Martha Michelsohn - Chelmno

Language of Description
Alt. Identifiers
  • 1996.166
  • RG-60.5033
1 Jan 1985 - 31 Dec 1985
Level of Description
  • German
EHRI Partner


Biographical History

Claude Lanzmann was born in Paris to a Jewish family that immigrated to France from Eastern Europe. He attended the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand. His family went into hiding during World War II. He joined the French resistance at the age of 18 and fought in the Auvergne. Lanzmann opposed the French war in Algeria and signed a 1960 antiwar petition. From 1952 to 1959 he lived with Simone de Beauvoir. In 1963 he married French actress Judith Magre. Later, he married Angelika Schrobsdorff, a German-Jewish writer, and then Dominique Petithory in 1995. He is the father of Angélique Lanzmann, born in 1950, and Félix Lanzmann (1993-2017). Lanzmann's most renowned work, Shoah, is widely regarded as the seminal film on the subject of the Holocaust. He began interviewing survivors, historians, witnesses, and perpetrators in 1973 and finished editing the film in 1985. In 2009, Lanzmann published his memoirs under the title "Le lièvre de Patagonie" (The Patagonian Hare). He was chief editor of the journal "Les Temps Modernes," which was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, until his death on July 5, 2018.

From 1974 to 1984, Corinna Coulmas was the assistant director to Claude Lanzmann for his film "Shoah." She was born in Hamburg in 1948. She studied theology, philosophy, and sociology at the Sorbonne and Hebrew language and Jewish culture at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and INALCO in Paris. She now lives in France and publishes about the Five Senses.

