The Majdanek concentration camp is situated
in a major urban area, four kilometers from the city center of Lublin,
and can be easily reached by trolley car. The location of the Majdanek
camp is in an area of rolling terrain and can be seen from all sides;
it could not be more public or accessible. It is located in an entirely
open area with no trees around it to hide the activities inside the
camp, as at Dachau.
There was no security zone established around the Majdanek camp, as
at Birkenau, and there is
no natural protection, such as a river or a forest, as at Treblinka.
Besides being bounded on the north by a busy main road, the camp was
bounded on the south by two small villages named Abramowic and Dziesiata.
People driving past the camp, while it was in operation, had a completely
unobstructed view, being able to see the tall brick chimney of the crematorium
wafting smoke from the top of a slope not far away, and the gas chamber
building which is very close to the street.
The population of Lublin has tripled since the end
of World War II to its present
total of 350,000, and the former Majdanek concentration camp is now
within the city limits, like a municipal park except that it is a ghastly
eyesore. There are several modern high-rise apartment buildings overlooking
the camp on two sides now, and on one side, right next to the camp,
is a Roman Catholic cemetery which was there even when the camp was
in operation. On the other side of the street, directly across from
the former concentration camp,
there is now a Polish military installation, since this street is part
of the main road into the Ukraine and Russia. During World War II, the
street that borders the Majdanek concentration camp was the main route
to the eastern front for the German army.
Lublin is near the eastern border of Poland and what is now the Ukraine.
Between 1795 and 1918, when Poland had ceased to be an independent country
and was divided between Prussia (Germany), Austria and Russia, Lublin
was in the Russian sector. In April 1835, Russian Czar Nicholas I issued
a decree that created the Pale
of Settlement, a territory where Russian Jews were forced to live
until the Communist Revolution of 1917. Lublin was located within the
Pale of Settlement, as was the city of Warsaw.
In 1880, Russia began evicting the Jews from the Pale, which began a
mass migration. By 1914, two million Jews had left the Pale and had
settled in Germany, Austria,
America and other countries. The census of 1897 counted 4,899,300 Jews
who were crowded into the Pale of Settlement, which was like a huge
reservation similar to those where the Native Americans were forced
to live during the same time period in the western USA.
when Poland was again divided between Germany and Russia, Lublin came
under the control of Russia again. This lasted until June 1941 when
the Nazis launched an attack on Communist Russia, the ideological enemy
of Fascist Germany. Lublin, being close to the border of the German-controlled
General Government of Poland, was one of the first cities to be conquered
by the Germans. The German conquest of the Russian sector of Poland
in the last 6 months of 1941 brought millions of Jews and Polish Communists,
who were the sworn enemies of the Nazis, under the control of the Germans.
To avoid having partisans attack them from the rear as they advanced
into Russia, the Nazis rounded up those whom they considered their political
enemies and confined them in the Majdanek camp, along with the captured
Getting to the Majdanek camp could not have been easier.
From Warsaw, we crossed a bridge over the Vistula river, then drove
157 kilometers south on Highway 17, which goes through a farming region
with many small villages and forested areas. We came into Lublin on
the Royal Road, an ancient route from Warsaw that took us to the center
of the city of Lublin, which is now completely modern and has very little
that would be of interest to ordinary tourists.
One of the first sights that the tour guide pointed
out was the old Castle, high on a hill just east of the Old Town in
the city of Lublin, where the Nazis held Polish political prisoners
during their occupation of this area of Poland. The castle was built
in the 1820ies on the site of King Kazimierz the Great's 14th century
fortress. Just below the hill is the location of one of the former Jewish ghettos of Lublin. The
Castle now contains a Museum which has a section devoted to the history
of the Gestapo prison
there. When the Russian liberators were approaching Lublin, the Nazis
took all the prisoners at the Castle to Majdanek and killed them just
before they retreated. Just like the executions of Polish political
prisoners at the "black wall" in Auschwitz,
there were also executions of Polish political prisoners in the courtyard
of the Castle. Beginning in 1944, prisoners from the Castle were taken
to Majdanek for execution.
From the Royal Road, we made a right turn in a southeastern
direction onto a city street that is the main road leading to Zamosc,
Lvov and Chelm, three cities that formerly had large Jewish populations.
The new street name of this road, as it goes through Lublin towards
the camp, is Street of Martyrs (English translation). This street is
part of the main highway that continues on to Kiev in the Ukraine, which
was on the Eastern Front in World War II. It was on this same road that
German troop trucks and tanks rumbled on their way to invade the Soviet
Union in the summer of 1941 and on their way back as they retreated
in defeat in the fall of 1943.
