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March 30, 2013

Changes in the gas chamber story told in 1997 at the Majdanek death camp

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 11:54 am

In 1998, I made a trip to Poland and a professional tour guide took me to see the Majdanek Memorial Site, where I purchased a small, 72-page booklet, that had been published in 1997.

Since then, I have learned from a fellow blogger, The Black Rabbit of Inlé, that the Memorial Site is telling a far different story about the homicidal gas chambers at Majdanek.

In a comment on my blog, The Black Rabbit of Inlé asked about the contents of the 1997 booklet; I am answering in a new blog post today so that everyone can learn about what tourists were being told at Majdanek in 1998.

Let me preface this by saying that, when I went to Poland in 1998, I was absolutely astounded at how primitive everything was in the country.  When I commented on this, my tour guide told me that it was because the country had not yet recovered from the years of Communism. I have never returned to Majdanek since 1998, although I did go to Poland again in 2005 and visited the Auschwitz camp for the second time.  I learned in 2005 that a lot of changes have been made in Poland.

So get ready for a trip down Memory Lane because I am going to quote from the 1997 guidebook pages about the Majdanek gas chambers.  On page 42 of the booklet, there is the start of a chapter entitled “Extermination.”

This quote is from page 43 of the Majdanek booklet, published in 1997:

From mid 1942, gas chambers became the direct extermination of prisoners.  Gassings were carried out in specially built chambers of which two adjoined to the bath-house were in most frequent use. Over the entrance door [to the building] there was a sign reading “Bath and Disinfection” to lull the vigilance of those condemned to death.

The “bath-house” that is referred to in the above quote was a building made of wood which had an undressing room and a shower room.  The “specially built chambers” were in a brick extension that was “adjoined” to the wood building.  The sign was on the front of the wood building.

Brick "add-on" to Building #41 at Majdanek

Brick extension adjoined to Building #41 at Majdanek

Sign on front of Building #41

Sign on front of Building #41

Upon entering the gas chamber building, (Barrack No. 41) you first see the bare, unfurnished undressing room which has narrow wooden boards over the concrete floor. Then you proceed into the shower room, a large room with rows of exposed water pipes and sprinkler-type shower heads on the ceiling; this room also has a wooden floor over concrete.

Shower Room in Building #41 at Majdanek

Shower Room in Building #41 at Majdanek

At one end of the shower room, there are two large concrete bathtubs. The tour guide explained that the prisoners were not allowed to loll in the bathtub, but had to get in and out in a few seconds. The bathtubs were probably filled with disinfectant, as was the case at other camps such as Buchenwald. The shower room was also used by incoming prisoners who were selected to work at Majdanek, which was a labor camp as well as an extermination camp for the Jews. The Jews did not have to be disinfected before they were gassed, although they might have been told to take a dip in one of the tubs, to fool them into thinking that they were not going to be gassed.

I could not find a photo of the bathtubs in Building #41; they might have been removed by now.  I wrote a previous blog post about the concrete bathtub in the reconstructed crematorium.  In 1998, when I visited Majdank, the tour guides were telling visitors that there was a gas chamber in the reconstructed crematorium.  The shower room in the reconstructed crematorium, is no longer claimed to have been a gas chamber.  It was previously claimed to be one of the four Majdanek gas chambers.  Now the number of gas chambers at Majdanek has dwindled down to 2.

Entrance into the main room used for gassing in Building #41

Entrance into the main room used for gassing in Building #41

In the photo above, taken several years ago, you can see the metal door into the main gas chamber and a wood barricade which prevented visitors from entering the room.  When I visited in 1998, it was possible to enter the gas chamber and there was no sign inside the gas chamber.

View of the main gas chamber from the doorway

View of the main gas chamber from the doorway

Just outside Building #41 is a small empty square, called the Rosenfeld (Rose field) where the selections were made.  Then both groups entered Building #41 where those selected to work took a shower and those selected to die were gassed. The prisoners who were selected to die also took a shower to warm up their bodies so that the gas would work faster, according to a sign in the building in 1998.