Scope and Content

Martha Michelson was the wife of a Nazi schoolteacher in Chelmno. She talks about the Sonderkommando, Jews killed in a church, the terrible smell that pervaded the town when bodies were burned, the Poles' attitude toward the Jews, and the operation of gas vans. She says that she told people in Germany about the extermination in 1942 or 1943 but they accused her of spreading atrocity propaganda. FILM ID 3352 -- Camera Rolls #1-3 -- 01:00:00 to 01:32:09 Lanzmann asks Michelson for help understanding what things were like in Chelmno. She says that conditions were very primitive: no running water, no electricity. There were ten or eleven German families with lots of children. The local Poles worked as farmhands and some worked in the local forest. Lanzmann asks what daily life was like for her family. She talks about the small school and says there was only one store. Her husband was an ethnic German from Riga. They discuss some of the buildings in the town, the castle (Schloss) and the church, a German municipal building, and the school where the Michelsohns lived. They came to Chelmno in December 1939 but were forced to move from their house when the camp was established. Lanzmann asks if she remembers the arrival of Commandant [Hans] Bothmann and his Sonderkommando (Bothmann oversaw the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews between spring 1942 and March 1943, when deportation of Jews to Chelmno was halted). She saw some of the transports of Jews arrive in trucks and later on a narrow gauge railway that had been built for the purpose. The Jews were brought to the church where they were told that they would be deloused. Lanzmann asks if she knew the Jews were being killed and she says she never saw it, but there was a terrible burning smell that hung over the village in the evenings. Transports arrived almost daily and Michelsohn says that some multiple of 40, 40,000 or 400,000, were killed at Chelmno. The condition of the Jews was terrible and sad and their cries were awful to hear. She never witnessed the murder of the Jews, but she assumed their bodies were burned because of the smell. She describes the trucks that were used to gas Jews. She says the gas vans came into use later, when there were too many Jews to kill and burn at Majdanek [? Later in the interview it seems that when she refers to Majdanek she is not talking about the camp but about another location called Majdanek]. Everyone knew the Jews were being exterminated and Michelsohn says that the Poles were glad about it. She felt there would be retaliation for the exterminations. Lanzmann says that in the second period the Jews were gathered in the church and Jewish clothing was distributed among the Poles in Łódź. Lanzmann asks what Bothmann was like and Michelsohn says that he was drunk most of the time because it was the only way he could handle the work. 01:20:17 CR 3 Lanzmann asks Michelsohn about certain Germans who worked at the camp (Laabs, Hafele, Burmeister). She recognizes the names of a couple of them. She does not recognize Lanzmann's description of Srebnik. He tells her that only two Jews survived Chelmno [Simon Srebnik and Michael Podchlebnik). Michelsohn says that her husband complained to Bothmann about the fact that the villagers had to witness the terrible treatment of the Jews. She says it was depressing because "they are people like we are." She says that the villagers could not do anything about what was happening to the Jews. She says she was able to carry on with life during such a terrible time because she had no choice: her husband had to do his duty for the government. Lanzmann mentions the smell again and Michelsohn says that the smell was only in the first period. Lanzmann says that he thinks that the Germans used gas vans to kill Jews from the beginning and Michelsohn says that it has been so long that she could be remembering things incorrectly. Her husband also complained because Bothmann held "orgies" with German girls from Wartheland. Lanzmann asks Michelsohn to describe the manor house (Schloss) where the Jews were told to undress and give up their valuables before being loaded into the gas vans. The manor house was hidden by a tall fence but the church was still used by the Poles on Sundays, and it was used to hold the clothing of the murdered Jews. At first the Jews believed they were going to be deloused, but when they suspected what would really happen ttheir screams became more frantic. Lanzmann says that all of the Poles with whom he has spoken remember an incident where a gas van exploded but Michelsohn says she doesn't remember anything like that. FILM ID 3353 -- Camera Rolls #4-6 -- 02:00:00 to 02:31:28 CR 4 Lanzmann asks Michelsohn if she remembers the Riga Inn (Gaststaette) in Warthbruecken, which she does. He says that Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of Wartheland, treated the Chelmno staff to dinner at the Riga Inn. He questions why she said that people killed in Chelmno were buried in Majdanek (apparently a forest between Chelmno and Warthbruecken) and he says this forest is called Ruszov. She clarifies that she is not referring to the infamous Majdanek concentration camp. They discuss the return of Bothmann's Kommando to Chelmno in 1944. She tells him that the castle in Chelmno was destroyed in World War I, which surprises Lanzmann because it was used in the killing of the Jews. She says this is correct, but that it was ruins at the time. Michelsohn begins to talk about the Jews who were chosen for work (Arbeitsjuden). Picture cuts out from 02:07:54 to 02:08:02, from 02:08:21 to 02:08:37, and from 02:08:48 to 02:08:54. These cuts correspond to dialog and picture that was used in the final film. CR 5 02:08:59 Michelsohn speaks of trying to tell people in the Reich what terrible things were happening in Chelmno, but she was accused of spreading atrocity propaganda. No one believed her, including her relatives, because it was impossible to believe unless one had experienced it personally. She says that when she was in Łódź once the bus that she was on drove through the ghetto. They discuss the effect on the children living in the area: she believes that they didn't comprehend what was going on and if they asked questions, one could only say, it is an order from the government. The situation didn't make people depressed but instead they were indignant (Empoerung). She and her husband applied to be posted further west but the request was denied. CR 6 02:20:12 Michelsohn talks about the heavy emotional burden (seeliche Belastung) she and her husband carried because of their experience in Chelmno. She says that the Jews who came to Chelmno were not all rich, but came from all walks of life, rich, poor, young, old (despite Lanzmann mentioning Polish claims that all the Jews were rich). Lanzmann wants to know which parts of the killing process the residents of Chelmno were able to see. Michelsohn discusses her husband's position with the NSV (das Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt-the Nazi Welfare Services). The welfare service provided for the poor German families in the area by giving them Polish land. She tells how the Germans living in the area would get together to speak about the war and territory lost and gained. She and her husband had no hope for a German victory after Stalingrad. Picture cuts out a few seconds before end of roll. FILM ID 3354 -- Camera Rolls #7,9 -- 03:00:00 to 03:24:00 (there is no CR 8) CR 7 The camera focuses briefly on a photograph in the room, presumably Michelsohn's husband. In response to a question from Lanzmann, Frau Michelsohn discusses her thoughts about the East (i.e. Poland). She says she was not afraid of the East and that her impression was that it had so much more space and fewer people than in the West (Lanzmann uses the word "Raum"). However, she was soon disillusioned because Chelmno was so primitive and the winters were so cold. The worst time was when the killing actions against the Jews began (December 1941). She thought the Germans would succeed in Russia, that they would obtain this great expanse of land. Lanzmann asks again if she remembers the boy who sang on the river but she says she does not. She mentions that she knew several Poles and that the Polish people were neglected. Picture cuts out at the end of the reel. CR 9 No picture from 03:11:23 to 03:11:53. VCU of Michelsohn's face. Michelsohn again speaks of the primitive circumstances, no running water or bathrooms, little soap, etc. Cleanliness was a big issue. The hygiene among the Jews was of course very bad. She thinks about these events often, as one can't forget such terrible things. She and her husband spoke about it often. She describes a recurring dream where the Jews are forced into the gas vans and she hears their screaming. She describes the visible difference between German Jews and the 'Ostjuden'. The Jews from the East wore the clothing of orthodox Jews, while the German Jews "looked like any European." She says that even at the time she thought the killing was a crime against humanity. She's not sure how many Jews were killed in Chelmno, 40,000 or 400,000. Picture cuts out from 03:20:36 to 03:21:20, after which there is no sound.


  • Staff-curated clips include: Film ID 3352, 01:11:20 - 01:30:45.

  • Martha Michelsohn is in SHOAH (1985). The parts of her interview in the final release are not available at USHMM. Claude Lanzmann spent twelve years locating survivors, perpetrators, and eyewitnesses for his nine and a half hour film Shoah released in 1985. Without archival footage, Shoah weaves together extraordinary testimonies to render the step-by-step machinery of the destruction of European Jewry. Critics have called it "a masterpiece" and a "monument against forgetting." The Claude Lanzmann SHOAH Collection consists of roughly 185 hours of interview outtakes and 35 hours of location filming.




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