Majdanek: Photo Essay

This is the third blog post in a series documenting my visits to various concentration and extermination camps in eastern Europe during the summer.

Majdanek, also known as KL Lublin, was a forced-labour, concentration and extermination camp close to the city of Lublin in Poland. Construction on the camp in October 1941, using the labour of Soviet prisoners of war; the first Jewish prisoners were taken to the camp in December 1941, and other non-Jewish groups in January and February 1942. From then on, thousands of Jews were deported to Majdanek instead of other camps such as Auschwitz, Bełżec and Theresienstadt. Many were made to work in factory-style settings. In October 1942, with the initiation of the Final Solution, the Nazis began to murder large numbers of Jewish prisoners with Zyklon B, a technique adapted in Auschwitz. As well as holding the possessions of the victims of Majdanek, the camp became home to the possessions of those murdered in other in Operation Reinhard camps: Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka II.
Majdanek was the first major concentration camp to be liberated, as early as July 1944. Soviet officials invited local journalists to inspect what was left of the camp, including the partially-cremated remains of victims in the crematorium. Approximately 360,000 people died at Majdanek during its operation.

I knew that the former camp was very close to the city of Lublin, but I was still surprised with how short our journey was. Getting out of our minibus, you could still see blocks of flats and buildings on the outskirts of the city, and our guide later told us that those were the existing boundaries of Lublin during the camp’s operation. I thought camps like Dachau and Sachsenhausen were close to Munich and Berlin respectively – each about an hour’s train ride away from the city centre – but never imagined a camp would ever be constructed this close to the urban landscape.

We first came to a huge stone statue, built in 1969. It follows a straight line to the mausoleum, symbolising the victims who were deported to the camp and were led to their deaths. For the visitor, however, there is a concealed side-exit that we can take, as the living, which allows you to continue onto the rest of the camp.
Majdanek was also bigger than I expected. It does not match the scale of a camp such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it is considerably spread out across the fields. Our tour guide showed us the barracks in which prisoners were housed, but much more chilling was the surviving gas chamber in the baths and disinfection barrack. This barrack served all three functions; there were actual showers and water basins inside, although obviously these would have been quick, cold showers accompanied by shouting and beatings. Our guide explained that the perpetrators would sometimes drown prisoners in the large stone water basins, just for entertainment. Walking further through the barrack, evidence of Zyklon B being used for its original purpose (as a pesticide, disinfecting clothes) was visible on the walls by blue stains. Towards the end of the barrack, however, exactly the same stains could be seen on the walls of the gas chamber, a heavy door with a peephole still at the same entrance. Visitors are not permitted to enter the former gas chamber, as it remains in its original form, unlike, for example, the partially-reconstructed gas chamber in Auschwitz I (dismantled by the Nazis once the gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau were working). No artificial light has been installed inside, so the atmosphere of darkness and dread was intensified. It was not hard to imagine people locked away in the dark of that room, awaiting their deaths.

A number of the barracks now house a permanent exhibition, detailing living conditions inside the camp, punishments, labour etc. One barrack contains only thousands of pairs of shoes of those murdered in Operation Reinhard, tightly packed into metal cages. Visitors were once able to walk up and down the rows of these shoes, but a wooden barrier is now in place after someone tried, shockingly, to take some of the shoes out. Nevertheless, the musty smell of the shoes is pungent, something that you don’t experience in Auschwitz as the shoes are kept behind glass. Somehow the smell of such things serves to bring the reality harder home.
We gradually made our way over to the furthest corner of the camp, where the mausoleum and crematorium are located. Our guide admitted that the wooden structures of the crematorium are reconstructions, but that the stonework and ovens are all genuine. Certainly, Majdanek is a well-preserved camp, but it is hard to know if the barracks have been reconstructed or to what extent they have been conserved. To make another comparison with the Auschwitz Museum, the latter has written reports on their painstaking efforts to dismantle, conserve and reinstall original materials from the barracks and other buildings, whereas the museum at Majdanek does not seem to have a similar programme, so one cannot always tell what is original and what is a replica.
The crematorium contains a number of rooms. In one room, where executions were carried out, bullet holes can still be seen in the concrete. Another room contains a memorial to the victims, including a square sarcophagus-style container which holds remains found at the camp upon its liberation. Towards the back of the crematorium are the furnaces and ovens themselves. After visiting so many sites, I have seen many crematoria used in the Holocaust, but each one still conjures great feelings of sadness and revulsion. To make matters worse, our guide pointed out a bathtub in the corner of the room – the man in charge of the crematorium would often use the heat from the ovens to have hot-water baths, whilst victims were being cremated. Such details beggar belief.

On the way to the mausoleum, we passed a part of the field with deep grooves running through the ground. These were once trenches that prisoners had been forced to dig, in late October 1943, for an operation called Erntefest (Harvest Festival). On the morning of 3rd November – later known as ‘Bloody Wednesday’ – Jews were separated from other prisoners, taken to the trenches, and shot, the executions continuing until nightfall. Music played loudly to drown out the sounds of gunfire and screams. 18,000 Jews were killed in this way.
We then arrived at the mausoleum itself, a monumental structure with a domed roof that I have always (guiltily) thought resembles a UFO. On the outside a Polish inscription reads ‘Our fate is a warning to you’. I knew that ashes of the murdered were kept here, but I assumed they were fully under cover and not on display. I received quite a shock, therefore, when I climbed the steps and found myself facing an enormous pile of human ashes, collected by Soviet liberators from the grounds of the camp, including ashes that had been used as fertiliser. A circular hole at the top of the roof shines light onto this awful sight. I didn’t want to look at such a thing, and at the same time, felt I couldn’t look at anything else. As with the shoes in one of the barracks, these ashes reveal just a portion of the crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.

I have included a selection of photographs from my visit below. There are no photographs of the ashes in the mausoleum, out of respect to those whose remains lie there.

The Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom

The side-exit to the rest of the former camp

A row of former barracks, many of which now hold the permanent exhibition

Prisoner showers in the 'disinfection' block

Stains on the walls from the use of Zyklon B in disinfecting clothing

The gas chamber, with stains from Zyklon B clearly visible on the walls

Shoes belonging to the victims of the Operation Reinhard killings

Prisoners' living quarters

The crematorium (wooden parts reconstructed)

A bullet hole in a room of the crematorium

An oven in the crematorium

The bath in the corner of the furnace room

One of the trenches were Jews were shot during Erntefest

The mausoleum. The inscription reads: 'Our fate is a warning to you'