Lublin and Majdanek - An Opportunity to Reflect
Eastern Poland is not on the standard tourist route. But if you want to see what people are capable of doing to each other, it is a sobering, important journey.
Lublin, Poland is a town in southeast Poland, proud of its 700 year history. Located about 75 miles west of the current Ukranian border, it was initially on the trade route from the Black Sea to the Baltic. The first castle was built in the 12th century. Two centuries later a second castle was built on the same site by Casimir the Great. Built of brick, with a chapel and city walls, that second castle survives today, albeit with a troubled past. Its Chapel of the Holy Trinity has Byzantine-Ruthenian frescoes of uncommon beauty, which were preserved in part because they were plastered over during the time the castle served as a prison. Even today, visitors can only view the frescoes for 15 minutes at the top of every hour, to limit their impact on the frescoes. In addition to the religious stories depicted in the frescoes, you can find graffiti dating back to the 1600’s.
Outside the castle walls, the town of Lublin developed, hosting fairs and markets, and was a frequent stopping point for travelers. The town was encircled by walls in the 14th century, with entrance at two gates, which still stand today. In 1569, Poland and Lithuania merged into a commonwealth, and the Poland Lithuanian Union was actually signed in Lublin. Lublin today reflects the prominence the city once had, with many stately buildings on windy streets within the walled Old Town. There are museums and an underground to be toured and a lively night life with cafes on the cobbled streets and broad plazas centered around colorful fountains. An Open Air Village Museum, just outside of town, re-creates village life. The town now has a population of around 350,000, and is even a new place of refuge – for those fleeing the latest fighting in the Ukraine.
But there is another side of Lublin, which is visible only to those that choose to see it. As Lublin grew, so did its Jewish community. In the Middle Ages, the Polish-Lithuanian Union was known for its religious tolerance and was a haven for Jews fleeing the Crusades and persecution in other countries. Jews became a major element in the community, as reflected in their Great Synagogue. Indeed, it has been reported that in the 16th century over 80% of all Jews worldwide lived in Poland. Over time, the reputation for tolerance had declined, but the Jews of Lublin lived an active life and by 1930 had developed the largest and most prestigious rabbinical (Talmudic) school in the world, the Lublin Wiseman School, also known as the “Jewish Oxford.” Prior to World War II, Poland was the center of the Jewish European world, home to over 3 million Jews. In 1939, 43,000 Jews lived in Lublin, about a third of the population of Lublin at the time.
The Germans conquered Lublin in September, 1939. Over the next four years, all the Jews in the area were systematically identified and either moved into a ghetto or arrested and deported to concentration camps or simply murdered, often after being detained in the Castle, which had been converted to a prison. The ghetto was burned to the ground in March, 1942. Operation Reinhard, the German’s plan to systematically exterminate all of the Jews living in occupied Poland, was headquartered in Lublin. The three major extermination camps, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (where the average life span of an internee was 2½ hours), were all located within 130 miles of Lublin. Two million Jews died between October 1941 and November 1943 in the camps or were simply shot in the surrounding forests. By the end of the war, the number of Jews living in Lublin had been reduced from 43,000 to 230.
The numbers are even less now, estimated to be around 20. After the war, those Jews that had survived had no homes to return to since everything had been taken or destroyed. Locals appear to have been suspicious that returning Jews (particularly those returning from being interned in the Soviet Union) might in fact be communist sympathizers. They may also not have wanted to return land or property they were now using. The Soviet system was not welcoming to any religion, and Communist censorship repressed any discussion of Polish Jews or the Holocaust. In 1968 those Jews that had remained left in response to a Communist organized massive expulsion of Jews. The situation has softened a bit with the fall of Communism and the reassertion of an independent Polish state, however the numbers show that most have elected to stay away. In Lublin there are some plaques acknowledging the harm visited upon the Jews during the war, but one must look for them. One man, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz has created a museum and files of photos and stories of the Jews that lived prior to the war that is trying to preserve their history.
The most interesting possible acknowledgement of the Jews that lived in Lublin before the war is not advertised in any literature on the city, or even described online. As we walked around the Old Town, we noticed blown up photographs on the outsides of windows of some of the older buildings. There was no explanation anywhere, so we asked at the Tourist Information Office. We were told that in the course of remodeling a building in the Old Town, a stack of over 2,000 negatives was discovered of photos that had been taken before the War. No current residents in Lublin could identify the photos – who had taken them or who they were of. It was decided that the some of the photos would be enlarged and posted in windows around the town. Apparently some people in the photos have been identified through postings on Facebook, but it seems fair to believe that the photos likely depict members of the Jewish community that was entirely wiped out by the War. What a wonderful way for those people to reclaim their place in the city and remind people of what was lost. Just look at these faces.
