A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Heart-wrenching finds from a Nazi death camp
I first came to Chelmno on Corpus Christi Day, a spring religious holiday when Poles flock to the streets and join long processions in cities and villages across the country. The thick fragrance of rose petals strewn across the ground mingled in the air with homilies broadcast from the village church, beckoning parishioners who knelt in prayer on the asphalt-covered main thoroughfare. From a small knoll near the church, I admired the timeless village scene, framed by the lush Ner River Valley and an agricultural landscape that has changed little over the centuries. A Russian general, obviously taken with the view, built his country estate here in the nineteenth century. Today, only a scatter of cobblestones and a granary remain from the estate, together with a few trenches dug by archaeologists and surrounded with blue memorial candles from Israel, marking the center of the Chelmno Extermination Camp.
The first camp where mass executions were carried out using gas, Chelmno was a testing ground for the Nazis looking to develop increasingly efficient methods to carry out their "final solution." Between 1941 and 1945, as many as 300,000 adults and children, mostly Polish Jews, were executed and cremated here.
Since the late 1980s, excavations by Lucja Nowak, director of the Konin Regional Museum, have uncovered traces of the camp facilities and large quantities of personal effects belonging to its victims. Her findings have led to a more complete version of the camp's history than the existing handful of eyewitness accounts provide; they also give a voice to those who died here.
"When you say that 200,000 or 300,000 people were killed here, that doesn't really say much," says Nowak, a spritely, determined woman with thick, wavy black hair and dark, piercing eyes. "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."
Juliet Golden is a freelance writer based in southwest Poland.