Majdanek (Lublin) Concentration Camp

majdanek - july 2000248

Majdanek- July 2000

It was Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer – SS, whoduring his visit to Lublin on 20-21 July 1941 ordered Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader for the Lublin district, to establish a concentration camp in Lublin. Himmler also outlined a programme of economic and political tasks to be carried out in Lublin. Included in this programme was the expansion of the German Supply Works (DAW – Deutsche Ausrüstungswereke), which had existed since 1940 at the labour camp at 7 Lipowa Street, and the Clothing Works (Bekleidungswerke), which was established by Globocnik in 1941. In addition, Himmler included the building of an SS and police housing district in the programme in the area of the former airfield in Lublin. According to Himmler, the district, designed for 60,000 SS-men, would be linked to the old German town. After issuing the order to build a concentration camp in Lublin, Himmler immediately instructed SS- Standartenführer Karl Otto Koch to take charge of the organisational affairs of the new camp. Following the establishment of the camp management at 12 Ogrodowa Street, Koch started work on building the first section of the camp. The site initially chosen was located in the immediate vicinity of the DAW concern in Lipowa Street and levelling work was commenced by Polish soldiers of Jewish descent imprisoned in that camp.

The formal order for the building of the concentration camp was issued on 22 September 1941 by Heinz Kammler. The camp was designed to hold 5,000 prisoners, with plans for future expansion to house a total of 50,000 prisoners. Five days later, Kammler issued a second order in which he wrote: “In Lublin and Auschwitz, camps for prisoners of war will be set up immediately, as of 1 October, with the possibility of accommodating 50,000 prisoners of war each”. However, this order was overtaken, for on 1 November 1941 Kammler instructed the SS and Police Central Building Board in Lublin to set up a POW camp in Lublin to accommodate 125,000 prisoners of war; this order was changed in turn on the 8 December to the accommodation of 150,000 prisoners of war or detainees. As a result of these significant changes in the number of people to be incarcerated, the proposed site in Lipowa Street was abandoned.The area Koch selected was on the eastern side of Lublin, five kilometres from the centre of Lublin, adjacent to the Lublin – Zamosc – Lwow road. Following an agreement on 26 September 1941between Ernst Zorner, the Governor of the Lublin district and Koch, the area was handed over to the SS authorities.

In late September or early October 1941, the SS and police authorities took possession of a part of the thinly populated urban area of Kosminek and the adjacent arable land in the village of Dziesiata, and parts of the villages of Abramowice and Kalinowka. Several inhabitants whose homesteads lay within the boundaries of the planned camp were resettled. Because of its location, the camp could be seen from almost all sides. Its northern boundary adjoined the busy Lublin – Chelm – Zamosc – Lwow highway, the southern perimeter ran just outside the boundary line of the villages Dziesiata and Abramowice, while the western boundary almost touched the first buildings of Kosminek. Only the eastern boundary crossed the fields of the village of Kalinowka. Owing to the short distance from the railway station in Lublin to the camp site, transports of prisoners could be received and dispatched without crossing the town and without the necessity of building a railway siding at the camp. The Polish name Majdanek appeared in 1941 and was derived from the name of the Lublin district of Majdan Tatarski, which adjoined the camp’s northern boundary. In the official nomenclature the name Majdanek was never used, but its use was common amongst the prisoners and the SS camp staff. Until 1943, the camp bore the name Kriegsgefangenlager der Waffen SS in Lublin (KGL Lublin) and later Konzentrationslager der Waffen SS Lublin (KL Lublin)

The first known plan of Majdanek was dated 7 October 1941, and was concerned with only that part of the camp to be occupied by the prisoners. The barracks were to be built in ten compounds (five rectangles and five trapezoids) and encircled by a double barbed-wire fence. Around the fence, on its outer side, twenty- five watch towers were planned. The location of the barracks in the individual compounds was identical in principle. They were to be arranged in two rows, parallel to the longer side of the rectangle or the trapezoid, and square with the fence. The area in the middle was to serve as the Appelplatz – the area for roll-calls. There were to be two kitchens at one end and lavatories at the other end. A total of 236 barracks were planned, of which 207would be occupied by the prisoners.

