Notes on the Chelmno Waldlager - January 1942
Szlamek Bajler was a young Jew from the village of Izbica Kujawska
, north of
in the annexed "Warthegau". Bajler was arrested in a round-up in
in early January 1942
and forced to work in the Chelmno Waldlager
He witnessed the destruction of most of the 1,600 Jews of his native village, included his own family,
about a week later. Five days after the massacre Bajler escaped from the Waldlager
. He managed to
get to the
where he told his story to
who urged him to write it down.
Bajler did so under the pseudonym Yakov Grojanowski
This is an extract of his notes. Bajler and his 28 fellow prisoners arrived at
Tuesday, 6 January 1942
“We arrived at 12:30 p.m. We were pushed out of the lorry. From here onwards we were in the hands
of black-uniformed SS men, all of them high-ranking Reich
Germans. We were ordered to hand
over all our money and valuables. After this fifteen men were selected, I among them, and taken down to
the cellar rooms of the Schloss
(castle). We fifteen were confined in one room, the remaining
fourteen in another. Down in the cellar it was pitch dark. Some Ethnic Germans on the domestic staff provided
us with straw. Later a lantern was brought. At around eight in the evening we received unsweetened black
coffee and nothing else. We were all in a depressed mood. One could only think of the worst, some were
close to tears. We kissed and took leave of each other. It was unimaginably cold and we lay down close
together. We spent the whole night without shutting our eyes. We only talked about the deportation of Jews,
particularly from Kolo
The way it looked, we had no prospect of ever getting out again."
Wednesday, 7 January 1942
"At seven in the morning, the gendarme on duty knocked and ordered us to get up. It took half an hour
till they brought us black coffee and bread from our provisions. We drew some meagre consolation from this
and told each other there was a God in heaven; we would, after all, be going to work.
At about 8:30 we were led into the courtyard. Six of us had to go into the second cellar room to bring
out two corpses. The dead were from Klodawa
and had hanged themselves. They were conscript grave-diggers. Their corpses were thrown on a lorry.
We met the other fourteen enforced grave-diggers from
. As soon as we came out of the cellar we were
surrounded by twelve gendarmes and Gestapo
men with machine guns. We got on the lorry.
Our escorts were six gendarmes with machine guns. Behind us came another vehicle with 10 gendarmes
and two civilians. We drove in the direction of
for about 7 kms till turning left into the forest;
after half a kilometre we halted at a clear path. We were ordered to get down and line up in double file.
An SS man ordered us to fall in with our shovels, dressed, despite the frost, only in shoes, underwear,
trousers and shirts. Our coats, hats, gloves, etc., had to remain in a pile on the ground. The two civilians
took all the shovels and pick-axes down from the lorry. Eight of us who weren’t handed any tools had
to take down the corpses. Already on our way into the forest we saw about fourteen men, enforced
grave-diggers from Klodawa
, who had arrived before us.
The eight men without tools carried the two corpses to the ditch and threw them in. We didn’t have to
wait long before the next lorry arrived with fresh victims. It was specially constructed. It looked like
a normal large lorry, in grey paint, with two hermetically closed rear doors. The inner walls were of steel
metal. There weren’t any seats. The floor was covered by a wooden grating, as in public baths, with
straw mats on top. Between the driver’s cab and the rear part were two peepholes. With a torch one
could observe through these peepholes if the victims were already dead.
Under the wooden grating were two tubes about 15 cms thick which came out of the cab. The tubes
had small openings from which gas poured out. The gas generator was in the cab, where the same
driver sat all the time. He wore a uniform of the SS death’s head units and was about forty years old.
There were two such vans.
When the lorries approached we had to stand at a distance of 5 m from the ditch. The leader of the guard
detail was a high-ranking SS man, an absolute sadist and murderer. He ordered that eight men were to
open the doors of the lorry. The smell of gas that met us was overpowering. The victims were gypsies from
. Strewn about the van were all their belongings:
accordions, violins, bedding, watches and other valuables.
