Soviet soldiers of the Third Belorussian Army could be forgiven for thinking at first glance that what they had just come across in the Polish city of Lublin was a POW camp, given the rows of barracks that stretched off into the distance. But even before entering the site, everyone could see the chimney towering over the facility. Chimneys standing in burned cities after a Luftwaffe firebombing had become a common sight for soldiers on the Eastern Front. But there was no evidence that Lublin had been firebombed. This was more industrial smokestack than chimney, suggesting that what they were approaching was a factory with housing for slave laborers.
Then, as the soldiers entered the camp, they saw rows of ovens with piles of bones and other human remains spilling out, and it began to dawn on them just what they had liberated: a “death factory,” with all of the grim oxymoron that the name implies. It was the Allied world’s first glimpse of the Nazis’ industrialized killing operation—so horrific that it surpassed everything the Red Army had seen before, and so obscene that the western powers dismissed it as a Soviet ploy.
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BEFORE THE DISCOVERY OF THE CAMP at Lublin, called Majdanek by locals, the mass murder of civilians was already too familiar in the Soviet Union. During the war’s first six months it became routine for Soviet photojournalists to document the aftermath of mass hangings in town squares and the burning of entire villages.
In January 1942, Soviet troops liberated the Ukrainian city of Kerch and found something unprecedented: the bodies of 7,000 Jews and others piled in an antitank trench. As photographer Dmitrii Baltermants recounted years later, “The clothing on the corpses suggested that they were civilians brought out to this field and shot en masse.” It was the first of what would become mind-numbingly repetitive scenes of mass murder. Soviet photographers, who had been assigned from the first days of the war to record acts of heroism and fortitude against “the fascist beast,” now added to their mandate the documentation of enemy atrocities.
The Soviet media splashed the photographs on the pages of the daily paper, in magazines, and even on broadsides posted throughout the nation for every passerby to see. A typical headline in Ogonyok, comparable to Life magazine, admonished readers to “Take Revenge,” with large sans-serif letters looming over an image of a smoldering pile of human remains.
Yet even after reading about these staggering German crimes for two and a half years, the Soviet people—and their western allies—were not prepared for Majdanek.
AFTER SOVIET TROOPS LIBERATED LUBLIN ON July 24, 1944, it took researchers and journalists nearly three weeks to make sense of what had occurred at the camp.
Constructed as a prisoner of war camp in 1941, Majdanek eventually became part of the network of Nazi extermination camps, all six of which were in German-occupied Poland. In the winter of 1941–42, camp authorities began using Zyklon B gas in a makeshift chamber to murder prisoners deemed too weak to work. The camp continued to house POWs, but once permanent gas chambers and crematoria were built, from October 1942 to the end of 1943 Jews were deported en masse to Majdanek and gassed. On November 3, 1943, special SS and police units shot 18,000 Jews just outside the camp in Operation Harvest Festival, the Holocaust’s largest single-day, single-site massacre. The bodies were buried or cremated inside Majdanek. After that, Jews were no longer the majority of those imprisoned or killed there, although the gas chambers continued to operate until early July 1944, shortly before the arrival of Soviet troops. Soviet investigators estimated that 400,000 Jews and 1.5 million others were killed at Majdanek. (Recent research confirmed 59,000 Jews and 20,000 others were killed, though the records are incomplete and it’s likely more were killed or died from harsh conditions.)
When Majdanek was liberated the concept of a facility designed for industrial murder using a cyanide-based pesticide was completely foreign, so Soviet journalists reported extensively on everything that made Majdanek horrifyingly unique.
The first photos and news reports, written by Konstantin Simonov, were published on August 10 by Red Star, the army newspaper. Two days later the daily state paper Izvestiia broke the story to the public. On the front page, among photos of human remains, it ran a shot of canisters imprinted with the German words Giftgas (“poison gas”) and Zyklon. While readers were familiar with poison gas on the battlefield, they would need to turn to Evgenii Kriger’s accompanying article to learn that at Majdanek the SS had deployed it in “extermination chambers” that were operated like slaughterhouses. As Kriger entered a gas chamber, which the Germans had disguised as a shower, he noted “the graffiti scrawled on the walls and the random drawings that were the last traces of lives extinguished.”
On August 11 the Soviet filmmaker and occasional journalist Roman Karmen filed a story on the camp, translated as Maidan in the English version sent over the wire that appeared a few days later in the Daily Worker, the newspaper of America’s Communist Party USA.“In the course of all my travels into liberated territory,” Karmen wrote, “I have never seen a more abominable sight than ‘Maidan’ near Lublin, Hitler’s notorious Vernichtungslager—extermination camp—where more than half a million European men, women, and children were massacred.” Karmen recalled the notorious Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where more than 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were shot in September 1941, and dismissed it as “a country cemetery” compared to Majdanek.
Karmen’s description must have been particularly chilling to American Daily Worker readers. Under the subheading “Huge Crematorium,” Karmen explained the killing process with details based on three weeks of research at Majdanek: “Groups of 100 people would be brought here to be burned almost alive. They already had been stripped and then chlorinated in special gas chambers adjoining. The gas chambers contained some 250 persons at one time. They were closely packed in a standing position so that after they suffocated from the chlorine, they still remained standing. Executioners then would enter, remove the suffocated victims, some of whom still stirred feebly and place the bodies in special carts. The carts were dumped into a roaring furnace heated to 1,500 degrees centigrade. The whole thing was organized with diabolical efficiency.” He closed by telling readers both in the Soviet Union and the United States,“It is difficult to believe it myself but my eyes cannot deceive me.”
