Back when I was a second-year university student, I did a year-long course called the History of Antisemitism. Out of all the history classes I took over the course of my studies, that one probably affected me the most. The first term focused on history up to the 1930s, the second term was all about the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. It was also during that year that Schindler’s List was released. I remember sitting in the theatre on opening night, my professor a few rows behind me, with the most diverse audience I had ever been in (before or since). Also that year, I ended up being part of a psych study that looked at how people perceived the Holocaust after first reading either a) a confession from the Auschwitz Commandant, Rudolf Höss, or b) the logical argument of a Holocaust denier (you had to read both, it was random which one you got first). Despite the fact that I was studying this very thing at that very moment, even I began to doubt what I knew, the denier sounded so truthful (they often mix facts with lies). It made me realize that even then, fifty years after the war had ended, there were still people with enough hate to try to prove that this terrible event had never happened. Even though I’m not Jewish, I’ve long had a fascination with why this particular group of people has been the target of so much hate and persecution throughout the ages. And now, being here in Poland, having visited the sites of former ghettos, mass graves, and concentration camps, it’s something I still don’t understand.
Majdanek Concentration Camp (also known as KL Lublin) first started as a forced labour camp, although it too began to exterminate prisoners from 1942 onwards as part of Operation Reinhold (the plan to murder all Jews with German-occupied territory). It was built in 1941 and initially just had male inmates, not only Jews but also prisoners of war and local Poles who resisted the Nazis on various levels (farmers not keeping quotas to locals helping Jews). Eventually a female camp was added. Although Majdanek is not famous like Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is the best preserved concentration camp, as the Nazis were not able to destroy it before the rapid Soviet army advance. This was the first camp liberated by the Allied forces, and as such, the horrors here were the first to be broadcast around the world.
Initially this camp served (mostly) as a sorting centre to deal with all the clothing and other valuables taken from prisoners sent directly to the (then secret) extermination camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. However, due to the need to liquidate ghettos of various Polish cities, Majdanek began gassing prisoners in 1942 using Zyklon-B (there were also executions by machine gun firing squads). The gas chambers and crematorium were in plain view of all the other prisoners there, nothing was kept secret.
A few years after it was liberated, the camp was made into a museum and it remains so to this day. The size of the camp is about half of what it was during the war, and the city of Lublin as grown in close all around it. Official estimates place the number of victims here to be 79,000, of which 59,000 were Jewish. Over the course of its operation, the camp housed over 300,000 prisoners (but probably not more than 50,000 at any one time). A large mound made of the cremated remains (ashes and bones) of the prisoners, mixed with the local soil, stands at the far end of the camp, opposite to the memorial at the entrance. It’s a large, round, brutal affair, but compelling in its simplicity. It lies next to the crematorium and the execution pits.
This was a sobering site to visit, but I’m glad I did so. The last couple of days in Poland has caused a rush of memories of the year I studied all of this, and I know that I’ll be brushing up on a lot of history I forgot about as a result. I made a special trip from Warsaw to do come here (7 hours round trip) and I have to say that after visiting the site, I really didn’t feel like visiting anything else in Lublin (which has its fair share of sites). For now, I feel…?….I feel that it’s appropriate to focus on the dark side of the past. It’s not a happy place to be, but it is an important one, and one not to shy away from.
Site: Majdanek Concentration Camp
Established: Work started on the camp in 1941. It went operational in 1942, was liberated in 1944, and became a museum in 1947.
Notable prisoners: Mietek Grocher, survivor of 9 different camps; Dmitry Karbyshev, general and hero of the Soviet Union; Henio Zytomirski, a 9-year old Jewish boy who was killed at Majdanek in Nov 1942 – he has become an icon of the Holocaust, studied in schools all over Poland (children write letters to him on Holocaust memorial day on April 19th; and Sonia Mosse, an actress who was the subject of photographer Man Ray’s image of Nusch and Sonia.
Location: in the southeast part of Lublin, there are a number of buses that go in that direction, depending on where you are starting from. It’s about a 40-minute walk from the main station.
Hours: 09:00-18:00 April to October, to 16:00 from November to March