Friday, 27 July 2018

Majdanek - Unknown Horrors

Lublin is a large historic city.  It sits on the Royal Route from the ancient capital of Poland in Krakow to Vilnius the capital of a now independent Lithuania, but between 1569 and 1793 the joint capitals of union between the two nations.

Today it’s the ninth largest city in Poland and second only to Krakow in size in the southern part of the country.

I say this because it should be a more well-known city than it is, but also because despite it’s size located in its south western suburbs is a truly disturbing location – a key part of the Nazi Holocaust machinery – a designated extermination camp, that saw the deaths of at least 80,000 people (nearly 60,000 of them Jewish). 

Whilst this isn’t on the almost incomprehensible scale of Auschwitz it is notable for it happening so close to a major city.

Auschwitz is located more than 60Km from Krakow, Majdanek is just 4Km from the centre of Lublin.

Until I was planning on what to do on my trip to Lublin I’d never even heard of Majdanek.  When it came up on the Lublin tourism website as a place that visitors should go to I assumed that it would be a long way out of town, possibly only accessible on a guided tour.  I was very surprised to see that it was accessible by over half a dozen bus routes on the main road out of the city to the southern suburbs.

The site makes it very clear that a visit should be respectful, but that also people should be aware of the nature of the site – strongly warning against anyone under the age of 14 visiting.

When I visited Auschwitz, I was struck – as many people comment – by a sense of unease, partly the lack of any birdsong, or anything else living nearby, but also the knowledge that so much horror happened there.

The same wasn’t the case for Majdanek to begin with, despite one of the first things you are greeted with on entering the main part of the camp is the combined shower block and gas chamber – empty canisters of Zyklon B on display behind glass screens.

Because of it’s location there is a fair amount of wildlife on the site, and as the city has expanded the site is now overlooked by homes and a part of the university.

Where the true horror of the site really strikes is towards the end of the visit at the Mausoleum.  Here under a giant dome sits a large mound, made almost entirely of the cremated remains of the Nazi’s victims found on the site at its liberation in 1944.  The fact that this is only likely to be a small number of the total victims of the site is all the more harrowing. 

Along the frieze of the dome runs the text “Our fate is a warning to you”.

It isn’t a pleasant place to be, and it’s not supposed to be.  It’s supposed to be a reminder of the horrors that humans can inflict on each other when they think they can get away with it, and in the case of Majdanek, unlike many of the other extermination camps in the various Nazi occupied territories, within sight of a major city.

When I visited Auschwitz, it was a damp overcast day.  Whilst this made the sites appear even greyer and devoid of colour, it did make looking round the sites an easy task.

I visited Majdanek on a hot sunny day, with temperatures nudging 30C.  I had bottles of cold water, I was covered in sun block, had comfy shoes on and was only leisurely walking around the site, and yet I found that quite unpleasant.  It brings home even more the horrific conditions that people were held in (and I can only assume the winter months would have been even worse). 

It was difficult to visit many of the exhibits in the former barrack blocks as the temperatures and humidity inside were stiffing and yet there were just a handful of people in each block at any time – trying to imagine being in there with hundreds, possibly up to 1,000 other people is almost impossible.