After the doors had been open for five minutes orders were screamed at us, ‘Here! You Jews! Get in
there and turn everything out!’
The work didn’t progress quickly enough. The SS leader fetched his whip and screamed, ‘The devil,
I’ll give you a hand straight away!’ He hit out in all directions on people’s heads, ears and so on, till they
collapsed. Three of the eight who couldn’t get up again were shot on the spot. When the others saw this
they clambered back on their feet and continued the work with their last reserves of energy.”
Bajler mentions a fat man Giter
who was unable to keep up with the speed of the work. He was flogged cruelly by the SS leader
(‘Big Whip’) and shot in the ditch.
“The corpses were thrown one on top of another, like rubbish on a heap. We got hold of them by the
feet and the hair. At the edge of the ditch stood two men who threw in the bodies. In the ditch stood
an additional two men who packed them in head to feet, facing downwards. If any space was left, a
child was pushed in. Every batch comprised 180 - 200 corpses. For every three vanloads twenty men
were used to cover up the corpses. At first this had to be done twice, later up to three times, because
nine vans arrived (that is nine times sixty corpses).
At exactly 12 noon we had to put our shovels down and to climb out of the ditch. We were surrounded
by guards all the time. We even had to excrete on the spot. We went to the spot where our belongings
were. We had to sit on them close together. We were given cold bitter coffee and a frozen piece of bread.
That was our lunch. That’s how we sat half an hour. Afterwards we had to line up, were counted and
led back to work.
What did the dead look like? They weren’t burnt or black; their faces were unchanged. Nearly all the
dead were soiled with excrement. At about five o’clock we stopped work. The eight men who had
worked with the corpses had to lie on top of them face downwards. An SS man with a machine gun
shot at their heads.
We dressed quickly and took the shovels with us. We were counted and escorted to the lorry by
gendarmes and SS men. We had to put the shovels away. Then we were counted again and pushed
into the lorry. The journey to the Schloss
took about 15 minutes. We travelled together with the
men from Klodawa
and talked very quietly together,
so the gendarmes sitting at the back shouldn’t hear us.
It turned out that there were many more rooms in the Schloss
. We numbered twenty in our room,
with fifteen more in the adjacent one. There weren’t any other enforced grave diggers. As soon as we
came into the cold and black cellar we threw ourselves down on the straw and cried about everything
that had befallen us.”
With Bajler in that cellar were a 15 year-old boy named Monik Halter
40 year-old Meir Pitrowski
and 55 year-old
, all from Izbica Kujawska
The latter invited his fellow prisoners to say the prayer of confession and penitence before death.
“It was a very depressing sight. The sergeant-major knocked at the door, shouting ‘Quiet, you Jews
or I shoot!’ We continued the prayer softly with choking voices.
At 7:30 in the evening they brought us a pot of thin kohlrabi soup. We couldn’t swallow anything for crying and pain.
It was very cold and we had no covers at all.
One of us exclaimed ‘Who knows who among us will be missing tomorrow.’ We pressed close together
and lapsed into exhausted fitful sleep haunted by terrible dreams. We slept for about four hours. Then we
ran about the room freezing cold and debating the fate that was in store for us.”
Thursday, 8 January 1942
"The day starts in more or less similar fashion to yesterday, although high ranking SS men came to visit.
Their identity is not mentioned, but they were driving in a limousine. The identity of one of the ‘eight’ who
worked with the corpses is known: 19 year-old
Together with his fellows he was shot in the ditch at the end of the working day."
About the killing inside the
“Two hours later the first lorry arrived full of Gypsies. I state with one hundred per cent certainty that the
executions had taken place in the forest. In the normal course of events the gas vans used to stop about
one hundred metres from the mass graves. In two instances the gas vans, which were filled with Jews,
stopped twenty metres from the ditch. This happened once on this Thursday, the other time on
Wednesday the 14th
There were also more details about the gas vans themselves:
“Our comrades from among the ‘eight’ told us there was an apparatus with buttons in the driver’s cab.
