Only 8km from Oświęcim sits an unassuming town in Poland, one equally as rich in community and tradition as you’d come to expect of any here. It is conveniently equidistant from several larger industrial towns making it an attractive proposition for those who desire a more rural landscape to retreat to. The town is Chełmek and was first mentioned in the 15th century; with today’s population hovering around the 13,000 mark. Benefiting economically from passing trade as a mid-town in its own right, or from the coal mines of localities such as Libiaz, Brzeszcze, or even the refineries in Monowice or Trzebinia – They all have something in common. They all became sub-camps of the infamous mother camp in Oświęcim, Auschwitz.
Several sub-camps were established around German owned industries in the Upper Silesia areas, the main productions being Chemical, Mechanical, Mining, Power and Steel. Until 1943, the Auschwitz network of sub-camps fell under the administration of Camp I but in late 1943 all industrial armaments and extractive industries were subordinate to Auschwitz III. This was confirmed on the 11th November 1943 when Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel took over as the overall Commandant. Auschwitz was divided into 3 main administrations: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II Birkenau (that controlled the agricultural sub-camps) and Auschwitz III Monowitz that looked after Jawischowitz, Neu-Dachs, Fürstengrube, Janinagrube, Golleschau, Eintrachthütte, Sosnowitz and Lagischa as well as the Brünn Sub-camp in Czechoslovakia.
However, in 1942, a small town north of Monowice called Chełmek that housed the pre-war BATA shoe factory required an expansion. The obvious, or even most convenient source of slave labour was made available from Auschwitz.
In 1931, businessman Tomas Bata bought land in Chełmek in order to build a shoe factory, this was despite the village suffering from a dwindling population. The following 5 years from 1931 saw the population of the village double and a new church, kindergarten and schools were planned, all thanks to the work and revenue the factory gave back to the town. The area around the factory was quickly developed and new houses built with the convenient rail network from Chełmek station allowing both business and settlers to prosper – The train station sat alongside the new factory, with several new spurs built around the area, one of which heading south east to a Locomotive warehouse just off site.
In 1939, the Nazis took full control of the BATA factory and began to maximise the possibilities of local resources and slave labour from the Auschwitz complex. SS- Oberscharführer Josef Schillinger was installed as the Kommandant until October 23rd, 1942 when he was shot by a Jewish woman whilst undressing in the Birkenau crematoriums 2. (Schillinger’s gun was snatched from his holster and received a fatal gunshot. He died on the way to a Kattowitz hospital).
The sub-camp itself was only officially active for 3 months between October and December 1942. However, many testimonies and locals still to this day recall prisoners in striped uniforms working the area between the BATA factory and the Jazdówka quarry in the east (some 6 km²) in distance until the end of the war [the labour may have been independent from the Auschwitz Administration as we have found no archival documents to support this – (ASG)].
The Jazdówka quarry in Chełmek was perfect for extracting the large stones needed to reinforce the areas of the dikes whilst lining the base of the ponds. This was essential for the BATA factory to maintain a full connection of water to the plant.
During the occupation, the town itself was subject to change. Several bomb shelters, which can still be seen today exist in and around the train station. The former BATA canteen that served the sub-camp is now the Miejski Ośrodek Sportu, Kultury i Rekreacji (MOKSiR) (The Town Centre of Sport, Culture and Recreation). Many anti-aircraft guns were erected, although the majority on the east part of the town were simply red herrings in order to fool the Allies.
The short length of Chełmek’s existence as a sub-camp has added to its later insignificance as part of the histories of Auschwitz, however, the registration of approximately 47 bodies sent from Chełmek to be disposed of by the Birkenau crematoriums in over 10 separate journeys suggest this was a camp of brutality. There is also a mention of 26 prisoners returning to Auschwitz who could no longer work. On December 9th 1942, the remaining prisoners were sent back to Auschwitz by truck. The work was never completed on the ponds, and the sub-camp was never re-established in the future. No reason can be found for this decision.