Work commenced in October 1941 with the levelling of the ground for the first five rectangular compounds, initially undertaken by a group of Polish prisoners of war of Jewish extraction, brought to the building site each day from the labour camp in Lipowa Street. Also in that month, about 2,000 Soviet prisoners of war transferred from the camp for Soviet POWs in Chelm were employed at the site and quartered there, when there were still no barracks whatsoever. This first group of prisoners numbered about 2,500 in total. Initially, as was customary with the Germans, they were kept in the open air, cold and hungry, probably in Compound 1, which had already been marked out. These groups did most of the work on building the fence and assembling the barracks in Compound 1. The pace of work was tremendous, for already on 11 November Kammler reported to the head of WVHA, Pohl: “the construction of the camp has advanced to such a degree that it can already accommodate 10,000 prisoners, while another 10,000 can be received during the next few days”.

The final plans of the camp approved by Commandant Koch on 23 March 1942 planned for facilities to house 250,000 prisoners. For the purpose of comparison, at that time the population of Lublin numbered 120,000. The prisoner’s section was to consist of three huge complexes – the POW camp, the area allocated for expansion (Erweiterung) and the SS clothing works, the smallest of the three sectors. This plan provided for building the camp in an area of 516 hectares, more than eight times greater than envisaged by the plan of 7 October 1941. The camp was to be divided into two parts, one for the prisoners and one for the SS.

The POW camp, with an area of 120 hectares, was to include sixteen compounds of barracks. The arrangement of the barracks was identical in the various fields. Each compound housed 24 barracks, including 22 dwelling barracks, one kitchen and one lavatory barrack. Compounds 8 and 9 were the exceptions, with 16 barracks in each. The centre of the first complex, the POW camp, was to be occupied by large workshops, storehouses, a prison, a hospital, a laundry with a delousing station, and the central Appelplatz. It was surrounded with a double barbed-wire fence and a chain of 40 watch towers. The Erweiterung KGL consisted of barracks arranged symmetrically on both sides of a large, trapezium –shaped Appelplatz. It included barracks housing economic facilities and barracks for prisoners, situated on both sides of the Appelplatz in the central part of the complex. The part of the camp occupied by the SS was to extend between the Lublin – Zamosc highway and the camp road (Lagerstrasse), opposite the barracks of the POW camp. Planned for that area were barracks housing the camp command, three groups of buildings for the camp staff, a buildings materials storehouse, garages and large economic facilities.

The Lublin Central Construction Board was obliged to carry out all of the work and employed prisoner labour, as well as contracting for specialist work to be executed by building firms, which themselves also employed prisoner labour. It has been established on the basis of incomplete source materials that 35 building firms were engaged in the construction of the Majdanek concentration camp between 1941 and 1944. The largest of them included:

Berlin Baugesellschaft


Ludwig Rechkemmer

Robert Schonbrunn

Wacker und Schneider

German firms from the Reich, as well as from the General – Gouvernment, were ready to render service to anyone, irrespective of the intended purpose of those services. On 18 September 1941 the Senking firm from Hildesheim submitted an offer, along with the estimated costs, to supply kitchen installations for 5,000 prisoners in the concentration camp under construction in Lublin. Similar tenders were received during November and December 1941 from Kori of Berlin, who offered to build a crematorium, and Jahn und Petrlik Holzbau of Rudolfstadt, who were ready to supply 100,000 shovels and pickaxes, as well as bricks and furniture.

From mid-1942, white break -stone was spread between the double barbed-wire fence and in the so-called death-zone – a five metre wide zone between the inner fence line and the barracks. This was to increase the visibility of a human silhouette at night, when the fence and the death zone were illuminated. Trespassing in the zone involved the risk of death, as indicated by the signs in German, Polish and Russian. As an additional security element for the compounds, 18 watch towers each 8.80 metres high were erected, which afforded a clear view of the various sections. They were equipped with revolving spotlights placed on the roof, so that the guard could turn the light in any direction. More than 130 lights were placed on the poles of the fence surrounding the five compounds. In 1943 the inner fence was electrified at high voltage (it is uncertain if this electrification was in use the whole time or only at night.) A further security element was the sentry box situated at the gate of every compound. The sentries checked persons entering or leaving the compound. Moreover, eight pillboxes were built in 1944 along the camp’s eastern boundary to protect Majdanek against a possible attack by partisans. The roads and paths in the camp were well lit, as were all economic and administrative buildings.

