Majdanek – German concentration camp in Lublin
Creation of the Majdanek camp was connected to the plans of germanization of eastern Europe. According to them Majdanek was supposed to be a source of workforce. It was designed for people of various nationalities but the most numerous group of inmates were Jews. Majdanek camp was very different from the camps in Bełżec and Sobibór.
- Creation and structure of Majdanek camp
- Organization of the camp
- Majdanek camp commanders
- Marking the inmates
- Reception in Majdanek camp
- Living conditions in Majdanek camp
- Work in Majdanek camp
- Helping inmates
- "Action Erntefest"
- Occupation of the camp by the Red Army
- Number of victims
Creation and structure of Majdanek camp
The construction of camp began in first days of October 1941, basing on the decision that was made by Heinrich Himmler in July 1941, when he visited Lublin. Construction plans were designed by the SS and Police Central Construction Board in Lublin. According to the general plan from March 23rd 1942, Majdanek was supposed to be an enormous camp complex of 516 hectares, where up to 250 000 inmates could be held at the same time. This plan assumed that the camp would be divided into two main sections: prison, and administrative part with the SS barracks. The camp authorities planned that the prison part would include: a camp for prisoners of war (Kriegsgefangenenlager), open space for the development of camp complex (Erweiterung) and SS Clothing Factory (Bekleidungswerke der Waffen SS). Only a small part of these plans was realized.
In July 1942, in consequence of failures in the eastern front, and problems with supplying the camp with indispensable construction materials, SS authorities revised the general plan. According to new assumptions, the camp was supposed to be divided in three sections: administrative with the SS barracks, economical, and the inmates part, which was planned to be the biggest one. Plan assumed construction of eight fields for inmates, where approximately 50 000 of people could be held. However, until July, 1944 when the Red Army seized the camp, only six fields were finished.
In the camp area there were 280 buildings in total. They had different functions, such as workshops, storages, barracks to live in, baths, gas chambers, crematorium etc. Only a part of these constructions survived until today. The Nazis, taken by surprise by fast tempo of Red Army offensive, didn’t have enough time to liquidate the camp, and that is how extermination and cremation facilities together with some inmates fields, workshops and warehouses were preserved.
Organization of the camp
Majdanek camp had 6 sections:
Headquarters (Kommandantur) – in charge of personal and legal issues of SS crew, ensuring communication and means of transport, maintenance of weapons. In the structure of headquarters there was also a post office.
Political Department (Politische Abteilung) – held and led an index of inmates, gave them categories, invigilated inmates environment led investigations, made decisions about possible releases from the camp, issued death certificates. Officers of this department took part in inmates' executions. This department had a very particular position among others, because its head was appointed by the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) and wasn’t subordinated to the head of the camp.
Inmates Department (Schutzhaftlagerführung) – in charge of keeping the camp safe and ordered, supervision of the number of inmates and punishing inmates for violation of camp’s rules. The head of this department had a big influence on living conditions in the camp.
Administration and Economy Department (Verwaltung) – responsible for financial issues, usage of inmates properties, supplying inmates with food and clothes, and their accommodation in barracks. This department was also in charge of supplying the camp with cyclone B.
The camp physician (Lagerarzt) – was in charge of sanitary issues within the camp area. There were three smaller branches in this department: medical, dental and pharmacy.
SS Culture and Training Department (Fürsorge-,Schulung- und Truppenbetreuung) – main task of this branch was to indoctrinate SS members, who served in the camp.
Majdanek camp commanders
The highest authority of the camp was a commander, appointed by Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Oranienburg. The commanders of the camp were (in successive order):
- Karl Otto Koch,
- Max Koegel,
- Hermann Florstedt,
- Martin Weiss,
- Arthur Liebehenschel.
Karl Otto Koch and Hermann Florstedt were subject of an investigation launched by SS authorities because of suspected embezzlements. Investigation was led by Konrad Morgen. Both commanders were relieved from their post and put in prison with a death sentence, that probably was executed a couple of weeks before the end of the war.