From this apparatus two tubes led into the van. The driver (there were two execution gas vans, and two
drivers – always the same) pressed a button and got out of the van. At the same moment frightful screaming,
shouting and banging against the sides of the van could be heard. That lasted for about fifteen minutes.
Then the driver re-boarded the van and shone an electric torch into the back to see if the people were already
dead. Then he drove the van to a distance of five metres from the ditch.”
About the dead bodies Bajler added to his previous comment:
“They were still warm and looked asleep. Their cheeks weren’t pale; they still had a natural skin colour.”
There were 9 transports to be buried, of which 7 comprised Gypsies and the last two Jewish victims.
Back in the cellar, the Jews were ordered by the guards to sing.
, begged Bajler to stand up and sing. So he did:
“’Friends and honourable people, get up and sing after me; first we shall cover our heads.’ I began to
sing ‘Hear! O Israel, the eternal one is our God, the eternal one is unique’. Those assembled repeated each
verse in depressed tones. Then I continued: ‘Praised be his name and the splendour of his realm for even and ever’,
which the others repeated after me three times. The gendarme insisted that we go on. I said ‘Friends and
honourable people, we shall now sing the Hatikvah
.’ And we sang the anthem with our heads covered.
It sounded like a prayer. After this the gendarme left and bolted the door with three locks.
Later that evening the prisoners had to sing again. They had to repeat ‘We thank
By five in the morning everybody was awake because of the cold. We had a conversation.
, a member of the Bund, and
, both from Klodawa
owned a furriers in Klodawa
had lost their belief in God because he didn’t concern himself with injustice and suffering. In contrast others,
myself included, remained firm in our belief and said, like
(a worthy man from Izbica
that the time of the Messiah was at hand.”
Friday, 9 January 1942
"The bottom of the ditch was about 1.5 metres wide, the top five metres and its depth was five metres.
The mass graves extended a long way. If a tree stood in the way it was felled.
Among the ‘eight’ today were Abraham Zalinski
32 years old, Zalman Jakubowski
, 55, and the earlier
mentioned Gershon Praschker
, all from Izbica
They were killed as usual.
On arrival back at the at the courtyard of Schloss Kulmhof
we were disagreeably surprised to see
a new transport. They were probably a new batch of grave-diggers: sixteen men from
and sixteen from Bugaj
Among those from Izbica
were 1. Moshe Lesek
40 years old, 2. Avigdor Palanski
, 20 years old, 3.
, 35 years old, 4.
, 45 years old, 5.
, 45 years old, 6.
51 years old, 7. Kalman Radzewski
, 32 years old, 8.
, 40 years old. Among those from
was my friend and comrade
Haim Reuben Izbizki
, 35 years old.
Twenty of the old grave-diggers, together with five new ones, were driven into another room in the cellar.
This room was somewhat smaller than the previous one. There we found bedding, underwear, trousers,
suits as well as food-stuffs (bread, dripping, and sugar). These items belonged to the new grave-diggers.
We heard voices from the adjacent room. I banged at the wall and shouted at a spot where a missing
brick let the air through. I asked if H.R. Izbizki
was in the room. He came to the wall. I asked if at least his mother and sister had escaped. The guard
interrupted our conversation.
Afterwards the new arrivals gave us some political news. They said the Russians had already retaken
and were making their way towards us. We wished they would with God’s assistance come and
destroy this terrible place."
Seven to eight transports were buried this day, at first Gypsies as yesterday but the last two containing
“They were younger and older people with suitcases and rucksacks. On their clothes a Jewish star was
affixed front and back. We assumed they were diseased camp inmates whom the Nazis wanted to get rid
of in this manner. They were buried with their belongings. These events shook us to the core because up
until then we had hoped that Jews in the camps would survive these terrible times.”
Saturday, 10 January 1942
“At about eleven o’clock the first van loaded with victims arrived. Jewish victims were treated in this way:
the Jewish men, women and children were in their underwear. After they had been tossed out of the van,
two Germans in plain clothes stepped up to them to make a thorough check if anything had been hidden.