In Compounds 1,2, and 5, and in Compound 6 built in 1943-44, dwelling barracks were erected, their walls and ceilings consisting of two layers of boards, while in Compounds 3 and 4, stable barracks (Pferdstallbarracke) of the most primitive type were built. The walls of these barracks were made of thin, poorly fitting boards; windows were replaced by skylights in the roof. The roof itself, which was also at the same time the ceiling, was made of boards covered with tar paper. It was supported by the external walls and by two rows of pillars dividing the barrack breadth-wise into three parts.

The camp, which began to fill rapidly from January 1942, required appropriate storehouses for the property stolen from the prisoners and for the inmates’ supplies. The Central Construction Board built ten barracks on the western side of the compounds to serve as storehouses. In 1943 these storehouses proved insufficient, so another six were constructed. As early as spring 1942 the camp’s authorities established a farm. A garden farm (Gartnerei) was the first to be set up, between the boundary of Majdanek and the storehouses. As it was necessary to store the potatoes and vegetables cultivated on more than 100 acres of land, by mid-1943 the Construction Board had built thirty cellars. A hot-house in which vegetables and flowers were grown had also been erected. In late 1942 the empty area on the eastern side of the compounds was temporarily allocated by the camp authorities as a camp farm, where grain was grown and animals were raised.  

Three barracks were located between Compounds 1 and 2 (1st Zwischenfeld). In the first of these barracks a small crematorium, known as the “old crematorium”, was situated; the second barrack contained a laundry. The purpose of the third barrack is not known. The next space was between Compounds 4 and 5 (2nd Zwischenfeld). This space was also called the “coal place” because there was originally a coal store sited there. In 1943, when the major transports from the Warsaw ghetto arrived at Majdanek, the “coal place” was used as a temporary holding area for the large groups of Jews awaiting selection for the gas chambers. Sometimes the selections themselves took place there. There is a hypothesis that on the 2nd Zwischenfeld a special barrack was built in which the prisoners from the Sonderkommando lived.  

Beginning from the second half of 1942, gas chambers became the principal method of mass extermination of the prisoners. The construction of the gas chambers started in August and was completed in October 1942. They were situated beside Compound 1, across from the bath barrack. From what has been gleaned from the surviving documentation, initially the gas chambers at Majdanek were built only as a disinfection installation. During the construction works the details in the original plans were changed and the decision was taken to adapt the gas chambers for extermination purposes. The first plan showed the gas chambers with two rooms. Following the intended change of use, one room was divided into two smaller chambers. One of these chambers was adapted for the use of Zyklon B and carbon monoxide. The second, smaller chamber was probably never used because there was no electrical supply and there are no traces of any chemical reactions in the walls, floor, or ceiling. The third, larger gas chamber was constructed solely to be used in conjunction with carbon monoxide. The gas chambers were built of ceramic brick, were covered with a ferro-concrete roof, and had a concrete floor. In addition to the three chambers there was a cabin for the SS-man who pumped doses of gas from steel cylinders into the chambers and watched the results of his actions through a small grated window measuring 25 x 15cm. As already mentioned, two chambers, the large one and the southern smaller one, were equipped with devices for the use of carbon monoxide. In the smaller one, there was a metal pipe, 40 mm in diameter, running along the walls above the floor. The gas seeped into the chamber through holes in the pipe. Zyklon B was poured into a special opening in the concrete roof. In addition there were two openings in the western wall, through which hot air was blown by a ventilator from a stove placed on the outside of the chamber. This intensified the action of Zyklon B, since the lethal effect of the gas increased at a temperature in excess of 27degrees Celsius. The large chamber also had a metal pipe, 25mm in diameter fastened to one of the walls above the floor. As in the smaller chamber, carbon monoxide from a steel cylinder entered the chamber through this pipe.

