Majdanek: Exhibits at Majdanek
Just beyond the gas chamber building, and the gravel square in front of it, there is a row of sinister looking buildings, stained black with creosote, where a number of displays of camp artifacts have been set up. These buildings which are prefabricated horse barns, exactly like the barrack buildings, were used to store the clothing and other items taken from the Jews, including their hair, which were then sorted, cleaned and shipped to Germany.
Inside the buildings, the tourist exhibits have been placed along the walls with plenty of space for groups to gather around them. I saw one whole building filled with shoes in glass cases along the length of the walls and another glass case down the center of the room. This building was completely unlit, so I only saw the shoes in the front that were visible from the natural light coming through the door. The shoes looked worn out, or maybe they are just deteriorating with age. In the very front of the case facing the door, I noticed the white soles of a pair of espadrille sandals; the rest of the shoes are uniformly gray in color and look depressing.
Hanging on the wall in one of the exhibit buildings, there is a small glass case with human hair cut from the heads of the victims, a shocking and gruesome sight. The hair is uniformly light brown in color and is compressed, or matted, so that it looks like dread locks. (The hair on display at Auschwitz is charcoal gray in color and fills half a room.) The tour guide said that this hair was cut from the heads of the victims after they died and it had changed color from the gas used in the gas chambers. Displayed next to the hair was a small piece of tan colored cloth, which the sign said was made from hair, although it didn't say it was made from human hair. A bolt of the same type of cloth is displayed at the Auschwitz I museum.
There are also displays of items used or worn by the inmates, including Catholic prayer books, civilian clothing, a pair of wooden clogs, huge soup ladles, a fountain pen, baby clothes and enamelware dishes like those used by American cowboys in the old West. Unlike American enamelware, which is usually gray or white, these dishes are brightly colored with flower patterns, or more commonly, a dull brick red color. The soup bowls used by the prisoners for their one-dish meals were the size of serving bowls in America. The most interesting item was a Catholic rosary made by one of the inmates with the beads fashioned from compressed balls of bread, which have turned black and hard like wood. There are tooth brushes, hair brushes, dolls and a child's book. (Majdanek has the distinction of having more mothers with babies than any other camp.) Included in the display are numerous poems and drawings done by the prisoners.
There are blue and gray striped prison uniforms on display, all of them with a red triangle indicating that these were worn by non-Jewish political prisoners. (Jewish prisoners had to wear a red triangle sewn on top of a yellow triangle to form a Star of David.) The triangles are much smaller than I had imagined. Those worn by citizens of the Third Reich (Germany) had the point of the triangle turned upward; all the rest were turned downward. Some of the prisoners, especially the kapos, wore civilian clothing which is also on display, including a woman's dress shoe with a two-inch heel.
The display includes photographs of the former inmates, which look like prison mug shots, taken with a good quality German camera. Along with each photograph is an explanation of what happened to the prisoner. The majority of them look Slavic and have Polish names. According to this exhibit, 18,000 prisoners were released, but the guidebook says 20,000 were released. Those who were released were mostly women and children who were held as hostages in an attempt to stop partisan activity or hostages who were taken as punishment for the civilians in the area not meeting their quote of agricultural products which they had been ordered to supply to the German occupation. The hostages wore the red triangle of political prisoners.
One of the pictures on display shows Hitler on a visit to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen near Berlin. The Sachsenhausen camp opened in 1936, and the picture appears to have been taken very early in its existence, as it shows Hitler when he was still in relatively good health, before he became afflicted with Parkinson's disease. Hitler's closest associate, his architect Albert Speer, wrote in his autobiography that Hitler had never visited any of the camps.
One of the most shocking pictures on display shows Russian POWs from a camp in Chelm living in shallow holes in the ground, covered by a piece of canvas propped up on short poles. These were soldiers who were captured soon after the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 before POW camps had been built to accommodate them. They had to live in these crude shelters while the Majdanek camp was hastily built for them. Like the camp at Birkenau, Majdanek began as a POW camp for captured Russian soldiers.
The brick pathway in front of the exhibit buildings, shown in the picture below, was probably added for the convenience of tourists. According to survivors of Majdanek, it was very muddy in the camp in the Summer and had frozen mud in the Winter.
Among the inmates, according to the museum guidebook, were a few American Prisoners of War. There was no mention of what happened to them in any of the museum books, but according to Tollefson's book, "Enemy Prisoners of War," the American Red Cross reported after the war that "over 99% of our American prisoners captured by Germany are now returning home." The Germans honored the rules of the Geneva convention for American POWs and allowed inspections by the Red Cross, which were mandated for Prisoners of War. All the prisoners were allowed to receive Red Cross packages, as well as packages from Polish civilians who organized to provide aid. Below is a page from the Museum guidebook which shows the official Thank You postcard provided by the Nazis for the prisoners to send acknowledging receipt of a package.
The Soviet Union had not signed the most recent version of the rules of the Geneva convention in 1929 and were not treating captured German soldiers in accordance with the convention, so the Germans felt justified in not following any war-time regulations with regard to their Russian POWs. Polish soldiers who were Jewish were not treated in accordance with the Geneva convention, according to the museum guidebook. They were at first put into a separate camp on Lipowa Street in Lublin, but beginning in 1942, many of them were transferred to the Majdanek camp as ordinary prisoners and not given POW status.
Separating the exhibit buildings from the former barracks area of the camp is a barbed wire fence and a series of guard towers, as shown in the picture below.
Sources: Places of Interest in Poland