Established: Spring 1941
Location: 3 km east of Lublin
Situated 3 km east of Lublin (in fact in a suburb of the city Majdan Tatarski, from which it takes its name), the camp at Majdanek (Lublin-Majdanek) was created in the spring of 1941 as a prisoner-of-war camp under the jurisidiction of the Waffen-SS. But in November that same year, control was passed to the SS Inspector of Camps (Inspekteur der KL), becoming a fully-fledged concentration camp on 16 February 1943. It served two functions (as did the camp at Auschwitz); concentration camp and extermination centre.
At the height of its operations, the Camp was a huge asymetric facility, containing SS barracks, the SS Commandant headquarters, warehouses and other service facilities, across an area originally projected to cover 270 hectares. The much smaller centre of the camp (which measured 30 hectares) was created out of five internal camps lined up in a row, surrounded by a double line of electricified fencing, comprising 22 blocks. On the edge of this zone were the crematorium and the execution site. Each camp had its own specific purpose (one housed Soviet prisoners, another women and children, another was for mixed nationalities, another for sick prisoners etc), that were sometimes changed over the course of time. A sixth camp, which also had 22 blocks, never reached full capacity. The projected total capacity also changed significantly over time, rising from 20,000 to 250,000 inmates.
14 sub-camps (for both male and female prisoners) began to open in February 1942, which served industrial and war production. It has been calculated that the main camp had a maximum inmate population of between 35,000 and 40,000.
Partial research already carried out has identifed prisoners from 54 different countries (counting separately the federated nations of the USSR and Yugoslavia): roughly 59% of the inmates were Polish (mainly Jews from Lublin and its surrounding area), 20% were Soviet citizens, 13% Czechoslovak and 4% German or Austrian. The Jews and the Soviet prisoners-of-war were subjected to systematic extermination, but the camp also served as a site for the murder of disabled prisoners who had been “selected” in other camps (especially Buchenwald and Ravensbrück) and then sent on to Majdanek.
For roughly a year (September/October 1942 to November 1943), the camp had a number of functioning gas chambers (two temporary wooden facilties, and at least another three concrete chambers), which used both carbon monoxide in cannisters and Zyklon B (the use of over 7 tonnes of this poison has been documented at Majdanek). The extermination of the Jews reached its climax in the huge massacre of 3 November 1943, when 45,000 prisoners (across all the camps in the Lublin area) were murdered (18,000 in the main camp alone). After this date, there is no documentary evidence that the gas chambers were used.
Evacuation of the camp began in spring 1944: prisoners were sent to Auschwitz, Natzweiler and Ravensbrück. The main camp, which by now housed only a few hundred sick prisoners, was liberated by the Red Army between 22 and 23 July 1944: the Soviets gathered and published a large quantity of evidence on the massacres committed there by the Nazis, such that by the first months of 1945, the name of Majdanek had became the symbol of the Nazi exterminations for the attentive Italan observer Umberto Saba (“Ma dopo Maidaneck…”), who noted that “Buchenwald, Auschwitz etc were then still unknown”.
Various figures have been given for the number of the victims of Lublin-Majdanek, calculated differently in part due to the different functions it served (immediate extermination, and extermination through labour, direct or otherwise). Compared to the calculations made in the past of 800,000 dead, the preferred modern figure is in the region of 230,000 dead, of whom 100,000 were Jews. The estimate of 800,000 came from the fact that 800,000 pairs of shoes were discovered inside a huge warehouse in the camp when it was liberated.
The Camp commandants were Karl Otto Koch (who had also run Buchenwald, and ended up being executed by the Nazis themselves for corruption), Hermann Florstedt, Martin Weiss (also commandant of Neuengamme), Max Koegel and Arthur Liebenhenschel. This last was sentenced to death by a Polish court, while some of the guards were sentenced to death in a trial held by the Soviets in Lublin in autumn 1944: these proceedings represent in fact the first war crimes trial, preceding that at Nuremberg.
Italian soldiers were deported to Majdanek from concentration camps at Chelmno, Biala Podlaska and Deblin and murdered in the autumn of 1943, but the precise number is unknown. Italo Tibaldi has identifed a transport of 114 Italians that reached Majdanek on 4 November 1943 for whom personal information is available.
Majdanek remained in a relatively good state of conservation, due to the very swift Soviet decision taken in the autumn of 1944 to preserve the site as evidence of Nazi violence, and as a warning for the future.
(Original text in Italian by Lucio Monaco, translated into English by C Dimarco)