If they saw a necklace round a throat they tore it off. They wrenched rings from fingers, and pulled gold
teeth out of mouths. They even examined anuses (and, in the case of women, genitals). The entire
examination was done most brutally.” All the victims were from Klodawa
told us he had no further reason for living
since his wife and 15 year-old only daughter had just been buried. But his fellows restrained him from asking
the Germans to shoot him. Today seven transports arrived."
Sunday, 11 January 1942
“We were told we wouldn’t have to work because it was Sunday. After the morning prayer and the prayer
for the dead we remained in our paradisiacal cellar. We didn’t recite the prayer of penitence. We again talked
about ourselves, politics and God. Everybody wanted to hold out until liberation.”
Monday, 12 January 1942
“At 7 a.m. they brought us coffee and bread. Some of the men from
(who had lately
lived in Kutno
drank up all the coffee. The others got very annoyed and said we were already facing death and had to
behave with dignity.
At 8:30 we were already at work. At 9:30 the first gas van appeared. Among the ‘eight’ were
Aharon Rosenthal, Schlomo Babiacki
, all of them aged between
fifty and sixty.” Only the five oldest of the ‘eight’ would be
shot at the end of the day.
“On this day we were absolutely slave-driven. They wouldn’t even wait till the gas smell had evaporated.”
Nine vans arrived, each of sixty Jews from Klodawa
500 people from Klodawa
in all. “My friend
screamed terribly for a moment when he
recognized his 14 year-old son, who had just been thrown into the ditch. We had to stop him, too,
from begging the Germans to shoot him. We argued it was necessary to survive this suffering, so we
might revenge ourselves later and pay the Germans back."
Back in the cellar from the adjacent room came the message that “the Germans had captured an escaped
Jew from Klodawa
. Next morning they told us the
following details: the captured escaper, Mahmens Goldmann
had told them in detail how the Jews were driven into the gas vans. When they arrived at the Schloss
they were at first treated most politely. An elderly German, around sixty, with a long pipe in his mouth, helped
the mothers to lift the children from the lorry. He carried babies so that the mothers could alight more easily
and helped dotards to reach the Schloss
The unfortunate ones were deeply moved by his gentle and mild manner. They were led into a warm room
which was heated by two stoves. The floor was covered with wooden gratings as in a bath-house. The
elderly German and the SS officer spoke to them in this room. They assured them they would be taken to the
. There they were expected to work and
be productive. The women would look after the household, the children would go to school, and so on. In
order to get there, however, they had to undergo delousing. For that purpose the needed to undress down
to their underwear. Their clothes would be passed through hot steam. Valuables and documents should be tied
up in a bundle, and handed over for safe keeping.
Whoever had kept banknotes, or had sewn them into their clothes, should take them out without fail,
otherwise they would get damaged in the steam oven. Moreover they would all have to take a bath. The
elderly German politely requested those present to take a bath and opened a door from which 15 - 20 steps led
down. It was terribly cold there. Asked about the cold, the German said gently they should walk a bit further:
it would get warmer. They walked along a lengthy corridor to some steps leading to a ramp. The gas
van had driven up to the ramp.
The polite behaviour ended abruptly and they were all driven into the van with malicious screams. The Jews
realised immediately they were facing death. They screamed, crying the prayer ‘Hear! O Israel’.
At the exit of the warm room was a small chamber in which
Goldmann hid. After he had spent 24 hours there in the icy cold
and was already quite stiff, he decided to look for his clothes and to save himself. He was caught and
pushed in among the grave-diggers.”
Tuesday, 13 January 1942
The next morning, at the Waldlager
ordered to lie in the ditch and was shot.
“On this day the transports were brimful – roughly ninety corpses in each van. On this day the Jewish community at
was liquidated.” Also “we buried approximately
eight hundred Jews from Bugaj
. We buried nine transports;
after work, five of the men who had unloaded the corpses were shot. When in our cellar
burst into tears; he had lost his wife,
two children and his parents.
