The Testimony of the Unwilling Gravedigger Jakub Grojnowski

The first report from the Chełmno nad Nerem death camp.

Wide szlama ber winer  jakub grojnowski  2
Szlama Ber Winer (Jakub Grojnowski)

In February 1942, Jakub Grojnowski (real name Szlama Ber Winer) reached the Warsaw Ghetto, after having escaped the first Nazi death camp in occupied Poland, located in Chełmno nad Nerem. His testimony, heard and recorded by Hersz Wasser, the secretary of the Oneg Shabbat group, was the first to describe the process of the mass murder of the Jewish population in occupied Poland.

Szlama Ber Winer came from Izbica Kujawska, from where he was transported by the Nazis, together with many other Jewish citizens of the town, to Chełmno. It was there, in the village called Kulmhof am Ner, and in Las Rzuchowski, a village located a few kilometres away, that the Nazis created the first stationary death camp for the Jewish population. The camp operated from the 8th of December 1942 until the 7th of April 1943, and between June and July 1944. The number of victims who died in Chełmno is not known, but according to various estimates between 152 000 and 225 000 people were murdered there. Many of the Jews killed there came from Reichsgau Wartheland, which had been annexed directly into the Third Reich, but most of the victims came from Łódź (70 000–80 000).

A special detachment under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Herbert Lange, the first commander of the camp who held that position until March 1942, operated in Chełmno. The special detachment murdered people on massive scale, using vehicle exhaust fumes. The Jews who were brought to the camp were made to undress and ushered in to vans from which they could then not escape. In the vans, they were taken to a clearing in Las Rzuchowski where the exhaust pipe was directed in to the interior of the vehicle so that, after 15–20 minutes, the people in the van would suffocate.

Szlama had the opportunity to escape the camp because, after being brought to Chełmno, he was assigned to the forest commando (Waldkommando) whose task it was to bury the corpses of the murdered Jews. They were kept in the basement of an old palace, and after a few days of serving as gravediggers they realised that at some point they will be killed and that their only chance for survival is escape. That is why, on the 19th of January 1942, Szlama decided to attempt an escape, which at first had seemed to have been successful. He managed to reach the Warsaw Ghetto and share his experiences, thanks to which his report reach the Home Army and the Polish Underground State, and thus had a chance of reaching the Allied forces.

Ber Winer left Warsaw and headed east, reaching Zamość, from where, after the local ghetto was dismantled, he was transported to the death camp in Bełżec on the 11th or 12th of April. Earlier, before the 5th of April, he wrote to Wasser that there is a death camp, like the one in Chełmno, in Bełżec. Sadly, his story does not have a happy ending — Ber Winer did not manage to escape the Bełżec camp. The date of his death is uncertain, however, it was undoubtedly the first half of April 1942.

Though Ber Winer did not survive the Holocaust, his testimony documenting the mass murders of the Jewish population committed by the Nazis, which is now part of the Ringelblum Archives at the Jewish Historical Institute, had, at the time, a great significance, and today serves as one extremely valuable source for research concerning the history of the Holocaust. The report can be read on the Central Jewish Library’s website or in the 13th Volume of the Ringelblum Archive. 

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