Mausoleum at Majdanek

Mausoleum contains the ashes of victims beneath the dome

Photo Credit: Simon Robertson

A gigantic, circular Mausoleum at the Majdanek Memorial Site stands at the end of the former "black path" to the crematorium, a walkway that is now called the Road of Homage in English. The structure was designed by architect and sculptor Wiktor Tolkin, the same man who designed the Monument of Struggle and Martyrdom at the other end of the walkway, near the street.

The dome of the Mausoleum is pockmarked, as though it had suffered bomb damage in the war. The English translation of the inscription on the frieze of the dome reads "Let our fate be a warning to you." Under the dome is a huge circular urn, shaped like a saucer, which contains the ashes of some of the victims at Majdanek. Before visiting Majdanek, I had heard about the ashes and wondered what kept them from blowing away in the wind. The answer is that the ashes were recovered from a compost pile in the camp, where they had been mixed with dirt and garden refuse and composted in preparation for spreading on the vegetable garden in the camp. The material under the dome looks like compacted dirt, the color of adobe. There are a few bone fragments visible. To the left, in front of the steps, are four containers to hold eternal flames for special ceremonies.

Also to the left, as you face the dome, is the very inappropriate location of the toilets, which are underground but have air vents sticking up, that look like some weird sculpture. The first thing that the tour guides explain to Americans is the toilet etiquette in Poland. In many places, including the camp at Majdanek, one must pay the attendant on duty to use the toilets. Bring your own toilet paper because there is usually none available, even though the charges are supposed to pay for the cost of the paper. The toilets are for both sexes and there is no door on the men's facility. When I visited the camp, the toilets were unbelievably filthy, just like at the Auschwitz II camp at Birkenau.

The photograph above shows the Mausoleum. To the right of it is located the reconstructed crematorium building. Standing on this spot, you have a panoramic view of the camp below you. Behind the Mausoleum are new modern apartment houses, their balconies painted red, yellow and blue, resembling buildings made with children's colorful building blocks. As you are standing in front of the Mausoleum facing the camp area, to the left there are more apartment buildings in the city of Lublin. To the right, as you face the camp area, is Lublin's main Catholic cemetery which borders the camp; this cemetery was being used when the concentration camp was in operation. There are noisy black crows flying overhead, which the tour guide says are always present here, as if to give further warning to visitors.

Just behind the Mausoleum pictured above, and a little to the right, is a small stone which commemorates the deaths of around 18,000 Jews on that spot on November 3, 1943, an event that was code-named by the Nazis with the cynical word "Erntefest" which means Harvest Festival in English. The camp inmates called this day "bloody Wednesday." This was the largest mass execution carried out at any of the concentration camps in the history of the Holocaust. The victims were the last remnants of the Jewish population in the Lublin district.

Jews marching to their death on "bloody Wednesday" November 3, 1943

According to the camp guidebook, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Jews in the Lublin district after the insurrection on October 14, 1943 at Sobibor, one of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps on the Polish-Russian border, in which 300 Jews, led by a Jewish Russian Prisoner of War, escaped into the nearby woods. At this time, the three largest concentrations of Jews in Eastern Poland were at the camp at Majdanek and at the labor camp at Poniatowa, a tiny Polish village where 18,000 people were held, and at the Polish village of Trawniki where 10,000 Jews were imprisoned in a labor camp.

According to the guidebook, "In the autumn of 1943, the Nazi authorities were alarmed by the uprisings in the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos, by the activity of the resistance movement in the camps and by the rebellions in the death camps at Sobibor and Treblinka." Their greatest fear was that the Jewish prisoners at Lublin would start a rebellion that would result in their escape to the forests where they would join the Polish partisans who were fighting the German Army.

The Nazis also feared that their plans to exterminate the Jews were being thwarted by the cooperation of the camp resistance movement at Majdanek with the Polish underground organizations fighting as partisans outside the camp. The guidebook devotes a whole section to the activities of the camp resistance movement, which included activists from the Polish Home Army, and the main political parties: the Polish Socialist Party, the Peasant Party, the National Party, and the Polish Worker's Party.

