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Majdanek Concentration Camp: History & Overview

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.

In 1939, 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 POWs.

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 Jews.

Majdanek 2
Memorial for victims of the Majdanek camp

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.”*

Majdanek 1Memorial for victims of the Majdanek camp

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.

Sources: Places of Interest in Poland, *Louis Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich Marlowe & Co., 1997 and The Nizkor Project, State Museum at Majdanek