Chełm during the Holocaust
Roundups in the Ghetto and the Destruction of the Chełm Community
On the eve of the Shavuot holiday, 21 May 1942, the first roundup of Jews in the Chełm ghetto took place. As a prelude to the roundup, the Germans had ordered the Judenrat to employ all able bodied Jews in cleaning attics and cellars. This was intended to hinder Jews from hiding within the ghetto. During the two day roundup, which lasted until the 23rd of May, the Jewish Order Police collected some 3,000 Jews who were to be deported. The Jews were kept under guard in the shtiebel (prayer room) of the Belz Hassidim and the ghetto’s Beit Midrash (study hall), until the arrival of the Gestapo. One of the Jewish collaborators who aided the Germans in this roundup was known as the “Yiddischer Kommissar” (the Jewish Inspector). Upon entering the ghetto, the Germans charged the Jews with having committed “sabotage”, and according to reports in the Warsaw underground newspaper, murdered some 200 Jews on the spot. The remainder were deported to Sobibor. During this aktion, some 4,300 Jews were deported to Sobibor, most of them local; others were Jews who had arrived in Chełm from Slovakia in a transport of 2,000 as the roundup was taking place. Even before the deportation to Sobibor, hundreds of the deportees from Slovakia were murdered in the ghetto. The deportations to Sobibor were undertaken as part of “Operation Reinhard”, the Nazi operation to destroy the Jews of the Generalgouvernement, the area of central Poland governed by the German civil authorities.
The second deportation took place in June 1942, and was carried out by Gestapo members from Sobibor who demanded workers for the death camp. Polish and Ukrainian policemen also took part in this deportation, shooting Jews who tried to hide in houses, or dragging them into the street and murdering them there. A selection was held in the square in front of the sthiebel and 600 Jews who were found fit for labor were deported to Sobibor.
On the 5th of October 1942, another 1,000 Jews from the Chełm ghetto were deported to Sobibor. On the 27th and 28th of October a deportation to Wlodawa took place: some 3,300 Jews from the Chełm ghetto, both local Jews and Jewish refugees were deported in this wave. As before Polish and Ukranian policemen carried out the German commands, helped by the Jewish Order Police. The deportees were marched to Wlodawa, and most of them were murdered along the way, either beaten to death or shot. The few survivors to reach Wlodawa were subsequently deported to Sobibor. Among those deported in this wave were several Jews from the Wojsławice ghetto who had arrived in Chełm earlier that month.
On the 6th and 7th of November 1942, the SS and Ukrainian Police liquidated what remained of the ghetto in Chełm. At the time, some 7,000 Jews were still living in the ghetto; of them nearly 4,000 were deported to Sobibor, and the remainder were shot on site, in the ghetto. On this day the 150 members of the Jewish Order Police were also shot, not far from the Gestapo headquarters.
Few of the Jews from Chełm remained alive after the liquidation; most of them were young. Some 50 Jewish craftsmen were kept for forced labor until they too were deported to Sobibor a few months later, in January or February 1943.
During the revolt of Jewish prisoners in the Sobibor extermination camp, a number of Jews tried to reach the area of Chełm, but it seems they were unsuccessful. Most of the participants in the uprising were caught and murdered. A minority managed to escape and join up with the partisans. A small handful of Jews from Chełm served in the partisan units of the Polish Left, the Gwardia Ludowa, which mobilized in the forests around Chełm.
In July 1944 Chełm was liberated by the Red Army. A few dozen Jews had survived in hiding in what had been a magnificent Jewish community numbering some 15,000. In addition, the several hundred Jews who fled with the retreating Soviet forces at the beginning of the war were also spared. The survivors tried to resettle in Chełm, but postwar antisemitism made this impossible, and they abandoned the city.
In the 1990s some survivors from Chełm and their descendants initiated a renovation of the cemetery wall in Chełm and the erection of a memorial in honor of the victims.
Before the Second World War nearly half of Chełm’s 30,000 residents had been Jewish. To the best of our knowledge, Chelm’s current population of 70,000 does not include any Jews.