The massive metal doors to the chambers were air-tight, fastened by two bolts and iron bars. They had been supplied by the Berlin firm Auert, while the stoves had been provided by Theodor Klein, Maschinen-und Apparatenbau of Ludwigshafen. The entire area of the “bunker” containing the three gas chambers was surrounded by a barbed wire and wooden fence and was covered by an extra high roof. Initially this roof had been planned to form part of the process of disinfecting clothing in the gas chambers, but when mass extermination began at Majdanek, the roof took on a camouflage role. There was also a gate in the wooden fence through which trucks could enter the “bunker”.

There was one further possible gas chamber in the bath barrack. It adjoined the shower room and may have been adapted for the use of Zyklon B, as indicated by two openings in the roof through which the gas could be poured, and openings in the wall through which hot air could be blown. It was a makeshift chamber which may have begun functioning before the other three chambers were commissioned. Even today it is not known for certain if this gas chamber was used for extermination purposes.  The testimonies and statements by survivors and former SS-men only mention exterminations in the “bunker” in which there were three gas chambers. It is possible that the gas chamber in the bath barrack was used only for disinfection purposes.

Due to the number of deaths in Majdanek and the need to dispose of the corpses, as early as 1941 the camp building authorities ordered a five furnace crematorium for the planned camp from Kori of Berlin. In the meantime, as detailed above, a two- furnace crematorium was brought from Sachsenhausen and in June 1942, installed in a barrack situated in a space between Compounds 1 and 2. The barrack, next to the furnaces, housed a room for storing the bodies, the office of the head of the crematorium, SS- Hauptscharführer Erich Muhsfeldt, and possibly premises for the Sonderkommando. The crematorium consisted of two iron furnaces, the inside of which were lined with chamotte bricks. Each furnace had only one retort, was independent, and was fuelled by oil. Such a retort could hold two to five corpses. The daily capacity of one furnace was about 100 bodies, with burning going on round the clock. The burning of one load in one furnace lasted about an hour. These resources were proving insufficient and the camp authorities sought to build more efficient extermination and cremation facilities. On 21 January 1943, Office C of the WVHA notified the Central Construction Board in Lublin that it would send five furnaces as soon as they been adapted. The documentation received from Kori was approved on 24 June 1943 by Group C at the office of the Higher SS and Police Leader in Krakow.

In July 1943 Kori started building work, which was completed in late August or early September. The crematorium building had a high underpinning on which a wooden structure was erected. Inside there was an office for the head of the crematorium, a hall for corpses, a room with a concrete autopsy table, a coke storage room, and in the main hall of the building, five coke fuelled furnaces for incinerating the bodies. The furnaces, which could reach a temperature of  700 degrees Celsius, were connected to a chimney 12 metres high. As many bodies were shoved into each furnace as could be contained; incineration then lasted 10 to 15 minutes.

During the organisation of the camp, the camp authorities were confronted with the problem of securing appropriate accommodation for offices as well as living quarters for the camp staff. Initially the camp management moved into the building at 12 Ogrodowa Street in Lublin and the guards into the building of the Vetter school at 14 Bernardynska Street. The commissioned and non-commissioned officers took lodgings in buildings near Majdanek in Zelazna, Reymonta, Krancowa and Fabyczna Streets. These were temporary accommodations; beginning in September 1942, dwellings and offices were erected within the camp proper. All work was undertaken by the prisoners under the supervision of specialists from various building contractors. The barracks were designed so as to protect their inhabitants from the cold. All the work, including furnishing, was completed in spring 1943.