Immediately on the left, we passed the district known
as Majdan Tatarski, an old suburb of Lublin, which formerly had a large
Jewish population, and was made into a Jewish ghetto by the Nazis before
the concentration camp was opened. The name Majdanek, derived from the
name of this suburb, was a nickname given to the camp, soon after it
opened in 1941, by local residents who were very much aware of its existence.
The camp name is sometimes spelled as Maidanek by Americans and on American
TV, some historians pronounce it MY-duh-nek. The Poles always spell
the name Majdanek and pronounce it Muh-DON-ek.
According to the museum guidebook, the camp was initially
called the Concentration Camp at Lublin (Konzentrationslager Lublin);
then the name was changed to Prisoner of War Camp at Lublin (Kriegsgefangenenlager
der Waffen-SS Lublin), but in Feb. 1943, the name reverted back to Concentration
Camp. Throughout its existence, Majdanek received transports of Prisoners
of War, including a few Americans.
Although the first prisoners at Majdanek were Russian
Prisoners of War, who were transferred from a barbed wire enclosure
at Chelm, the camp soon became a detention center for Jews after the Final Solution was decided
upon in January 1942. Mass transports of Jews began arriving at the
Majdanek camp, beginning in April 1942, during the same time period
that Auschwitz was also being converted to an extermination camp for
Just as at Auschwitz, the first Jewish prisoners were
from Slovakia, followed by transports from the area that is now the
Czech Republic. Jews from Austria, Germany, France and Holland were
also sent to Majdanek, but from mid 1942 until mid 1943, most of the
Jews sent to the camp were from the Lublin region and the ghettos of
Warsaw and Bialystok.
According to a Museum booklet, "The transports of Jews from the
General Government were in direct connection with Action
Reinhard whose aim was mass extermination of Jews and plunder of
Jewish property. The headquarters of this action, managed by O. Globocnik,
was in Lublin." The Action Reinhard camps were at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka,
all on the border of Russian occupied Poland, and the General Government
was the name given to central Poland by the Nazis. Lublin is the easternmost
large city in Poland.
Majdanek was originally a labor camp but was transformed
into a death camp. Unlike Belzec,
it had some industrial activity. Non-Jewish prisoners were admitted.
At first death was induced by carbon monoxide asphyxiation, but later
hydrocyanic, or prussic, acid fumes were used following successful tests
at Belzec. It is estimated that 80,000 inmates were gassed at Majdanek. After Russian troops discovered
the camp on July 23, 1944, Konstatin Simonov, a Soviet writer, wrote
a full account of the death camp for Pravda. In a special issue the
London Illustrated News published photographs of the gas chambers and
ovens at Majdanek.*
We were driving down this broad city street in heavy
traffic when suddenly, we came upon the camp on the right hand side.
Just after we passed two beautiful, modern Catholic Churches, I saw
a low boxwood hedge along the street and behind it, sloping downward,
what I first thought was a farm with a white house set back from the
road in a lush green field and an old barn behind it. I was amazed when
the tour guide said, "That's the camp." I strained to peek
through open spots in the hedge to see more of the camp. Then abruptly
the guide stopped the car in front of a massive stone monument which
is so close to the street that it is difficult to get far enough back
from it to take a decent picture. The monument is actually a frame for
a massive iron gate which is open and doesn't show in these pictures.
Seeing this gigantic monument is like being hit between
the eyes with a sledge hammer. It is like suddenly coming upon Stonehenge
is the middle of a city. The museum guidebook says that this Monument
to Struggle and Martyrdom has "a manifold symbolic meaning. It
can mean tragedy, but also be an expression of hope and victory."
To me it looked like an overdone expression of victory. In a thousand
years, this ominous monument will not crumble and will be forever a
grim reminder of one of the worst episodes in the history of the world.
The view of the monument in the picture below was taken
from the street side with the camp in the distance. You can see the
round dome of the Mausoleum on the left at the end of the road called
the Road of Homage in English. Both the Mausoleum and the Monument were
designed by Wiktor Tolkin and were set up in 1969.
As you can see in the picture above, the grounds of
the camp slope down from the street and then gradually slope upwards
again towards the Mausoleum and the crematorium building. After you
descend the steps on the back side of the Monument, you are on what
is now the Road of Homage, but was called the "black path"
when the camp was in operation. According to the guidebook, the path
was paved with broken tombstones from Jewish cemeteries, just like the
road at the Plaszow camp which was shown in Schindler's List.