The question how one could escape in order to warn the whole Jewish population” was intensively
discussed, not solved that night."
Wednesday, 14 January 1942
Immediately after breakfast Krzewacki
hanged himself, with the help of Getzel Chrzatowski.
Gershon Swietoplawski, Krzewacki
’s colleague in digging,
followed him into death. The corpses remained in the cellar for a few days.
Between the victims of this day, Jews from Izbica
was also a German civilian, one of the cooks at the Schloss
. He had tried to catch a Jew who had
managed to steal something from the kitchen. Following the thief, he had entered the van. “At the very moment
the doors had clanged shut. His shouting and knocking had been ignored. Some of us thought he had been
deliberately poisoned so that no witness of this killing should remain alive.
On this day one of the vans drove in error right up to the ditch. We heard the muted cries for help and knocking
at the door of the tortured victims. At the end of the day six men of the ‘eight’ were shot.”
Thursday, 15 January 1942
“On this occasion we rode in a bus. Monik Halter
called across to me the windows of the vehicle could be easily opened with a hook. The thought
of escape had lodged in my brain all the time.
At 8 a.m. we were already at the place of work. At ten o’clock the first victims arrived, again from
. Till noon we dispatched four overloaded
transports. One van waited in line after the next.
At midday I received the sad news that my brother and parents had just been buried. I tried to get closer
to the corpses to take a last look at my nearest and dearest. Once I had a clod of frozen earth tossed at
me, thrown by the benign German with the pipe. The second time 'Big Whip' shot at me. I don’t know if
the shot missed me deliberately, or by accident. One thing is certain: I remained alive. I suppressed my
anguish and concentrated on working fast so as to forget my dreadful situation for five minutes.
I remained lonely as a piece of stone. Out of my entire family, which comprised sixty people, I am the only
one who survived. Towards evening, as we helped to cover the corpses, I put my shovel down.
followed my example and we
said the prayer of the mourners together. Before leaving the ditch five of the ‘eight’ were shot. At seven in
the evening we were taken back home. All those who hailed from
were in absolute despair. We had realised that we should never
see our relatives again. I was quite beside myself and indifferent to everything.
In the next room, we had learnt, were eighteen grave-diggers from
. We heard through the wall
(the elder of the Jewish Council at Lodz
ordered the deportation of 750 families from Lodz
Friday, 16 January 1942
The 750 families from Lodz
had arrived by train at
, where they had been lodged in a synagogue.
This Friday “the victims came from Lodz
Some of them looked starved and showed signs of having been beaten and injured; one could gauge
the degree of famine in Lodz
. We felt great pity when
we saw how they had hungered for a long time merely to perish in such a cruel manner. The corpses
hardly weighed anything. Where previously three transports were put in layers one on top of the other
now there was room for four.
In the afternoon ‘Big Whip’ again drank a bottle of schnapps; afterwards he began to deal murderous
blows with his whip.
On Friday they started to pour chloride on the graves because of the stench caused by the many corpses.”
Eight transports were buried. At the end of the day seven of the ‘eight’ were shot.
Saturday, 17 January 1942
“We buried seven overloaded transports. We had finished the work at five o’clock when a car suddenly
appeared with the order to shoot sixteen men. This was obviously punishment for the escape of
. (He had run away at 10 o’clock on Friday night.)
Sixteen men were selected. They had to lie down in groups of eight, face downwards, on top of the corpses,
and were shot through the head with machine guns.”
Sunday, 18 January 1942
“We learned at breakfast that we would have to go to work. At eight o’clock we were already at the place
of work. Twenty new pick-axes and shovels were taken down from the lorry. We now realised that ‘production’,
far from coming to an end, was on the increase.
Because it was Sunday not all the gendarmes were on duty. We consumed our lunch in the grave. They probably
wanted to make sure that we didn’t attack any of them. We didn’t even attempt to hurl ourselves upon our
executioners. The guns levelled at us filled us with too much fear.