From spring 1942 until autumn 1943, the basic roads, drainage ditches, concrete passages, paths on the external side, and fences around the compounds were constructed. From 1941 until 1944 the following were built:

 280 structures, including 227 barracks

 25,000 metres of sewers and water mains

 4,050 metres of paved roads

 5,600 metres of double barbed-wire fences

The first commandant of Majdanek camp, from September 1941 until August 1942, was SS- Standartenführer Karl Otto Koch. During his time he misappropriated vast amounts of valuables and money, the possessions of murdered Jews. He was removed from his post, arrested, and executed by the SS. Koch was a very experienced camp commandant who had seen service in Esterwegen, Sachenhausen and Buchenwald. Koch was succeeded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Max Kögel. He was the former commandant of Ravensbrück concentration camp. Kögel continued the brutal regime of Koch, but was only commandant from 6 August until October 1942, coinciding with a period of high mortality and the commissioning of the gas chambers. Majdanek’s third commandant was SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Florstedt, who had previously served with Koch at Buchenwald concentration camp. He ruled Majdanek from November 1942 until September 1943, and his tenure was marked with exceptional brutality and mass exterminations. It should be added that Florstedt also took part in the selection of prisoners who were unfit for work and were subsequently murdered. Just like Koch, he robbed Jewish transports of jewellery, gold, and money. He was brought to account by an SS Special Court in Kassel, where Florstedt was found guilty as charged and removed from his post.

SS- Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiss was Majdanek’s fourth commandant from November 1943 until May 1944. Conditions under Weiss improved; beatings were prohibited, the length of roll-calls reduced, and food supplies were allowed in from outside. This was more about utilising prisoner labour rather than from any humanitarian considerations. These more liberal conditions were ordered only for non-Jewish prisoners, with the exception of Soviet POWs. On 18 May 1944 Weiss was replaced by the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp commandant Artur Liebehenschel, who was Majdanek’s last commandant.

A number of SS men such as Hermann Hackmann, Emil Laurich, and Erich Muhlsfeldt were notoriously brutal, but the most infamous SS man was SS-Obersturmführer Anton Thumann, who served in Majdanek from February 1943 until May 1944.Thumann was exceptionally sadistic. He was known to all the prisoners; some thought him to be the camp commandant. He was tall, slim, and handsome, with regular features and an aquiline nose. He was always smartly dressed and wearing gloves. He was accompanied by a terrible dog Boris: allegedly a barber by profession he was like a beast. Accused of corruption, Thuman had been sent to Majdanek from Gross-Rosen as a punishment.

Within the system of Nazi concentration camps sub-camps were a feature, and Majdanek had six sub-camps late in the history of the main camp. In May and June 1944 there were more prisoners in most of the sub-camps than in the main camp. The large labour camps set up by Globocnik in 1941 and 1942 in Krasnik, Poniatowa, Trawniki, and in Lublin on the premises of the Clothing Works in Chelmska Street and the DAW in Lipowa Street, engaged in adapting the property of the murdered Jewish population to the needs of the front and exploited as a labour force prisoners of Jewish descent.

The growing resistance movements in the General –Government and in particular the revolts in the death camps at Treblinka and Sobibor on 2 August 1943 and 14 October 1943 respectively, alarmed both Hans Frank and Heinrich Himmler. Himmler ordered the closure of all camps in the Lublin region. Jakob Sporrenberg, who had replaced Globocnik as SS and Police Leader for the Lublin district, planned the mass extermination of all the Jewish workers. After the war Sporrenberg testified that Christian Wirth was involved in these actions at Majdanek and Poniatowa.

On 3 November 1943 the shooting of the prisoners commenced at 0800 hours. The victims had to lie down in the ditches and were shot, in batches of ten. These ditches were adjacent to the crematorium; one nearby lavatory barrack was used as an undressing room and a collection point for valuables. The naked Jews were whipped without mercy and savaged by dogs. They were pushed forward to the deep ditches, only twenty-five yards from Feld V. Loud music boomed out from two loudspeaker trucks, to mask the noise of the machine-guns. The killings in Majdanek on 3 November 1943 became known by the prisoners as “bloody Wednesday”.

Aktion Erntefest claimed 42,000 Jewish victims at Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki. The estimate of the number of Jews killed at Majdanek that day range from 16,000 to 18,400, almost as many as the number of British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme in 1916.

