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Majdanek: Inside Majdanek

Unlike some of the other Nazi concentration camps, there was no familiar "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate at the original entrance to the Majdanek camp. At the present tourist entrance, there is now a low gate with a wooden frame and barbed wire; it could be the gate into a cow pasture. Immediately to your right, as you enter through the wooden gate, you see the familiar curved concrete posts and barbed wire which typically surrounded the Nazi concentration camps. In front of this fence is a small parking area for tour buses and a visitor's center, which is like a tiny museum. The visitor's center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May to September, but stays open only to 3 p.m. October to April. The exhibits in the barracks are open until 5 p.m. year round.

Entrance to the camp is free, although there is a charge for parking in the narrow parking strip next to the visitor's center. I did not see any guards at the camp and visitors are free to roam around the grounds without a guide, although a two-hour guided tour is available at the Museum in several different languages. There were virtually no other visitors when I was there; although Majdanek has the only Nazi homicidal gas chambers preserved in their original condition, the camp has never achieved the same status as a tourist attraction as Auschwitz.

During the Nazi occupation, there was no railroad spur to bring the prisoners directly into the Majdanek camp; the victims disembarked from cattle cars at the crowded main railroad station in Lublin amid German troops, also riding in cattle cars, on their way to the Eastern front. Even some regular train passengers in Europe rode on freight trains during World War II, according to the author of Schindler's List. The prisoners destined for Majdanek were transported the rest of the way to the camp in trucks.

At the Majdanek camp, there is a large field of grass near the street, in the middle of which stands a lone white stucco house, the former dwelling of the Camp Commandant. There were five different camp commanders during the 35 months that Majdanek was in operation: Karl Otto Koch, Max August Koegel, Hermann Florstedt, Martin Weiss and Arthur Liebehenschel. Pictured below is Karl Otto Koch, the first Commandant of the Majdanek camp. He was soon relieved of his command, charged with stealing from the camp warehouses where plunder taken from the Jews was kept. He was tried by a German court and executed before the end of the war.

Karl Otto Koch, first Commandant at Majdanek

Commandant Hermann Florstedt was also executed by the Nazis after he was convicted by a Nazi court on charges of stealing from the camp warehouses. There were 800 cases of cruelty and corruption in the concentration camps which were tried by Dr. Konrad Morgan, the legal investigator of the Reich Criminal Police, and 200 SS men who were in charge of the camps were convicted, including Amon Goeth, the commandant at Plaszow, the camp which became famous as a result of the film, "Schindler's List."

Two of the commandants of the Majdanek camp were tried by the Allies after the war; Max Koegel was sentenced to death by a British court in 1946 and Martin Weiss received a death sentence in an American court in 1946, according to a Museum booklet. Arthur Liebehenschel, the last commandant of the camp, was sent to Majdanek in 1944 after serving as the commandant of Auschwitz for several months. When Majdanek was evacuated in July 1944, he was sent to Triest. He was convicted by the Supreme People's Court in Kraków and executed after the war.

The picture below shows the original main entrance into the concentration camp at Majdanek. On either side of the gate are two sentry boxes, painted with black and white chevron stripes. One of these sentry boxes is on display in the exhibit barracks. Although there doesn't seem to be much security at this gate, the interior of the camp was divided into fields or compounds, each surrounded by a double row of barbed wire fencing.

Old picture showing main gate into Majdanek camp

The tour of the camp starts with a movie, shown in a large theater at the visitor's center. A 15-minute documentary made by the Soviet Union in 1960, it show scenes taken just after the camp's liberation on July 23, 1944. Majdanek was the first Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by the Allies. It was also the first time that anyone from the Allied countries had actually seen a gas chamber, although there had been plenty of news in the world-wide media about their existence, since as far back as the fall of 1942. It was not that the Russians unexpectedly stumbled across the gas chambers and made the shocking discovery of the Nazi killing machine; it was more like the Russians arriving at the camp and saying, "Take us to the gas chambers."

In the movie, there are scenes of grieving Polish relatives viewing the bodies of political prisoners who were brought to the camp from the Gestapo prison at the Castle in Lublin and shot by the fleeing Nazis just before liberation day. The movie puts heavy emphasis on the suffering of the Polish resistors, and doesn't mention the genocide of the Jews.

According to the tour guide, the Russians had already decided that after the war, Poland would be a Communist country, in keeping with the political ideology of the liberators. Consequently, Lublin was immediately set up as the capital of the new Polish government, which was to follow the Communist dictates of the Soviet Union. Anti-Communist Polish citizens were dispatched to Siberia from Lublin after the war.

The decision to make the Majdanek camp into a museum was made in August 1944, a month after liberation. According to a Museum booklet, the Majdanek Museum was set up in November 1944 and became the first such museum at a former concentration camp, long before any of the other camps were liberated. During the Communist regime which lasted until 1989, all Polish citizens were required to go on government sponsored group tours to the concentration camps as part of their indoctrination in hatred of the opponents of Communism. According to the tour guide, Polish schools taught a censored version of history during the Communist rule, leaving out such details as the Russian invasion of Poland in 1920, but emphasizing the crimes of the Nazi Fascists.

