Litzmannstadt to a small village called Kulmhof. A Sonderkommando was to be found here as Lange told me either already during the journey or after our arrival in Kulmhof.

The following persons were assigned to the Sonderkommando from the State Police office Posen, who came with us or arrived there about the same time:

1.) Bürstinger...
2.) Behm and
3.) Richter....

Around the same time, SS men from other agencies, e.g. the State Police Office Litzmannstadt arrived in Kulmhof. I remember the following persons:

1.) Otto...
2.) Görlich...
3.) Plate...

Likewise from Posen was a Polish working detail of six or seven persons, who had been prisoners of Fort VII in Posen. Shortly after our arrival in Kulmhof a guard detail consisting of police men showed up...

The SS and police men were accommodated in the houses of the village, which was situated at both sides of the road…Somewhat offside the village was the palace, which was connected to the road with a farm track. Next to this was a stony granary. The area was first fenced with a wire mesh fence, later a timber fence was erected. There was a church on a hill in the village, which we used a garage for our vehicles...

The Polish working detail constructed a fenced ramp at the palace. The Polish working detail was accommodated in the palace and could move around freely. The Jewish working details formed of the first Jewish transports arriving in Kulmhof lived either in the palace or in the granary...

Before the first transports of people came to Kulmhof, we had to sign a declaration that we will not speak about anything we hear and see, because it was a secret state affair."

Kulmhof (Chełmno nad Nerem) is a small village near Warthbrücken (Koło) at the river Ner. Figure 1 shows a pre-1943 photograph of Kulmhof viewed from the South and across the Ner. The church of the village is readily visible, left to it the so called "palace", which was to become the centre of the mass extermination. These buildings and the surrounding houses were confiscated by Sonderkommando Kulmhof [18], as Lange's men became known to when it settled in the village.

Figure 1: Photograph of Kulmhof, undated but before 1943 (YVA 1007/1)

Below is a close up of the palace, supposedly dated 1939 (for another view on the palace see Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, photograph 3)...

Figure 2: Kulmhof palace, 1939 (, cf. Bednarz, Oboz Stracen w Chelmnie nad nerem, p.1)

...and photographs of the church.

Figure 3: Church, post-war (YVA 1427/367)
Figure 4: Church, 1944 (YVA 1427/355)

Other buildings confiscated by the SS-Sonderkommando included the rectory...

Figure 5: Rectory (YVA 1007/8)
...the school...
Figure 6: "New" school (YVA 1007/5)
...the clubhouse...
Figure 7: Clubhouse/German house/
Volunteer Fire Department (YVA 1007/4)
...the canteen...
Figure 8: Kitchen/canteen (YVA 1007/9)
...the granary near the palace...

Figure 9: Granary, burnt out (YVA 3774/2)

and the village hall.

Figure 10: Village hall (AIPN GK 165/271, tom 6, p. 23)

The location of the various buildings is shown on the map in Figure 11.

Figure 11: Map of Kulmhof from Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust (reproduced with the author's permission)

The occupation of the palace by Sonderkommando Kulmhof and its use of Polish and Jewish working details is borne out by a letter of the local health office to the president of the government of Hohensalza (Inowrocław) of 24 January 1942 on typhus cases in Kulmhof (Document 18). The report identifies the staff of the camp as the "members of the Sonderkommando", the "Polish working detail", each accommodated in separate "housings", and the "Jewish working detail", which was "accommodated in the palace of Kulmhof".

Furthermore, the Sonderkommando leased a garden area behind the palace to extend the perimeter of the site. According to correspondence between the county administration and the Gestapo Litzmannstadt (Lodz), the "SS-Sonderkommando Kulmhof" paid 150 RM for the period 1 October 1941 to 30 September 1942 (Documents 19 and 20). The amount might be a typo in the copy the Gestapo Litzmannstadt forwarded to the Kulmhof deputy commandant Albert Plate to certify the correctness of the additional payment for the period 1 October 1942 to 31 March 1943, since the annual leasing costs were given as 100 RM only. The formal begin of the leasing on 1 October 1941 is not necessarily tied to the arrival of Lange in Kulmhof as the contract could have been back-dated. According to the Kulmhof resident Andrzej Miszczak, it was "in mid-November 1941, the 'Gestapo' group led by Lang[e] came to Chelmno" [19]. The date November of 1941 is also mentioned as foundation of the camp by Leopold Fjalkowski, Zofja Potyralska, Helena Krol and Ignacy Kantorowski [20].

The initial SS personnel from the Gestapo offices Posen and Litzmannstadt was considered insufficient for the operation of the Kulmhof extermination camp and Lange was to receive further manpower from the migration centre office Litzmannstadt. On 15 December 1941, the head of the office Hermann Krumey agreed to the Inspector of the Security Police and SD in Posen Ernst Damzog to provide three SS leaders and NCOs for the "Kommando Lange" (Document 16). The SS men Herbert Otto, Fritz Ismer and Karl Göde were subordinated together with the criminal police man Grebe to Lange on 6 January 1942 (Document 17).