Beyond 1942, the Nazi occupation of Chełmek continued to leave its mark on the landscape. A section of the town was designated for soldiers of the Nazi SS to reside in, a number that increased with the expansion of the anti-aircraft divisions at nearby Monowitz and Bierun. The views from the Skała hill, one of the highest points within 1002 kilometres had changed beyond recognition. Gone were the vast forests in the Monowice Village, only to be replaced by IG Farben’s largest industrial plant. To the east, the large power plant in Jaworzno dominated the skyline and the coal mine expansions in Libiaz and Brzeszcze completed the new panorama. In Chełmek itself, the largest of the developments was the expansion of the BATA factory.
Following the war’s conclusion and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the economies that had been established around Auschwitz to support the war effort continued to operate, but this time its purpose was to provide labour for a workforce that needed to rebuild their livelihoods and country. An attitude proceeded that became common across Europe at that time. A desire to move on beyond the war years and look to a more prosperous future. Most of Europe had suffered 2 world wars, barely a generation apart. Testimonies of the time were reluctantly recorded in the history books, but beyond the court rooms, no-one read them. Historical sites were replaced by optimism for the future. In effect, important details were in the process of being erased.
We fast forward 70 years and the task to piece together important facts and details that were once left to fade away with the passage of time has never been more challenging. Out of the 45 sub-camps of Auschwitz, many of the locations were simply lost in time. The Auschwitz Study Group have been instrumental in combing the archives of Poland and Germany to retrace them. Some however, remain partly unsolved. The location of the Chełmek sub-camp for example remains open to discussion. The pre-war locomotive warehouse that became the site of prisoners living quarters sat conveniently on the rail spur that spread east from the BATA factory and in the direction of the Jazdówka quarry. Easy to retrace you may think, yet the tracks were removed several decades ago and the archival maps suggest discrepancies in both ratio, distance and location. A memorial was erected several decades ago based on testimonies suggesting the area of the camp, yet it is not consistent with the details we now hold.
In 2017, The ASG met the with the acquaintance of Mr Waldemar Rudyk (the head of MOKSIR in Chełmek). We had already met with Mr Rudyk as partners at the open air exhibition regarding the Luftschutz-Splitterschutzzelle bunkers in the area of Chełmek, however this time we were specifically looking at the BATA factory under occupation and the location of the sub-camp. The MOKSIR is home to an incredible collection of technical and schematic drawings concerning the area around BATA from the beginnings of the Nazi occupation to the post war changes. What make these plans more unique is there exclusivity to the original copies – no reproductions have yet been made. Rudyk is an affable man with a passion for detail and also an incredible duty and passion to his town. This attitude became clear on our field trip to the old rail spur from the BATA factory to the Jazdówka quarry. The plans will prove instrumental to us locating the actual area where the sub-camp existed and also, the train line east to the quarry. Unfortunately, the old line has not been mothballed. We therefore contemplated an overgrown land of vegetation that left very little for us to decipher. Old paths have merged into new break offs often leading oneself into incorrect conclusions of the location. Nonetheless, we ventured to the borders of Libiaz towards the east where it is known the train line emerged into the open. A cursory investigation in to the mouth of the former rail line leads us to several relics of the time. We uncover remnants of the telephone lines that ran parallel to the track, and even deeper in the forest we find a glass telephone conductor in the sub-soil. At this moment in time, we assume it is a fine clue to the tracks ending.
Of course, the access to original drawings has proceeded to be invaluable for us to provide a more accurate identification of these key sites. But we also feel that the original documents should be kept where they are today. It is after all an incredibly important part of the towns histories and a donation or sale to the Auschwitz Museum archives may not necessarily be the best course of action. The addition of a recent find supports this suggestion - 2 metal frames from the sub-camps fence have recently been discovered and passed on to the MOKSIR. At the moment, they sit idle in the back rooms. From our experience with Auschwitz architecture, we can say within a large degree of accuracy these are infact the metal cases that surrounded the front gate posts of the camp, therefore the pair are unique in their very existence.
In recent years, the appetite to learn more from this period in time has greatly increased. Chełmek is in a unique position being so close to Auschwitz but despite being rich in history remains largely unknown. The continual research and maintaining of documents will eventually become an integral part of the learning of Auschwitz outside of the main camp, something that is greatly lacking at present. We support the work and passion of Mr Waldemar Rudyk and relish the opportunity to work alongside his team in the near future for our common goal of education.
Auschwitz Study Group Founder