There are also scenes in the movie which show some of the 1,500 surviving prisoners, mostly men who are not cheering the liberators, as shown in the picture below. Although they do not look emaciated, most of the survivors shown in the movie were on crutches or had missing feet and were walking on stumps. The movie had no explanation for this strange circumstance, but I later learned from the museum guidebook that in early 1943, there was a hospital set up in Field II at Majdanek for wounded Russian soldiers who had been POWs but defected after their capture and were then wounded in fighting on the side of the Nazis against Communism.

Besides these invalid soldiers, the only other survivors were Polish peasants from the immediate area. According to the Museum booklet, a large percentage of the inmates at Majdanek were "rural people" or "peasants." Some of these Polish peasants were people who were ejected from their homes as part of the German plan to colonize Poland, which the Nazis referred to as "the German east." Others were from Byelorussia, a province known to Americans as White Russia, where women and children were taken prisoner in reprisal for heavy partisan fighting in that area. The Polish peasants were not shown in the movie because they took the opportunity to escape while the Germans and the Russians were fighting a last-ditch battle for the city of Lublin, which lasted for two days. The Polish Home Army, a partisan group, joined the Russian soldiers in the battle to free Lublin from the Nazis.

Home Army
Home Army soldiers including three escapees from Majdanek

In anticipation of the arrival of Soviet troops, the Nazis had evacuated 15,000 prisoners in March and April 1944, transporting them westward by train to other camps in Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Natzwiler, Mauthausen, Lodz and Plaszow. The last 1,000 prisoners were marched off on foot only the day before liberation.

The Russian soldiers who had defected were taken to camps in the Soviet Union after their liberation, and one can imagine their fate. Other Russian defectors who had joined the German army were taken prisoner by the Americans during the war and sent to POW camps in America. World War II was more of an ideological war between the Communists and the Fascists than a war between nations, which accounts for large numbers of Russian soldiers switching sides.

Liberated Russian POWs who fought on the side of the Nazis.

When the Majdanek camp was liberated, the Soviet Union at first announced that 1.7 million people had been murdered there by the Nazis, but at the Nuremberg trial of the Nazi war criminals in 1946, the Soviets charged the Nazi leaders with murdering only 1.5 million people at the Majdanek camp. By the time this movie was made by the Soviet Union in 1960, the number of people murdered by the Nazis at Majdanek had dropped to 350,000. This figure was again revised, according to the guidebook, when it was learned that no more than 300,000 people had ever been sent to the camp. The actual death toll, according to the guidebook, was 235,000. This approximate figure was based on the number of arrivals minus the number of prisoners who escaped, were transferred or released. Approximately 45,000 were transferred to other camps, 20,000 were released and 500 escaped, according to Polish historians. There were six sub-camps surrounding the Majdanek camp, to which some of the prisoners were transferred.

Other estimates from books that I have read put the total number of deaths at Majdanek anywhere from 42,200 to 1,380,000. At the Düsseldorf trial of the Majdanek war criminals, the West German government charged the Nazis with the murder of no less than 200,000 people at the camp. Jewish historian Martin Gilbert wrote "Between 300,000 and 350,000 people were murdered here in Majdanek over a period of three years." Raul Hilberg puts the number of Jewish victims at Majdanek at 50,000, but doesn't mention the non-Jews. According to the Museum booklet, most of the files from the camp are stored in the Soviet Union and have never been released.

Immediately after the liberation, the Illustrated London News published photographs of the camp, saying that this was "irrefutable proof of the organized murder of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 helpless persons at the Majdanek Camp near Lublin." The same newspaper also stated that "Prisoners too ill to walk into the camp were dragged alive to the furnaces and thrust in alongside the dead."

The first ever war crimes trial took place in the Special Penal Court in Lublin in November 1944 and six men who had been captured during the liberation of the camp were convicted and sentenced to death. Two of them were kapos, or prisoners who were in charge of other prisoners in the camp: Heinrich Stalp and Edmund Pohlmann. One was a guard, Theodor Schöllen, and the other three were administrative personnel: Anton Thernes, Hermann Vogel, and Wilhelm Gerstenmeier.

The movie mentions the 800,000 pairs of shoes which were found in the camp when it was liberated, but doesn't point out that Majdanek was a center for processing clothing from the Operation Reinhard camps at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. There was also a shoe repair shop at Majdanek where the prisoners worked on the boots of the German soldiers as well as the shoes taken from the Jews. When the camp was liberated these shoes were awaiting shipment by train to Germany where they were to be distributed to civilians in the German cities that had been bombed by the Allies. Some of the shoes from Majdanek were sent to Washington, DC for the display at the United States Holocaust Museum. The remainder are displayed at Majdanek in three buildings.

After the liberation of Lublin, Majdanek was taken over by the Soviet Army with fields IV and V being used as quarters for Soviet soldiers, while fields I and II were used by the 2nd Polish Army, which was formed after the liberation. German POWs were put into field VI before being sent to slave labor camps deep inside the Soviet Union; a few of them returned after a period of captivity lasting as long as 10 years.

Source: Places of Interest in Poland