Marking the inmates
Right after entering the camp inmates were given a number that was supposed to replace their name and surname, and indicate what category of prisoners they are. Every inmate was expected to learn his number in German. He sewed it on his clothes, on the left breast, and on the right thigh.
Every inmate was also demanded to sew a triangle in a specific color, meaning the inmate category, under the number. In the middle of a triangle there was a letter deriving from the name of country the inmate came from (it was a first letter of the name of that country in German).
There were few categories of inmates:
Jews (star of David, composed of two triangles, sewed one upon another, one yellow and one red);
political (red triangle);
Holy Bible Researchers - Jehova’s Witnesses (purple triangle);
antisocials - Gypsies, pimps, prostitutes, homeless, unemployed, drug addicts, alcohol addicts (black triangle);
homosexuals (pink triangle);
criminals (green triangle);
hostages - farmers and peasants from villages, pacified in revenge for military actions of underground movement, those who didn’t manage to supply required contingents (red rectangle, in which a camp number was written);
Red Army prisoners of war (they had SU - Sowiet Union - letters painted in red on their backs).
This division was used only for inmates coming from occupied countries of western Europe. Poles and Soviet Union citizens were given red triangle.
Reception in Majdanek camp
In Majdanek there wasn’t any railway ramp where transports could come to. The ramp was situated in another camp, called Flugplatz (before the war there was a Plage-Laśkiewicz aircraft factory there). It was a place where the transports were unloaded, or in same cases, only a selection took place, to pick Jewish men to work in Majdanek camp. Other Jews were “displaced” to their final destination - Sobibór extermination camp or Bełżec.
After the transport was unloaded, those who were chosen, were led to the Majdanek camp. After getting to the camp they were deprived of their belongings, then registered. And after that, they went through bath, disinfection (in the lysol solution), they were given a number and inmate category, and they were led to the camp fields and housed in barracks. Jewish inmates were conducted to Rosengarten – a selection square, where they were chosen some to die, some to work.
Living conditions in Majdanek camp
Living conditions were very bad. Poor nutrition and overwork resulted in an extreme exhaustion of inmates. They used to have three meals per day, that contained not even 1000 calories in total. Another significant problem was overpopulation of inmates in a relatively small area. They were housed in stable barracks, 250-500 people in each one. Separate barracks were designed for Jews. High population density caused many diseases, that literally decimated inmates community. Among the most popular epidemics was typhus, which was spread by lice. Zacheusz Pawlak recalls:
They used to swarm on us, causing not only itching, but also skin irritation, and even wounds, what in consequence caused infections. Lice multiplied even if we all had our hair cut very short. So, in the camp very common hair decoration were countless nits, stuck together in beady, protuberant threads. There was no product or time to exterminate them. The only way was to kill them, what was a Sisyphean task, regarding lack of light (work in the daytime). “The hunt” used to take place on Sundays, when we worked only until noon. Really, it was very particular view: inmates in dirty, ragged underwear, sat on their bunks in different poses and with their skeletal, dirty fingers squeezed disgusting insects between their nails1.
Camp authorities tried to limit their reach eliminating the sick. Sadism of SS crew and prisoner functionaries was also a serious threat. All those determinants resulted in high mortality rate among inmates.
Work in Majdanek camp
Work depended on a season - in summertime it lasted for 12 hours, in wintertime - 10 hours. All the inmates were obliged to work, and working groups were called kommandos. It is possible to distinguish external kommandos, which used to work outside the camp territory, and internal kommandos, which were supposed to expand the camp, as well as simply make it work. Inmates used to perform maintenance works in the camp's workshops, warehouses, vegetable gardens and helping to service the mass extermination machine.
It was a common practice to lend inmates' workforce to German enterprises, working outside of the camp, for example: Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke (DAW), Ostindustrie (Osti) or Bekleidungswerke (BKW).
Camp authorities charged tenants for workforce. It wasn’t a big fee, it had rather symbolic meaning – 0,30 – 4 RM for one day of work of every worker.
