majdanek concentration camp

This green field with a (reconstructed) wooden watch tower lies on the grounds of a very sad place called Majdanek, located on the outskirts of the city of Lublin, Poland. Here during World War II was one of the most infamous of the Nazi death camps. While not nearly as large as the slave labor and extermination center at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek was plenty horrific in its own right. Exactly how many people were murdered here is a subject of dispute. It could be as “low” (!) as 78,000, or by some estimates as high as 350,000. When you talk about the Shoah (Holocaust), higher figures are probably closer to the truth. Does it matter? The undeniable fact is that one of the most horrible episodes of recent human history played out here, and much of the camp has been preserved or reconstructed to re-envision that horror.

Majdanek was built beginning in October 1941, only a few months after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, mainly to hold Soviet prisoners of war. The Shoah was of course in full swing in German-occupied Poland since Germany’s invasion in September 1939, but the involvement of the USSR–where, numerically, more Jews lived than in any other single country–brought the extermination to a new peak. Majdanek became a killing center for Jews beginning in September 1942 when the Nazis were just starting their experimentation with the classic Zyklon-B gas chambers that most people are familiar with. People forget that, numerically speaking, most victims of the Shoah were not gassed in organized chambers, but starved to death or shot by Sonderkommandos (Special Action Units) especially in the USSR. It was not until the Nazis got their hands on more Jews than they knew how to kill that they began the grim process of gas chambers and crematoria that became a fixture at Majdanek in its later months.

Majdanek was the first major death camp liberated by the Allies. It was overrun by the Soviet Red Army in August 1944, and while the horrors of the Shoah were exposed to the world, it was far from the first time. A common misconception about World War II is that the Shoah was either largely unknown while it was going on, or that news reports of it that reached the West were generally downplayed or not believed. This is far from the truth. Massacres of Jews made the front pages of Western newspapers, including the New York Times, pretty regularly during the war years, and there were few who did not believe them. While the exact industrial process of gas chambers and crematoria weren’t fully understood until the end of the war, the fact that a mass genocide against Jews, Roma, homosexuals and others was going on behind German lines was definitely known in Allied countries, and was just another reason why Nazi Germany had to be defeated as quickly as possible.

The field visible in this picture contained barracks for slave laborers. Some have been reconstructed; some of Majdanek’s original gas chambers and crematoria were captured intact and remain today, a terrible testament to the darkness of the human soul.