I was shocked to learn last night that an old wooden barrack at the former Majdanek death camp in Poland had burned and 10,000 shoes of the prisoners were lost. You can read about the fire here. There have been no claims that this was arson.
Over ten years ago, some of the shoes found at the Majdanek camp were brought to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC where they are currently on display. The rest of the shoes are on display in three barrack buildings at Majdanek. The barracks that burned had once housed the camp kitchen, and was not accessible to visitors, according to some of the news reports.
The Majdanek concentration camp in the Polish city of Lublin was in operation from October 1, 1941 to July 23, 1944 when it was liberated by soldiers of the Soviet Union.
Majdanek was the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be liberated by the Allies. The documentary film made by the Soviet Union shows 800,000 pairs of shoes which were found in the camp when it was liberated.
According to the recent news reports, there were only 150,000 prisoners at Majdanek, but no explanation is given as to why there were so many shoes at the camp. Majdanek was a center for processing clothing taken from the Jews who were sent to the three Operation Reinhard camps at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. There was also a shoe repair shop at Majdanek where the prisoners worked on the boots of the German soldiers as well as the shoes taken from the Jews. When the camp was liberated these shoes were awaiting shipment by train to Germany where they were to be distributed to civilians in the German cities that had been bombed by the Allies.
When I first heard of the Majdanek camp, it was called Maidanek which is what it was called by the Germans. Gradually, it became known by the Polish name Majdanek, just as Theresienstadt is now known as Terezin.
Note the sign on the theater “Held over! Maidanek Nazi death factory See SS guards executed” This was part of the propaganda campaign after the war to educate the public about the “Nazi Atrocities.”
I visited the Majdanek memorial site in 1998 and purchased a book from the Visitor’s Center. According to the book, entitled “Majdanek,” by Jozef Marszalek, the prisoners at Majdanek were from 28 countries: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the USSR, the United States of America, and Yugoslavia.
Marszalek wrote that Polish citizens were 59.8% of the total, followed by citizens of the USSR at 19.8%, Czechoslovakia at 13.3%, the German Reich at 4% and France at 1.7%. All the other countries put together accounted for 1% of the total. There was a total of 54 ethnic groups represented, including 25 different ethnic groups from the Soviet Union and 4 ethnic groups from Yugoslavia. According to this book, the actual names of only 47,890 prisoners are known, including 7,441 women.
The first report by the Soviet Union, after the camp was liberated, said that 1.7 million people had been killed at Majdanek, but this had been changed to 1.5 million victims by the time of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal.
Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg put the number of Jews killed at Majdanek at 50,000, but didn’t mention how many non-Jews were murdered there. All of the recent news articles put the number of Jewish deaths at Majdanek at 59,000 or 60,000. This figure comes from an article written by Tomasz Kranz, a Polish historian, in December 2005, in which he claimed that 59,000 Jews and 19,000 non-Jews were murdered at Majdanek. Kranz based his claims on all available sources, including the existing fragments of the camp death books, the death registry, the notifications of prisoner deaths that the Nazis sent to parishes in Lublin, the testimony at the war crimes trial in Dusseldorf in the late 1970s and early 1980s by SS men stationed at Majdanek, and on the accounts of survivors. Before Kranz’s article was published, it was approved by the Majdanek Museum staff, and these figures are now given by the Museum, where Kranz is now the director.
A gigantic, circular Mausoleum at the Majdanek Memorial Site stands at the end of the former “black path” to the crematorium, a walkway that is now called the Road of Homage in English. The structure was designed by architect and sculptor Wiktor Tolkin, the same man who designed the Monument of Struggle and Martyrdom at the other end of the walkway, near the street.
The dome of the Mausoleum is pockmarked, as though it had suffered bomb damage in the war. The English translation of the inscription on the frieze of the dome reads “Let our fate be a warning to you.” Under the dome is a huge circular urn, shaped like a saucer, which contains the ashes of some of the victims at Majdanek. The ashes were recovered from a compost pile in the camp, where they had been mixed with dirt and garden refuse and composted in preparation for spreading on the vegetable garden in the camp. The material under the dome looks like compacted dirt, the color of adobe. There are a few bone fragments visible.
The photo above shows prisoners who were left behind because they were not able to join the death march out of the camp before it was liberated.
Russian soldiers who had defected, and had fought with the Germans, were brought to the “sick camp” at Majdanek after they were wounded in battle. After the camp was liberated, these crippled soldiers were taken to camps in the Soviet Union.
Besides these invalid soldiers, the only other survivors left behind at Majdanek were Polish peasants from the immediate area. According to a Museum booklet, a large percentage of the inmates at Majdanek were “rural people” or “peasants.” Some of these Polish civilians had been imprisoned as resistance fighters after they had been ejected from their homes as part of the German plan to colonize Poland, which the Nazis referred to as “the German east.” Others were from Byelorussia, a province of the Soviet Union known to Americans as White Russia, where women and children were taken prisoner in reprisal for heavy partisan fighting in that area. The Polish peasants were not shown among the survivors in the movie because they had taken the opportunity to escape while the Germans and the Russians were fighting a last-ditch battle for the city of Lublin, which lasted for two days.
When Majdanek was liberated, it was also the first time that anyone from the Allied countries had actually seen a gas chamber, although there had been plenty of news in the world-wide media about their existence, since as far back as June 1942 when the BBC first broadcast the news over the radio. It was not that the Russians unexpectedly stumbled across the gas chambers and made the shocking discovery of the Nazi killing machine; it was more like the Russians arrived at the camp and said, “Take us to the gas chambers.”
Many of the recent news articles about the fire at Majdanek have claimed that the reason that the Majdanek camp was so well preserved is because the Germans didn’t have time to destroy everything before the Soviet soldiers arrived. There was plenty of time to destroy everything that was incriminating in the camp, but the Germans just didn’t care. There were 20,000 prisoners who were released from Majdanek, according to the Museum booklet; the Nazis didn’t care about what these eye-witnesses might tell the world regarding what went on at the camp.
Allegedly, prisoners from the Gestapo prison in Lublin were brought to the camp and killed by the Germans on the day that the Soviet soldiers arrived, and their bodies were burned when the Germans burned down the crematorium building. The Soviet Union rebuilt the crematorium after the camp had been liberated.