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January 29, 2011

The “Harvest Festival” at Majdanek on “bloody Wednesday,” Nov. 3, 1943

Filed under: Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 11:51 am

The photo below shows the Mausoleum at the Majdanek Memorial Site. According to the Majdanek Museum guidebook, the ashes under the dome are the ashes of the victims who were shot on “bloody Wednesday,” the third of November, 1943.  This was the largest mass execution carried out at any of the concentration camps in the history of the Holocaust. The victims were the last remnants of the Jewish population in the Lublin district, according to the Museum guidebook.

Dome covers ashes at the Majdanek Memorial Site

Daniel Goldhagen wrote in his book entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners, that there were 43,000 Jews killed on Nov. 3rd and 4th, 1943 in the action called “Erntefest” (Harvest Festival in English). According to Goldhagen’s book, “this was the largest single shooting massacre of the war.”

According to the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on the occasion of the “Harvest Festival,” the SS and police killed about 42,000 Jews, which included the killing of between 11,000 and 16,000 Jews at Poniatowa and between 4,000 and 6,000 Jews at Trawniki.  The USHMM says that Himmler ordered the implementation of Operation “Harvest Festival” because he feared more incidents of armed Jewish resistance after the prisoner uprising at the Sobibor killing center.

Majdanek guard tower, October, 1998

I visited the Majdanek Memorial Site in October 1998 and purchased the official guidebook to the camp. According to the guidebook, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Jews in the Lublin district after the insurrection on October 14, 1943 at Sobibor, one of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps on the Polish-Russian border, in which 300 Jews, led by a Jewish Russian Prisoner of War, escaped into the nearby woods. At that time, the three largest concentrations of Jews in Eastern Poland were 1. the concentration camp at Majdanek, 2. the labor camp at Poniatowa, a tiny Polish village where 18,000 people were held, and 3. the Polish village of Trawniki where 10,000 Jews were imprisoned in a labor camp.

The guidebook says that “In the autumn of 1943, the Nazi authorities were alarmed by the uprisings in the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos, by the activity of the resistance movement in the camps and by the rebellions in the death camps at Sobibor and Treblinka.” According to the guidebook, the greatest fear of the Nazis was that the Jewish prisoners at Lublin would start a rebellion that would result in their escape to the forests where they would join the Polish partisans who were fighting the German Army.

The guidebook explained that the Nazis also feared that their plan to exterminate the Jews was being thwarted by the cooperation of the camp resistance movement at Majdanek with the Polish underground organizations fighting as partisans outside the camp. The guidebook devotes a whole section to the activities of the camp resistance movement, which included activists from the Polish Home Army, and the main political parties: the Polish Socialist Party, the Peasant Party, the National Party, and the Polish Worker’s Party.

Along with the Polish civilian partisans and the Jewish partisans hiding in the forests, there were also escaped Russian Prisoners of War, who would sometimes shoot the Jewish partisans. Although Poland had been conquered, within a month after the country was invaded, by the joint effort of the Germans and the Russians, guerrilla warfare continued in Poland until the Germans finally surrendered to the Allies in May 1945.

According to a book entitled The forgotten Holocaust: the Poles under German Occupation, written by Richard Lucas, the Polish resistance fighters were responsible for 6,930 damaged train engines, 732 derailed trains, 979 destroyed train cars, 38 bridges blown up, 68 aircraft destroyed, 15 factories burned down, 4,623 military vehicles destroyed, 25,125 acts of sabotage and 5,733 attacks on German troops.

Around 100 SS men were brought in from Auschwitz and other locations to do the shooting, according to the guidebook. In preparation for the mass execution, ditches were dug for the bodies behind the spot where the Mausoleum now stands, 50 meters away from the crematorium building. It took 300 prisoners, working two shifts day and night to dig three big ditches over 2 meters deep and 100 meters long, running in a zigzag line. These open ditches are still visible, although they look like they have been filled in somewhat.

Very early on the morning of November 3rd, after roll call, all the Jews in Fields III and IV were ordered to form a column and march to the ditches. The gravely ill Jews from the three typhus barracks in Field III were dragged out of their bunks and dumped onto trucks for transportation to the ditches. Loudspeakers mounted on trucks had been placed near the ditches, and by the camp gate near the street, to drown out the noise of the machine guns.

Simultaneously, a column of over 10,000 Jews were marched toward the gate of Field IV; the first prisoners reached the gate before the end of the column had left the city of Lublin. These victims were from the sub-camps of Majdanek and the work gangs employed outside the camp. The Jewish political prisoners from the Gestapo prison in the Castle in Lublin were also marched to the camp. Around noon, the SS soldiers ordered the Jewish women out of their barracks in Field I, and again the sick were loaded onto trucks, while those able to walk were marched to the ditches.

The shooting started around 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning on Nov. 3, 1943, and lasted without a break until 5 p.m., with 100 victims at a time ordered to strip in a nearby barrack and then lie down in the ditches in groups of 10, where they were then machine-gunned to death. Each new group had to lie down on top of the dead bodies from the previous group. The men were shot separately from the women. The barbed wire fence was cut between Field V and the ditches, so that a column of armed policemen could form a passage, along which the victims were funneled into the ditches.

This operation was, by no means, done in secret. The Nazis even took photos of the victims, like the one shown below.

Jews being marched to the ditches to be shot

The shooting was done at the top of the low hill where the Mausoleum now stands and in full view of nearby residents who lived behind the area. The loud dance music which went on for almost 12 hours that day ensured that the local residents knew that something unusual was going on, even if they couldn’t see it. On the same day, there were other mass executions of Jews at the labor camps near the villages of Poniatowa and Trawniki.

The Mausoleum at Majdanek Photo Credit: Simon Robertson

Just behind the Mausoleum pictured above, and a little to the right, is a small stone which commemorates the deaths of around 18,000 Jews on that spot on November 3, 1943.

According to the Museum guidebook, the bodies of the victims of the Harvest Festival massacre at Majdanek were burned, near the ditches, on pyres formed from old truck chassis, and the ashes were thrown onto the compost pile behind the clothing warehouse barracks, which now hold the tourist exhibits. It is these ashes of the massacre victims which have now been given a place of honor in the Mausoleum.

Did the Nazis really put the ashes of 18,000 Jews onto a compost pile? When I visited the Majdanek camp in 1998, I looked under the dome of the Mausoleum and to me, the ashes did look just like a compost pile.

Heinrich Himmler had a degree in agriculture and he was noted for using organic farming methods; there were compost piles at Dachau, where there was a experimental farm. There was also an experimental farm near Auschwitz.  But did the Nazis really use the ashes of the Jews for compost?