[1] Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Warthegau, p. 375

[2] Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Warthegau, p. 402

[3] Klein, Die 'Gettoverwaltung Litzmannstadt' 1940 bis 1944, p. 347 - 352

[4] Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Warthegau, p. 412

[5] Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 42

[6] Pawlicka-Nowak (ed.), Swiadectwa Zaglady, p. 366

[7] Testimony of Mieczyslaw Sekiewicz of 27 October 1945, reproduced in Pawlicka-Nowak (ed.), Chelmno Witnesses Speak, p. 95, cf. Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 45 and Krakowski, Das Todeslager Chelmno/Kulmhof, p. 24; Sekiewicz dated the action to November 1941

[8] Curilla, Der Judenmord in Polen und die deutsche Ordnungspolizei 1939-1945, p. 175; Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Wartheland 1939-1945, p. 413; Krakowski, Das Todeslager Chełmno/Kulmhof, p. 25; Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 47; Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, p. 201; still, the testimony of a single witness, who later stated that he was shocked and half-conscious during the event (Pawlicka-Nowak (ed.), Swiadectwa Zaglady, p. 498), on such atrocity should be taken carefully. The large scale described by Sekiewicz seems to stand in contrast to its experimental character.

[9] Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Warthegau, p. 415

[10] The Kalish Book, p. 266; online available here

[11] Justiz und NS-Verbrechen, volume VII, case no. 231

[12] interrogation of Antoni Ja. of 20 October 1945, BArch B 162/20934, p. 153

[13] interrogation of Michel Me. of 20 October 1945, BArch B 162/20934, p. 155

[14] interrogation of Jozef Go. of 20 October 1945, BArch B 162/20934, p. 154

[15] interrogation of Twardowski Wl. of 20 October 1945, BArch B 162/20934, p. 156

[16] Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Warthegau, p. 370

[17] interrogation of Walter Burmeister of 24 January 1961, BArch B162/3246, p. 147ff.

[18] e.g. interrogation of Konrad Schulz of 27 April 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 217; interrogation of Wa. of 23 March 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 199 ff.; interrogation of Lö. of 21 March 1962, BArch B 162/3249, p. 191 ff.; interrogation of Se. of 22 March 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 195 ff.; interrogation of Erhard Mi. of 18 April 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 210 ff.; interrogation of Adele Fr. of 16 April 1962, BArch B162/3249, p. 207 ff.; interrogation of Andrzej Miszczak of 14 July 1945, AIPN GK 165/271, tom 1, p. 51

[19] interrogation of Andrzej Miszczak of 14 July 1945, AIPN GK 165/271, tom 1, p. 51, cf. Pawlicka-Nowak (ed.), Chelmno Witnesses Speak, p. 139

[20] interrogation of Leopold Fjalkowski of 9 July 1945, AIPN GK 165/271, tom 3, p. 61; interrogation of Zofja Potyralska of 13 July 1945, AIPN GK 165/271, tom 3, p. 102; interrogation of Helena Krol of 14 June 1945, AIPN GK 165/271, tom 1, p. 55; interrogation of Ignacy Kantorowski of 16 June 1945, AIPN GK 165/271, tom 1, p. 70

Archive Abbreviations

AGK: Archivum Glownej Komisji Badania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu

APL: Archiwum Państwowe w Łodzi

APP: Archiwum Państwowe w Poznaniu

AIPN: Archiwum Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej

BArch: Bundesarchiv

NTN: Najwyzszy Trybunai Narodowy

Contemporary German Documents

15.) Letter of Rolf-Heinz Höppner to Adolf Eichmann of 16 July 1941:




(images from, cf., translation based on Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust, p. 37 [citing Hilberg, Documents of destruction: Germany and Jewry, 1933-1945, p. 87] with archivial reference of the document [AGK] NTN 36, p. 161 & 166)

16.) Letter from Ernst Damzog to Hermann Krumey of 18 December 1941:



(BArch B 162/20952, p. 190)

17.) Memo of Hermann Krumey of 6 January 1942:



(BArch B 162/20952, p. 189; cited in Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Warthegau, p. 423 with archivial reference AGK, UWZ/L 205, p. 21)

18.) Report of the Health Office Wartbrücken (Kolo) to the Regierungspräsidenten Hohensalza (Inowroclaw) of 24 January 1942:




(APP/299/2111, p. 405 & 406; cited in Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Wartheland 1939-1944, p. 430; Roberto Mühlenkamp's translation)

19.) Letter of the Landrat Kreis Wartbrücken to the Gestapo Litzmannstadt (Lodz) of 24 June 1943:



(APL/221/29678, p.115; cited in Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Wartheland 1939-1944, p. 415 and Klein, "Die Gettoverwaltung Litzmannstadt" 1940 bis 1944, p. 384f.; Roberto Mühlenkamp's translation)

20.) Letter of the Gestapo Litzmannstadt to Albert Plate of 28 June 1943 and his reply of 13 August 1943:



(APL/221/29678, p.116; cited in Klein, "Die Gettoverwaltung Litzmannstadt" 1940 bis 1944, p. 384f.; Roberto Mühlenkamp's translation)

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