On this day no one was shot at the end of work.
After the evening prayer we decided to run away, no matter what the cost. I asked
to give me a few marks because I didn’t have
a single Pfennig
. He gave me 50 marks which he had sewn into his clothing. The escape of
was an example that had made a deep impression
on me because he got out through a cellar window.”
Monday, 19 January 1942
“We again boarded the bus in the morning. I let all the others get on in front of me and was the last
one aboard. The gendarme sat in front. On this day no SS men rode behind us. To my right was a
window which could be opened easily. During the ride I opened the window. When fresh cold air
streamed in I caught fright and quickly shut the window again. My comrades, among them
in particular, encouraged me, however.
After I made a decision I softly asked my comrades to stand up so the draught of cold air shouldn’t
reach the gendarmes. I quickly pulled the window pane out of its frame, pushed my legs out and turned
around. I held on to the door with my hands and pressed my feet against the hinges. I told my colleagues
they should put the window pane back immediately after I had jumped. I then jumped at once.
When I hit the ground I rolled for a bit and scraped the skin off my hands. The only thing that mattered
to me was not to break a leg. I turned round to see if they had noticed anything on the bus but it
continued its journey.
I lost no time but ran as fast as I could across fields and woods. After an hour I stood before the farm
of a Polish peasant. I went inside and greeted him in the Polish manner: ‘Blessed be Jesus Christ'.
While I warmed myself I asked cautiously about the distance to
. It was only 3 kms. I also received a piece of bread which I
put in my pocket. As I was about to go the peasant asked me if I was a Jew – which I absolutely denied.
I asked him why he suspected me, and he told me they were gassing Jews and Gypsies at
. I took my leave with the Polish greeting and went away.”
Around 2 p.m. Bajler reached the town of
which had a Jewish community. He was taken by
them for an Ethnic German because he didn’t wear a star. He looked rough, having had no opportunity in
to wash and shave. He went to the rabbi, who asked who he was:
“’Rabbi, I am a Jew from the nether world!’ He looked at me as if I was mad. I told him: ‘Rabbi, don’t think I
am crazed and have lost my reason. I am a Jew from the nether world. They are killing the whole nation Israel.
I myself have buried a whole town of Jews, my parents, brothers and the entire family. I have remained lonely
as a piece of stone.’ I cried during the conversation. The rabbi asked: ‘Where are they being killed?’
I said: ‘Rabbi, in Chelmno
. They are gassed in the forest
and buried in mass graves.’ His domestic (the rabbi was a widower) brought me a bowl of water for my
swollen eyes. I washed my hands. The injury on my right hand began to hurt. When my story made the rounds
many Jews came, to whom I told all the details. They all wept.
We ate bread and butter; I was given tea to drink and said the blessing.”
The rabbi, Jakub Szulman
, realizing Bajler’s story was the
truth, and wrote a letter to his relatives in Lodz
"My dearest ones,
I had not yet replied to your letters since I had not known exactly what was
being discussed. Now, to our great misfortune, we know everything. An
eyewitness who by chance was able to escape from hell has been to see me...
I learned everything from him. The place where everyone is being put to death
is called Chelmno
, not far
people are kept in the nearby forest
. People are killed in one
of two ways: either by shooting or by
poison gas. This is what happened to the towns of
Dabie, Izbica Kujawska
and others. Recently, thousands of Gypsies have been brought there from the
so-called Gypsy Camp in Lodz
and the same
is done to them. Do not think that
a madman is writing; unfortunately, it is the cruel and tragic truth (Good
God!). O man, throw off your rags, sprinkle your head with ashes, or run
through the streets and dance in madness...I am so wearied by the sufferings
of Israel, my pen can write no more. My heart is breaking. But perhaps the
Almighty will take pity and save the 'last remnants of our People'.
Help us, O Creator of the World!"
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy
, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986
Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed.: The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944
, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1984
© ARC 2006