Konzentrationslager Lublin was established in October 1941 on the orders of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, forwarded to Odilo Globocnik soon after his visit to Lublin on 17–20 July 1941 in the course of the initially successful German attack on the Soviet positions in eastern Poland. The original plan drafted by Himmler was for the camp to hold at least 25,000 POWs.
Following the large numbers of Soviet prisoners-of-war captured during the Battle of Kiev, the projected capacity was subsequently established at 50,000 and construction for that many began on October 1, 1941 (as it did also in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which had received the same order). In early November, the plans were extended to allow for 125,000 inmates and in December to 150,000. It was further increased in March 1942 to allow for 250,000 Soviet prisoners of war.
Construction began with 150 Jewish forced laborers from one of Globocnik's Lublin camps, to which the prisoners returned each night. Later the workforce included 2,000 Red Army POWs, who had to survive extreme conditions, including sleeping out in the open. By mid-November only 500 of them were still alive, of whom at least 30% were incapable of further labor. In mid-December, barracks for 20,000 were ready when a typhus epidemic broke out, and by January 1942 all the forced laborers – POWs as well as Polish Jews – were dead. All work ceased until March 1942, when new prisoners arrived. Although the camp did eventually have the capacity to hold approximately 50,000 prisoners, it did not grow significantly beyond that size.
Aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Majdanek concentration camp (June 24, 1944) from the collections of the Majdanek Museum
; lower half: the barracks under deconstruction with visible chimney stacks still standing and planks of wood piled up along the supply road; in the upper half, functioning barracks
In July 1942, Himmler visited Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka; the three secret extermination camps built specifically for the Nazi German Operation Reinhard purposed to eliminate Polish Jewry. These camps had begun operations in March, May and July 1942 respectively, as soon as the "Final Solution" was decided. Subsequently, Himmler issued an order that the deportations of Jews to the camps from the five districts of occupied Poland, which constituted the Nazi Generalgouvernement, be completed by the end of 1942.
Majdanek was made into a secondary sorting and storage depot at the onset of Operation Reinhard, for property and valuables taken from the victims at the killing centers in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. However, due to large Jewish populations in south-eastern Poland including Kraków, Lwów, Zamość and Warsaw which were not yet "processed", Majdanek was refurbished as a killing center around March 1942. The gassing was performed in plain view of other inmates, without as much as a fence around the buildings. Another popular killing method was execution by the squads of Trawnikis. According to the Majdanek museum, the gas chambers began operation in September 1942. There are two identical buildings at Majdanek, where Zyklon-B was used. Executions were carried out in barrack 41 with the use of crystalline hydrogen cyanide released by the Zyklon B. The same poison gas pellets were used to disinfect prisoner clothing in barrack 42.
Due to the pressing need for foreign manpower in the war industry, the Jewish laborers from Poland were originally spared, and were (for a time) either kept in the ghettos such as the one in Warsaw (which became a concentration camp after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), or sent to labor camps such as Majdanek where they worked primarily at the Steyr-Daimler-Puch weapons/munitions factory.
soldiers examining the ovens at Majdanek, following the camp's liberation, summer 1944
Reconstructed wooden building around the camp's original crematorium, c. 2006
Preserved crematorium ovens (closeup)
By mid-October 1942 the camp held 9,519 registered prisoners, of which 7,468 (or 78.45%) were Jews, and another 1,884 (19.79%) were non-Jewish Poles. By August 1943, there were 16,206 prisoners in the main camp, of which 9,105 (56.18%) were Jews and 3,893 (24.02%) were non-Jewish Poles. Minority contingents included Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, Austrians, Slovenes, Italians, and French and Dutch nationals. According to the data from the official Majdanek State Museum, 300,000 persons were inmates of the camp at one time or another. The prisoner population at any given time was much lower.