Just a 15 minute bus ride from the center of town, on the outskirts of Lublin, is the Majdanek Concentration Camp aka KL Lublin. Soon after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June, 1941 plans started being made for a camp on the outskirts of Lublin. Originally meant to be a POW camp for Russian soldiers, it evolved into a concentration camp housing forced laborers, a storage facility for plunder (particularly shoes) from other camps, and eventually a site for mass murder as part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to “exterminate” all Jews within Poland. From 1941 to 1944, it is currently officially estimated, though some say those numbers are grossly understated, that 150,000 people were interned at Majdanek. 80,000 died, of which about 60,000 were Jews.
Majdanek was the first concentration camp “liberated” by the advancing Russian army in July of 1944, and thus the Germans did not have an opportunity to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria, as at Auschwitz and other camps. It is considered one of the best preserved concentration camps, though since most of the buildings were of wood, rather than stone (except the crematorium), most of the camp existing today has been restored. In the fall of 1944, before the war was over, the grounds of the camp became the Majdanek State Museum, but the Soviets continued to use the facility to house prisoners and detainees. In 1969, a large monument was erected, with a memorial statue and a Mausoleum housing the ashes and remains of cremated victims.
Visitors today are struck by the camp’s proximity to the city of Lublin – the buildings of Lublin are clearly visible from the camp. During its operation, there was apparently no real attempt to hide what was happening. A sign on the fence with a skull and crossbones leaves little to the imagination. Also, many of the people housed at the camp actually worked in Lublin itself, as part of the forced labor. Given the penalty (almost certain death) for interfering with the Nazi’s efforts, one wonders what one would do under those circumstances if living in Lublin.
Conditions at Majdanek were difficult, with no heat (there are no chimneys in the ruined barracks as one sees at Birkenau), little food and barely any hygiene facilities. Those that could not work, including women and children, were generally simply killed, using gas chambers disguised as showers and the gas Zyklon-B or firing squads. Initially bodies were just dumped in mass graves, but starting in 1942, when the war wasn’t going as well for the Germans, the bodies were dug up and either burned in pits or in crematoria, arguably to hide the evidence of their acts. The crematorium is still there, and serves as a stark reminder of what people can do to each other.
Things got worse in November, 1943, when it was ordered that all remaining Jews in Poland simply be killed. In Operation “Harvest Festival” more than 18,000 Jews in Majdanek were machine gunned down in a single day, November 3, 1943. They were ordered to first dig and then either run into or lay down in trenches (Execution Ditches) behind the crematorium and shot in place – eyewitnesses said the shooting went on for twelve hours, while music played over the camp loudspeakers. It was the largest single-day, single-location massacre in the Holocaust. All the Jews remaining in the Lublin Castle were killed that day as well. In the Lublin area, it is estimated 42,000 Jews were killed on November 3 and 4, 1943 to bring Operation Reinhard to a conclusion. Eventually, the remaining prisoners at Majdanek were either killed or transferred to other concentration camps farther west. By March, 1944, most of the prisoners were gone, and in July, 1944, the Soviets took over the camp.
In 1969, a Memorial was built to honor those lost. At the entrance is a dramatic Monument Gate, pictured above. At the far end of the camp, next to the Crematorium and the Execution Ditches, a gigantic circular open air Mausoleum was built, containing those ashes and remains of the victims that had been recovered and preserved in 1947.
A visit to this camp, as to any of the concentration camps left behind by the Nazis, is not easy. Seeing the barbed wire, guard towers, the rough housing, the trenches and the ovens, makes you think about what apparently rational, educated people can do to each other. I found it encouraging that when we were visiting Majdanek two groups of young Polish soldiers, all in uniform, were also getting a tour of the camp, with full explanations of the horrors that had been visited on their fellow countrymen.
For some reason, I have been drawn to this issue for most of my adult life and have visited most of the concentration camps that still remain. I consider it a solemn duty, to acknowledge the horror and loss, and be prepared to counter those that claim it never happened. In these days of what appears to be the suspension of societal norms it is even more important to pay attention to what happened, how it happened, and be on guard so that it does not happen again.
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