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Escapee from Chelmno Documents Atrocities

(January 6 - 19, 1942)

Szlamek Bajler – also known as Szlama Ber Winer and Yakov Grojanowski – was assigned to bury Jews murdered in Chelmno as a Sonderkommando. After learning that he and the others digging graves were to be killed, Bajler escaped through a small window of a truck on January 19, 1942, less than two months after it began operations. As he wrote later, his goals, aside from rescuing his own life, were to let the world know about what was happening in Chełmno. Through all that time, I was calling to God and my parents to help me save the Jewish nation. 

He found shelter at the home of Rabbi Jakub Szulman in Grabow. Szulman 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 from Dabie; people are kept in the nearby forest of Lochow. 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!

Bajler went on to the Warsaw ghetto where, according to the Jewish Historical Institute, Hersz Wasser and his wife Bluma, members of the Oneg Shabbat group, wrote down Bajler’s testimony in February 1942 (the testimony was included in Oneg Shabbat’s report, “The events in Chelmno,” which was hidden in the Ringelblum Archive discovered on September 18, 1946). The Grojanowski Report was later passed on to London

These are excerpts from the notes Bajler recorded:

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 and Dabie. 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 meager 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 gravediggers. Their corpses were thrown on a lorry. We met the other fourteen enforced gravediggers from Izbica. 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 Kolo for about 7 km. till turning left into the forest; after half a kilometer, 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 pickaxes 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 cm. 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 Lodz. 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 from Bydgoszcz, 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 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 for 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 traveled 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 Gershon Praschker, 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 Mechel Wiltschinski from Izbica. Together with his fellows he was shot in the ditch at the end of the working day.”

[About the killing inside the gas vans this day:]

“Two hours later the first lorry arrived full of Gypsies. I state with one hundred percent certainty that the executions took place in the forest. In the normal course of events the gas vans used to stop about one hundred meters from the mass graves. In two instances the gas vans, which were filled with Jews, stopped twenty meters 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 meters 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 color.”

[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. Meir Pitrowski and Jehuda Jakubowicz, from Wloclawek, begged Bajler to stand up and sing. So, he did:]

“‘Friends and honorable 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 splendor 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 honorable 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 Adolf Hitler for everything.’

By five in the morning, everybody was awake because of the cold. We had a conversation. Getzel Chrzastowski, a member of the Bund, and Eisenstab, both from Klodawa (Eisenstab owned a furrier 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 Mosche Asch (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 meters wide, the top five meters and its depth was five meters. 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 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 Izbica and sixteen from Bugaj. Among those from Izbica were 1. Moshe Lesek, 40 years old, 2. Avigdor Palanski, 20 years old, 3. Steier, 35 years old, 4. Knoll, 45 years old, 5. Izchak Preiss, 45 years old, 6. Jehuda Lutzinski, 51 years old, 7. Kalman Radzewski, 32 years old, 8. Menachem Archijowski, 40 years old. Among those from Bugaj was my friend and comrade Haim Reuben Izbizki, 35 years old.

Twenty of the old gravediggers, 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 foodstuffs (bread, dripping, and sugar). These items belonged to the new gravediggers.

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 Smolensk and Kiev 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 Jewish victims.

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.

Eisenstab 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 Izbica (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, and Schmuel Bibedgal, 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 Getzel Chrzastowski 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 bathhouse. The elderly German and the SS officer spoke to them in this room. They assured them they would be taken to the Lodz Ghetto. 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, they 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 safekeeping.

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 behavior ended abruptly, and they were all driven into the van with malicious screams. The Jews realized 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 gravediggers.”

Tuesday, 13 January 1942:

“The next morning, at the Waldlager, Goldmann was 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 Bugemin 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, Michael Worbleznik burst into tears; he had lost his wife, two children, and his parents.

The question of 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 from Klodawa 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 that 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 Izbica. 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.

Michael Podklebnik 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 Izbica were in absolute despair. We had realized that we should never see our relatives again. I was quite beside myself and indifferent to everything.

In the next room, we had learned, were eighteen gravediggers from Lodz. We heard through the wall that Rumkowski (the elder of the Jewish Council at Lodz) had ordered the deportation of 750 families from Lodz.”

Friday, 16 January 1942:

“The 750 families from Lodz had arrived by train at Kolo, 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 Abraham Rois. (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 pickaxes and shovels were taken down from the lorry. We now realized 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 leveled 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 Kalman Radzewski 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 Rois 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 that 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 Monik Halter, in particular, encouraged me, however.

After I made a decision, I softly asked my comrades to stand up so the draught of cold air wouldn’t reach the gendarmes. I quickly pulled the windowpane 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 windowpane 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 Chelmno. It was only 3 km. 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 Chelmno. I took my leave with the Polish greeting and went away.”

Around 2 p.m., Bajler reached the town of Grabow, 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 Chelmno 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.”

Sources: Yad Vashem.
Anna Majchrowska, This is probably the last letter I’m writing to you..., Jewish Historical Institute.
Szlama Ber Winer, Wikipedia.
Emanuel Ringelblum, Holocaust Historical Society.
Martin Gilbert,  Auschwitz And The Allies, (NY: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1981).|
Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, 1986).
Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed., The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984).
Aktion Reinhard Camps.