From October 1942 onwards, Majdanek also had female overseers. These SS guards, who had been trained at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, included the convicted war criminals Elsa Ehrich, Hermine Boettcher-Brueckner, Hermine Braunsteiner, Hildegard Lächert, Rosy Suess (Süss) Elisabeth Knoblich-Ernst, Charlotte Karla Mayer-Woellert, and Gertrud Heise (1942–1944).
Majdanek did not initially have subcamps. These were incorporated in early autumn 1943 when the remaining forced labor camps around Lublin including Budzyn, Trawniki, Poniatowa, Krasnik, Pulawy, as well as the "Airstrip", and Lipowa concentration camps became sub-camps of Majdanek.
From 1 September 1941 to 28 May 1942, Alfons Bentele headed the Administration in the camp. Alois Kurz, SS Untersturmführer, was a German staff member at Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and at Mittelbau-Dora. He was not charged. On 18 June 1943 Fritz Ritterbusch moved to KL Lublin to become aide-de-camp to the Commandant.
Due to the camp's proximity to Lublin, prisoners were able to communicate with the outside world through letters smuggled out by civilian workers who entered the camp. Many of these surviving letters have been donated by their recipients to the camp museum. In 2008 the museum held a special exhibition displaying a selection of those letters.
From February 1943 onwards the Germans allowed the Polish Red Cross and Central Welfare Council to bring in food items to the camp. Prisoners could receive food packages addressed to them by name via the Polish Red Cross. The Majdanek Museum archives document 10,300 such itemized deliveries.
Operation Reinhard continued until early November 1943, when the last Jewish prisoners of the Majdanek system of subcamps from the District Lublin in the General Government were massacred by the firing squads of Trawniki men during Operation "Harvest Festival." With respect to main camp at Majdanek, the most notorious executions occurred on November 3, 1943, when 18,400 Jews were killed on a single day. The next morning, 25 Jews who had succeeded in hiding were found and shot. Meanwhile, 611 other prisoners, 311 women and 300 men, were commanded to sort through the clothes of the dead and cover the burial trenches. The men were later assigned to Sonderkommando 1005, where they had to exhume the same bodies for cremation. These men were then themselves executed. The 311 women were subsequently sent to Auschwitz where they were gassed. By the end of Operation "Harvest Festival," Majdanek had only 71 Jews left out of the total number of 6,562 prisoners still alive.
Executions of the remaining prisoners continued at Majdanek in the following months. Between December 1943 and March 1944, Majdanek received approximately 18,000 so-called "invalids," many of whom where subsequently gassed with Zyklon B. Executions by firing squad continued as well, with 600 shot on January 21, 1944, 180 shot on January 23, 1944, and 200 shot on March 24, 1944.
Adjutant Karl Höcker's trial reveals his culpability in mass murders committed at this camp. "On 3 May 1989 a district court in the German city of Bielefeld sentenced Höcker to four years imprisonment for his involvement in gassing to death prisoners, primarily Polish Jews, in the concentration camp Majdanek in Poland. Camp records showed that between May 1943 and May 1944 Höcker had acquired at least 3,610 kilograms (7,960 lb) of Zyklon B poisonous gas for use in Majdanek from the Hamburg firm of Tesch & Stabenow." In addition, Commandant Rudolf Höss of Auschwitz wrote in his memoirs, penned while awaiting trial in Poland, that one method of murder used at Majdanek (KZ Lublin) was Zyklon-B.
|Location of Majdanek on the map of Lublin ~ 4 kilometres (2.5 mi)
In late July 1944, with Soviet forces rapidly approaching Lublin, the Germans hastily evacuated the camp. However, the staff had only succeeded in partially destroying the crematoria before Soviet Red Army troops arrived on July 24, 1944, making Majdanek the best-preserved camp of the Holocaust. It was the first major concentration camp liberated by Allied forces, and the horrors found there were widely publicised.
Although 1,000 inmates had previously been forcibly marched to Auschwitz (of whom only half arrived alive), the Red Army still found thousands of inmates, mainly POWs, still in the camp and ample evidence of the mass murder that had occurred there.