Majdanek, one of the Nazis infamous death camps, was built just outside of Lublin in Poland. Majdanek was built as part of Action Reinhard and, unlike other death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor and Treblinka, was not built away from prying eyes. It could easily be reached by trolley car and all sides of the camp could be easily seen from the outside.
When Majdanek was in operation, it would have been easy to see inside the camp as no trees surrounded it. This was in complete contrast to other death camps that were placed in remote areas away from dense populations. Even more unusual, was the fact that the Nazis did not establish a security zone around the camp. The crematorium and gas chamber buildings were easily visible from the outside of the camp. One of the roads (now known as the Street of Martyrs) that bordered the camp was the main one that took German soldiers to the Eastern Front in the war against Russia – nothing was done to hide this particular death camp.
Majdanek gained its name from a suburb of Lublin called Majdan Tatarski – an area where large numbers of Jews lived pre-1939. It became a ghetto after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. As the German army advanced east, it was decided that they could not risk the problem of dangers behind their line of advance. As a result of this, many Poles who were identified as potential partisans were arrested and sent to the camp at Majdanek. The camp also held prisoners of war.
In April 1942, in the months after the Wannsee Conference, the camp also became a holding camp for Jews as part of the ‘Final Solution’. The same happened at Auschwitz – originally this camp was used to house Polish political prisoners. But after the Wannsee Conference, Auschwitz was changed into a death camp. The same happened to Majdanek. Between mid-1942 and mid-1943, most of the Jews sent to Majdanek were from Lublin. Thus a labour camp (Majdanek was originally referred to as a concentration camp) became a death camp.
Unlike Auschwitz, Majdanek was not served by a major rail line. The victims destined for Majdanek went by rail to Lublin and then to Majdanek by truck.
The first commandant of the camp was Karl Otto Koch. He was executed by the Nazis for stealing from the camp warehouse and plundering goods meant for Berlin. The camp’s third commandant, Hermann Florstedt, was also executed by the Nazis for the same crime. Three other commandants of Majdanek were executed after the war – Koegel, Weiss and Liebehenschel - for their part in running the camp.
Majdanek was the first of the death camps to be liberated by the Russians on July 23rd 1944.
As with the other death camps, obtaining actual figures for the number of murders carried out is difficult. The Russians advanced very quickly to the area in Poland where Majdanek was. They captured many of the records that the Germans left behind in their hurried departure. The Russians also found the gas chambers there - unlike at Auschwitz-Birkenau - as they had not had time to destroy them. It was originally stated that as many as 1.7 million were murdered at Majdanek - figures released at the end of the war. However, captured records show that only 300,000 were ever sent to the camp in total and that the number of deaths may have been 235,000. But this is not clear. Researchers have figures of death that vary from 42,000 at the minimum to 1.3 million at the maximum.