Along with the Polish civilian partisans and the Jewish partisans hiding in the forests, there were also escaped Russian Prisoners of War, who would sometimes shoot the Jewish partisans. Although Poland had been conquered, within a month after the country was invaded, by the joint effort of the Germans and the Russians, guerrilla warfare continued in Poland until the Germans finally surrendered to the Allies in May 1945.

According to a book entitled "The forgotten Holocaust: the Poles under German Occupation," written by Richard Lucas, the Polish resistance fighters were responsible for 6,930 damaged train engines, 732 derailed trains, 979 destroyed train cars, 38 bridges blown up, 68 aircraft destroyed, 15 factories burned down, 4,623 military vehicles destroyed, 25,125 acts of sabotage and 5,733 attacks on German troops.

In preparation for the mass execution at Majdanek, ditches were dug for the bodies behind the spot where the Mausoleum now stands, 50 meters away from the crematorium building. It took 300 prisoners, working two shifts day and night to dig three big ditches over 2 meters deep and 100 meters long, running in a zigzag line. These open ditches are still visible, although they look like they have been filled in somewhat.

Around 100 SS men were brought in from Auschwitz and other locations to do the shooting, according to the guidebook. Very early on the morning of November 3, after roll call, all the Jews in Fields III and IV were ordered to form a column and march to the ditches. The gravely ill Jews from the three typhus barracks in Field III were dragged out of their bunks and dumped onto trucks for transportation to the ditches. Loudspeakers mounted on trucks had been placed near the ditches, and by the camp gate near the street, to drown out the noise of the machine guns.

Simultaneously, a column of over 10,000 Jews were marched toward the gate of Field IV; the first prisoners reached the gate before the end of the column had left the city of Lublin. These victims were from the sub-camps of Majdanek and the work gangs employed outside the camp. The Jewish political prisoners from the Gestapo prison in the Castle in Lublin were also marched to the camp. Around noon, the SS soldiers ordered the Jewish women out of their barracks in Field I, and again the sick were loaded onto trucks, while those able to walk were marched to the ditches.

The shooting started around 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, and lasted without a break until 5 p.m., with 100 victims at a time ordered to strip in a nearby barrack and then lie down in the ditches in groups of 10, where they were then machine-gunned to death. Each new group had to lie down on top of the dead bodies from the previous group. The men were shot separately from the women. The barbed wire fence was cut between Field V and the ditches, so that a column of armed policemen could form a passage, along which the victims were funneled into the ditches.

This operation was, by no means, done in secret. The shooting was done at the top of the low hill where the Mausoleum now stands and in full view of nearby residents who lived behind the area. The loud dance music which went on for almost 12 hours that day ensured that the local residents knew that something unusual was going on, even if they couldn't see it. On the same day, there were other mass executions of Jews at the labor camps near the villages of Poniatowa and Trawniki.

In his best-selling book "Hitler's Willing Executioners," Daniel Goldhagen wrote that the number of Jews executed at Majdanek was 16,500 and that there were an additional 14,000 Jews executed at Poniatowa.

According to a book entitled "Poland, the Rough Guide," the liquidation of the Lublin Jews continued on November 4th and 5th. A total of 43,000 inhabitants of the Lublin ghetto were machine-gunned to death at Majdanek. The same book says that after the city was liberated by the Soviet Union, "Jewish partisan groups began using Lublin as their operational base."

The bodies of the victims of the massacre at Majdanek were burned near the ditches on pyres formed from old truck chassis, and the ashes were thrown onto the compost pile behind the clothing warehouse barracks, which now hold the tourist exhibits. It is these ashes of the massacre victims which have now been given a place of honor in the Mausoleum.

Field III at Majdanek

Majdanek Museum

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