MAJDANEK (Maidanek ), concentration and death camp on the southeastern outskirts of *Lublin, Poland, in the Generalgouvernment, German-occupied Poland. It was also called Lublin-Majdanek and Majdan Tatarski, after the suburb of Lublin in which it was situated. Originally set up on July 21, 1941, for Soviet prisoners of war, it was soon turned into a camp for Jews and Poles with a maximum capacity for 35,000 inmates. Majdanek covered 667 acres; situated on the Lublin-Zamosc-Chelm Highway, it was ringed by two layers of barbed wire and guarded by 19 watchtowers, each 26.5 feet high. It contained 227 buildings, gas chambers, two gallows, and a small crematorium. The camp was divided into six sections which in 1943 contained a women's camp; a field hospital for Russian collaborators attached to the German army; a men's camp for Polish political prisoners as well as Jews from Warsaw and Bialystok; a men's camp for Soviet prisoners of war, civilian hostages, and political prisoners; a men's hospital camp; and a section for further expansion.
As with Auschwitz, but unlike the other major killing centers of Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, and Chelmno, Majdanek was also a slave labor and prisoner camp. Also, unlike the other major killing centers, which were used almost exclusively for the murder of Jews, Majdanek's prisoners were more diverse; many died from its primitive conditions, perhaps more than died in its gas chambers
The camp commandants were the ss officers Karl Otto Koch (September 1941–July 1942), Max Koegel (August–October 1942), Hermann Florstedt (October 1942–September 1943), Martin Weiss (September 1943–May 1944), and Arthur Liebenschel (May until liberation on July 24, 1944).
The first transport, consisting of 5,000 Soviet prisoners of war, arrived in the autumn of 1941. They died of starvation and exposure. The camp population was mixed: Soviet prisoners of war, Polish farmers, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and, of course, Jews. The first groups of Jews arrived from Slovakia and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (15,000) and then Poland (36,500). Early in 1943, 6,000 Dutch and Greek Jews arrived, followed by 74,800 Polish Jews, mostly from *Warsaw, *Bialystok, and Lublin. Altogether 130,000 Jews were sent to Majdanek in 1942–43.
Until the spring of 1942 prisoners were usually shot in a nearby forest, but from October 1942 until the end of 1943, Majdanek had three gas chambers located in one building, which used both carbon monoxide and, like Auschwitz, Zyklon B gas to kill prisoners.
Jewish prisoners who were not killed immediately were employed in various work projects in the camp or in the Lublin area. If further workers were needed in 1942, some trains en route to Belzec were stopped and Jews able to work were removed before the train resumed its journey toward the death camp.
In May 1943 some 18,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were sent to Majdanek following the Ghetto Uprising and some ghetto factories were transferred there. They were not to stay long. In the summer of 1943, 10,000 able-bodied Jews were transferred from Majdanek for work in "Hasag" camp and Auschwitz.
Toward the end of 1943 a strong partisan movement developed in the Lublin district. Uprisings had taken place in Vilna and Bialystok, and even in the death camps of Sobibor (August) and Treblinka, unnerving the Germans. In retaliation, they carried out a massacre (euphemistically named the "Harvest Festival") of 42,000 Jews, some of whom had been brought from the nearby work camps. This "action" included the machinegunning of 18,000 Jews in a single day (November 3, 1943) in front of the ditches that the victims were made to dig to serve as their own graves.
Between 170,000 and 235,000 persons died or were killed at Majdanek. Most died because of the harsh conditions, starvation and disease, torture, forced labor, and despair. The number of victims of Majdanek's gas chambers is unknown.
When the camp was liberated by the advancing Soviet armies (July 24, 1944), only a few hundred prisoners of various nationalities were still alive. In their hasty evacuation, the Germans could not destroy the camp entirely and thus a clear remnant of the camps, barracks, gas chamber, and crematoria remained. The liberation of Majdanek was covered widely. Western correspondents had entered the death camp and written stories about it. H.W. Lawrence, a correspondent for the New York Times, wrote: "I have just seen the most terrible place on earth." These revelations were not given the credence they deserved.
Press coverage was intense. Roman Karman, a well-known Soviet correspondent, filed this report on August 21, 1944:
In the course of my travels into liberated territory I have never seen a more abominable sight than Majdanek near Lublin, Hitler's notorious Vernichtungslager, where more than half a million European men, women, and children were massacred … This is not a concentration camp; it is a gigantic murder plant.
Save for the 1,000 living corpses the Red Army found alive when it entered, no inmate escaped alive. Yet full trains daily brought thousands from all parts of Europe to be coldly, brutally massacred.
In the center of the camp stands a huge stone building with a factory chimney – the world's biggest crematorium … The gas chambers contained some 250 people at a time. They were closely packed … so that after they suffocated they remained standing … It is difficult to believe it myself but human eyes cannot deceive me…
In the postwar years the Polish authorities established a museum and research institute at Majdanek. Poland established an impressive memorial at Majdanek and made significant efforts to preserve the remaining buildings, which are used to portray what happened there. More than 500,000 shoes taken from prisoners filled one of the barracks.
In July 1944 the Polish-Soviet Investigation Commission began to look into the crimes of Majdanek; it published a report in September; 6 of the 1,300 people who had served at Majdanek were tried in November 1944, 4 of them were hanged. Between 1946 and 1948, 96 additional men were tried and between 1975 and 1980 16 former staff members, 6 of them women, were tried in West Germany.
E. Gryn and Z. Murawska, Majdanek Concentration Camp (1966); imt, Trial of the Major War Criminals, 23 (1949), index; A. Werth, Russia at War 1941–1945 (1964), 889–99, and index; G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682), index; Z. Lukaszkiewicz, in: Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce, 4 (1948), 63–105; T. Berenstein and A. Rutkowski, in: bŻih, no. 58 (1966), 3–57; Zeszyty Majdanka, 3 vols. (1965–69) with Eng. sum. add. bibliography: G.Z. Murawska, Majdanek (1984).
[Danuta Dombrowska /
Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]