Rosenfeld where selections were made for the gas chamber at Majdanek

Square in front of Building #41 where selections were made for the gas chamber at Majdanek

This quote, on page 43 of the guidebook, is a continuation of the previous quote above:

Built of brick [the gas chambers] had reinforced concrete ceilings, concrete floors and thick metal doors with a peephole hermetically sealed. In one chamber the process of killing could be watched through a small window in the wall of the adjacent room for the SS men.

My memory of the “adjacent room for the SS men” is that this was a tiny room within one of the gas chamber rooms and that this tiny room had a small window, with bars on it but no glass, where an SS man could watch the victims die.  My first thought was that an SS man, standing in this tiny room that had no door, would have been overpowered by the victims and beaten to death.  But maybe the SS man would have just shot the victims inside the gas chamber if they tried to attack him.

The quote from page 43 of the guidebook continues with this quote:

Cyclone B and carbon monoxide were most commonly used in the gas chambers. Cyclone B (lumps of silicate earth saturated with hydrocyanide) was introduced into the chamber through an opening in the ceiling and condensed carbon monoxide came from bottles.  Some 7,700 kg of Cyclone B were delivered.  To drown out the cries of the dying tractor engines were run near the chambers.  The victims were mainly Jews selected for death directly upon arrival.

According to another book, which I purchased at the Visitor’s Center, construction of the gas chambers at Majdanek started in August 1942 and was completed in October 1942.

The following quote is from a book entitled Majdanek, published in Warsaw in 1986, which I purchased from the Visitor’s Center at the Memorial Site in 1998.

This is a description of the gas chambers in “Bath and Disinfection” Building Number One (barrack #41) at Majdanek:

“The gas chambers were built of ceramic brick, covered with a ferro-concrete roof, and provided with a cement floor. The installation comprised three chambers: a large one (10 m x 5.5 m x 2 m) and two smaller ones (4.80 m x 3.60 x 2 m) as well as a cabin for the SS man who pumped doses of gas from steel cylinders into the chambers and watched through a small grated window (25 x 15 cm), the behavior of the victims. Two chambers, the large one and the southern smaller one, were equipped with devices for the use of carbon monoxide (CO). In the smaller one, there was a metal pipe, 40 mm in diameter, running along the walls above the floor. The gas got into the chamber through holes in the pipe. Cyclone B was poured into a special opening in the concrete roof.

“The large chamber also had a metal pipe, 25 mm in diameter, fastened to one of the walls above the floor. As in the smaller chamber, the carbon monoxide from a steel cylinder got in through this pipe. In addition, there were two openings in the western wall, through which hot air (120 degrees C) was blown in by a ventilator from a stove placed on the outside of the chamber, which alone killed the victims and, at the same time, intensified the action of Cyclone B, since the lethal effect of the gas increased at a temperature of over 27 degrees C. The other small chamber, on the southern side, had only an opening in the roof to pour in Cyclone B. The massive metal doors to the chambers were air-tight, fastened by two bolts and iron bars.”

When I visited Majdanek in 1998, I was the only English-speaking person there. My tour began with a movie in English, and I was the only person in the theater.

During my visit, I was carrying a camera that used film.  The camera required a lot of setting before taking a photo.  I was very nervous and my tour guide was rushing me through the gas chamber building, so I didn’t get to take any photos.  I have borrowed the photos on this blog post from other photographers.

Recent photo of the main gas chamber at Majdanek

Recent photo of the main gas chamber at Majdanek

Rear of Building #41 at Majdanek

Rear of Building #41 at Majdanek

In the photo immediately above, the door on the right is the exit from the main gas chamber at Majdanek. The door that is shown in the background of the photo of the main gas chamber is the same door that is shown on the right in the photo immediately above.