Majdanek also revealed another grim facet of the Nazi death camp system: processing victims’ belongings. The camp served as the central storage facility for clothing and shoes from the other eastern extermination centers, at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. A ramshackle warehouse overflowing with a mountain of footwear became the most important image of Majdanek—representing the absence of thousands of people who once stood in thousands of pairs of shoes. At the time it was the most awful symbol of mass murder imaginable.
Soon after the camp’s liberation the Soviet army began taking German POWs to Majdanek to face their country’s war crimes. As Simonov wrote in his memoirs, “A few thousand German frontline soldiers, taken as prisoners in battle near Lublin, were led through every inch of Majdanek on orders of the Soviet military leadership. There was a singular goal—to give the POWs the opportunity to be convinced of what the SS had done. I saw with my own eyes that even they could not have imagined what was possible.”
REPORTS OF A DEATH CAMP IN LUBLIN cropped up sporadically in the western media shortly after the Soviet press broke the news. But the photographs languished while editors and government officials stared dumbly, unsure of what to do with the shocking material. Western officials and media often dismissed Soviet press reports about German atrocities as propaganda, and many newspaper editors found the descriptions of Majdanek too monstrous to believe.
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On August 13, 1944, the Los Angeles Times reprinted Karmen’s article, but with a disclaimer: “The only war correspondents permitted to accompany the Russian armies except for occasional conducted tours of the front are Russian. One of these Russian correspondents has written the following special dispatch on the German crematory at Lublin.” Similarly, New York Times Moscow correspondent Ralph Parker reported how the Soviet press covered Majdanek, distancing himself from the actual news item. His August story “Soviet Writer Tells Horror of Lublin Camp”was not a story on Majdanek but on the way Simonov wrote about it for Red Star. Life magazine was the only major press outlet to publish a series of Soviet photos, with a page in the August 28 issue on the burial of the remains of Jews at the“dead center of Europe’s horror.”
It was not until late August that Soviet occupation forces opened the camp to Lublin’s residents and western journalists. If Soviet photographs were not convincing, perhaps eyewitness accounts would be.
Photographs of Lublin residents visiting Majdanek show them in mourning, dressed in their Sunday best. Perhaps they were searching for relatives or grieving other losses. Maybe they came to see what had taken place in their backyard, since Majdanek was right at the edge of the city. In either case, Soviet authorities wanted to make sure Poles saw Majdanek as their victimization at the hands of the Germans. They hoped the local population would forget—or at least credit the Germans for—atrocities like the murder of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn, and see the Red Army’s return to Poland as liberation rather than re-occupation.
Local Poles, as well as former prisoners who remained there, also participated in a larger drama as they confronted German POWs. Alexander Werth, a Moscow-based BBC correspondent, reported one such encounter: “A crowd of German prisoners had been taken through the camp. Around stood crowds of Polish women and children, and they screamed at the Germans, and there was a half-insane old Jew who bellowed frantically in a husky voice: ‘Kindermörder, Kindermörder!’ And the Germans went through the camp, at first at an ordinary pace, and then faster and faster, till they ran in a frantic panicky stampede, and they were green with terror, and their hands shook and their teeth chattered.” Mikhail Trakhman’s photos depicted the Poles more ambiguously: yes, as angry mourners, but also as bystanders who simply watch the passing Germans as they might have watched the smoke rise from Majdanek.
Western journalists struggled to convince readers—and their editors—that the initial accounts were true, verified by firsthand reporting. The first major story published in America, by New York Times correspondent William Lawrence, began,“I have just seen the most terrible place on the face of the earth.” But doubt remained. The British media would not publish the account by the BBC’s Werth. As he explains in his memoir, when he sent a detailed report on Majdanek to his editors they “refused to use it; they thought it was a Russian propaganda stunt.”
SOVIET TROOPS CONTINUED TO PUSH Axis forces westward. Budapest and Warsaw were liberated in late January 1945, Vienna in April, and, after a searing battle that killed upwards of 350,000 people, Berlin fell in early May. By that point Soviet troops had reached the sites of all six extermination camps. The swift Soviet advance in July 1944 had prompted Majdanek’s administration to flee before destroying evidence of its function, but the other camps liberated that July—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka—had long since fulfilled their grim purpose and been razed to leave little trace of what occurred there. On January 20, 1945, the Red Army reached a fifth camp, Chelmno, which had also been dismantled. The only other extermination facilities found intact were at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz had something Majdanek mostly lacked: survivors. Where Majdanek had a few hundred, Auschwitz had thousands. Prisoners deemed fit for labor were moved out ahead of the Red Army on death marches to other concentration camps—Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, or Bergen Belsen. At Auschwitz’s liberation on January 27, 1945, Soviet troops also found an infirmary full of patients. Through their voices, Auschwitz—not Majdanek—eventually became synonymous with the fate of Jews and other undesirables under the Nazi regime. The anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation is now International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yet the liberation of Auschwitz did not fully persuade westerners that Germany had built and operated facilities explicitly for industrial-scale murder. As Werth had experienced with his BBC editors, “It was not until the discovery in the west of Buchenwald, Dachau, and Belsen that they were convinced that Majdanek and Auschwitz were also genuine.”
Soviet journalists had no reason to question the evidence discovered at Majdanek, but belief didn’t come easily. Boris Tseitlin, who had photographed the mass grave at Kerch, described coming to Majdanek: “In front of us lay a field of cabbage, rich and luxuriant. What could be more innocent? No one could imagine that the cabbage abundantly growing on dozens of surrounding acres was nourished with the blood and ashes of the tortured and dead.”
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.