The inmate condition clearly depended very much on a type of work that he did. Undoubtedly, the biggest chance to survive was in the kommando that had a facilitated access to food, while the highest mortality rate was among kommandos that took part in enlargement of the camp complex.
In the camp there was an obligation to work, even if inmates were not “hired” by German entrepreneurs, or involved in the general enlargement of the camp or in its functioning. In that case they were assigned to do pointless tasks, like digging pits or carrying stones from one place to another, and then the other way round.
Very specific kommando was created of prisoners, who worked in the bunker with gas chambers and crematorium. They were called Sonderkommando, which usually consisted of Jews or Red Army prisoners of war. Every now and then they were all killed and replaced by new inmates of the same origin.
First beginnings of conspiracy date from 1942. It was inspired by Slovakian Jews and Red Army prisoners of war. In the beginning of 1943 an organized conspiracy started to operate in the camp. It was connected to the deportation of many Polish political prisoners to the Majdanek camp at that time. Cooperation was established in spite of differences of opinions and beliefs among its members. An example of „Orzeł” ("Eagle") Association, established by activist of Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) and National Democracy (ND) confirms it very well. Collaboration of representatives of many different political environments resulted from the equal situation they found themselves in. Their primary goal was to improve living conditions, what was possible only when working together.
Main tasks of underground structures within the camp area were:
to investigate the course of life in the camp, ascertain presence of some people in Majdanek, to inform the District Headquarters [Polish Home Army] about needs of inmates, to give instructions and indications, to take care of inmates in material and moral dimension (sending packages with food, cash, correspondence), affiliation of valuable elements2.
Undoubtedly, a unit of Polish Home Army that had the biggest importance, was the one directed by col. Władysław Smereczyński. What’s more, some germs of prewar political parties appeared in the camp.
An active form of resistance against the camp authorities were individual or group escapes. They wouldn’t have been possible without the engagement of a third party outside the camp.
Conspiracy organizations closely collaborated with their home institutions, that operated outside. They transmitted them all information about functioning of the concentration camp at Majdanek.
Dramatic conditions in the camp forced humanitarian movements such as Polish Red Cross (PCK) or Central Welfare Council (RGO) to help the inmates. PCK and RGO tried to supply inmates with additional food rations and necessary medicines, but it depended on the will of camp authorities. Helping inmates of Jewish origin was categorically banned.
Humanitarian organizations tried to skip all the limits. In order to do that, they used so-called civilian employees, who risked their freedom to smuggle needed assortment and secret messages into the camp.
Official permit to help inmates was issued by GG authorities in February 1943. It was strictly related to situation on the fronts – decreasing number of German workforce had to be replaced by inmates.
Efficacy in helping Majdanek inmates resulted from good cooperation between PCK and RGO. A person, who was involved in both of them was doctor Ludwik Christians (president of Lublin branch of PCK and vice-president of Lublin branch of RGO). A letter wrote by Polish doctors, who were inmates in the Majdanek camp, tells about the role of PCK in helping prisoners:
For the first time we have an opportunity to express on paper our cordial thanks to the directorate of P.C.K. in Lublin for medical care and help provided to Polish inmates in the camp. For a long time we have been receiving medicines, packages and bread. Recently P. C. K. gives us also food products, which are used in the camp kitchen for Polish men and women, who are sick. This significant help thoroughly improved conditions of nutrition and treatment of those sick people, who are left under our care3.
Also families of inmates tried to help them, sending the packages via PCK. A call for help for inmates had a big response among ordinary inhabitants of Lublin region, who tried to supply them with food, money or medicines. A good example of this attitude can be Gryg family, Witold Łobarzewski, dr Teodor Lipecki, dr Cyprian Chromiński or dr Zofia Wojciechowska. However, food and medicines did not always reach the addressees. Very often packages were checked by SS-men, who used to take the best products for themselves. Priceless role in keeping inmates’ moral high was played by secret letters (Polish gryps). They were illegal correspondence with the outside world. In case of being discovered by SS-men it resulted in very serious consequences.