The Soviet Army launched ‘Operation Bagration’ on 23 June 1944, the planning of which anticipated an advance by the Soviet forces from Vitebsk to Warsaw. By early July the German Army Group ‘Mittel’ had been defeated. The camp authorities were ordered to dismantle the camps barracks starting with Compound 6 in early July 1944. Approximately 200 prisoners were employed at dismantling the bunks in Compound 3 and subsequently in Compound 4. The advancing Soviet forces tightened their ring around Lublin and this prompted the camp authorities on 22 July 1944 to order the liquidation of Majdanek. Evidence of the crimes committed there began to be hastily removed. The files of the camp administration were set on fire. The crematorium, in which prisoners from the Lublin Castle had been shot to death in large numbers, was burnt down. However, the Germans did not succeed in destroying all of the documentation from Majdanek. In the afternoon of 22 July 1944, at around 6 p.m. one thousand prisoners were led out of the camp and outside the town were joined by 229 prisoners employed at the German Supply Works at Lipowa Street. Only a small group of prisoners who could not walk, among them Jewish women and children, were packed into trucks. These vehicles were stopped in the centre of Lublin during the fighting on the streets of the city, where they were liberated. The larger group marched via Krasnik and Annopol to Cmielow, where they were put on a train and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. In Krasnik several Polish political prisoners escaped from the group of inmates evacuated from Majdanek, who were held in a brick factory overnight. This escape was organised with the help of the local inhabitants. During the march to Cmielow, the German political prisoner, Dr. Otto Hett, who had been a prisoner at Majdanek since the end of 1941 was killed. The reason for his death still remains a mystery, but it is possible that he carried his heavy medical books in his luggage, which caused him to walk too slowly, and thus resulted in the guards killing him.

Majdanek was liberated during the night of 22/23 July 1944. Four hundred and eighty prisoners regained their freedom - many of these were crippled Soviet Prisoners of War in Compound 2 and Polish peasants from the pacified villages of the Lublin District. Among the liberated inmates there was a also a group of Polish prisoners arrested at the end of June 1944 by the Wehrmacht in Lublin and Lubartow, who had been used for the construction of defence fortifications in Lublin.

When the Polish – Soviet Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes became active on the grounds of the former camp shortly after the liberation, the soldiers of the NKVD collected much original German documentation. Significant amounts of documentary material and prisoner belongings were confiscated by the Soviet forces and were sent to the Soviet Union. A considerable quantity of original documentation from Majdanek remains in the Russian archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg until today.

Other than the crematorium which the Nazis destroyed and two barracks of the Effektenkammer, which were destroyed during the Soviet bombing of Lublin in May 1944, the rest of the camp was not destroyed, prior to the arrival of the Soviet Army. The partial changes to and greatest amount of destruction of the camp took place after the liberation, when the Soviet and Polish Forces were stationed at Majdanek. For example on Compound 3, the NKVD organised a ‘special camp’ for the members of the Polish Underground, who were eventually deported to Siberia in September and October 1944. Barracks with thousands of pairs of shoes collected at Majdanek from the three Aktion Reinhardt camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka and the labour camps in Lublin, were stored in Compound 6 at the time of the liberation.

Whilst it is impossible to be precise about the number of people killed at Majdanek, modern research suggests that approximately 78,000 people lost their lives, of whom 59,000 are thought to have been Jewish. Research into the number of people who were confined at Majdanek concentration camp during the years 1941-1944 continues to this day.


Jozef Marszalek, Majdanek – The Concentration Camp in Lublin, Interpress Warsaw 1986    

Sir Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1997

National Archives Kew WO208/4673 - Interrogation of Jakob Sporrenberg

Archive of State Museum Majdanek in Lublin.

Tomasz Kranz ,Extermination of the Jews at Majdanek and Role of the Camp in “Aktion Reinhardt” (Eksterminacja Żydów na Majdanku I rola obozu w “Akcji “Reinhardt”)  “Zeszyty Majdanka”, vol. XXII, Lublin 2003.

Photograph - Chris Webb Archive

© Holocaust Historical Society 2016