Only Polish inmates were allowed to receive help from the outside. They used to share additional food rations with other inmates, who were deprived of it.
Help, brought by PCK, RGO and many smaller organizations were not sufficient, but it slightly softened negative results of stay in the camp. It uplifted inmates, making them sure they are not forgotten.
Inmates' extermination had two forms: direct and indirect. The major part of prisoners became victims of the latter (dramatic living conditions).
Indirect extermination was based on hard, manual labor, which was often over human capacity, poor nutrition, bad housing conditions and diseases.
Executions were form of direct extermination. They were in use from the beginning of the camp, and they were used against Red Army prisoners of war, people who had typhus, farmers from the Lublin region, and other inmates considered to be unable to work. Executions by shooting, as a form of extermination, became more often in 1944, and the victims were mostly Polish inmates.
Another form of direct extermination was killing people in gas chambers. For this purpose Germans used carbon monoxide, and more rarely cyclone B. A bunker which included gas chambers was in use from September/October 1942 until September/October 1943. Those, who were murdered in fixed installations of immediate extermination were mostly Jews. Until the middle of 1942 bodies were buried, later they were cremated on pyres or crematorium furnaces.
Other methods of extermination, such as hanging or beating depended very much on bestiality of SS-men and guardians.
The biggest mass execution took place on November 3rd 1943. It was named with a cryptonym "Action Erntefest". It was a final stage of Operation Reinhardt that started in spring 1942. Erntefest was a one day operation, that resulted in murdering 18 000 of Jewish inmates in Majdanek camp.
Occupation of the camp by the Red Army
In March and April, 1944, while eastern front was approaching, several thousands of inmates were sent west, to other camps. The Majdanek camp was seized by soviet army in the night of July 22nd/23rd 1944. In August NKWD created in this area Special Camp of NKWD, which operated probably until December, 1944. In the 3rd field (the one in the middle) they used to hold under arrest members of Peasants' Battalions (Bataliony Chłopskie) and Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), and on 5th field (next to the crematorium) German prisoners of war and Volksdeutsches were put.
In the end of July, 1944, the Military Film Unit (Czołówka Filmowa Wojska Polskiego), that was established in 1943 in USSR, came to Lublin. In the crew there were four cameramen – two Forbert brothers, Olgierd Samucewicz and Stanisław Wohl, director – Aleksander Ford, his assistant – Ludwik Perski, and Jerzy Bossak. First shots registered in Lublin are pictures from the Majdanek camp, right after Germans escaped. In 1969, in the newspaper Film, Stanisław Wohl recalled,
In the ovens of crematorium there were still smouldering ashes of half-burned corpses, exhausted “muslims” crawled on the ground, inmates wanted to welcome us, but they didn’t have any power to wave their hand or raise their voice4.
Number of victims
According to the recent researches, led by historians from the Museum at Majdanek, we can assume that during the time when the camp was active (1941-1944) at least 80 000 inmates of different nationalities were murdered or died. Approximately 60 000 people among them were Jewish.
Compiled by Jakub Chmielewski
Translated by Magdalena Dziaczkowska
1 Marszałek J., Majdanek. Obóz koncentracyjny w Lublinie, Warszawa 1987, s. 107.
2 Marszałek J., Majdanek. Obóz koncentracyjny w Lublinie, Warszawa 1987, s. 159.
3 Christians L., Piekło XX wieku. Zbrodnia, hart ducha i miłosierdzie, Lublin 1946, s. 261.
4 Derecki M., Majdanek. Dokumenty z "epoki pieców", "Kamena" nr 19, 1979 r.
Kranz T., Zagłada Żydów w obozie koncentracyjnym na Majdanku, Lublin 2007.
Kwiatkowski J., 485 dni na Majdanku, Lublin 1966.
Marszałek J., Majdanek. Obóz koncentracyjny w Lublinie, Warszawa 1987.
Ossowska W., Przeżyłam..., Warszawa 1995.