A visit to the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau

Memorial in Majdanek concentration camp

Trolleybus No 156 runs directly from the city centre to Majdanek on the outskirts of Lublin. We are on a quest to visit Majdanek and Auschwitz, the most infamous concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Unlike other Nazi camps, Majdanek concentration camp was located near the city, not hidden away in some sparsely inhabited countryside location. Even from the distance we can see a huge modern monument: Fight and Martyrdom, designed by Victor Tolkin. It forms a depressing, heavy arch marking the point where most prisoners would have entered the concentration camp.  

Frozen fences around Majdanek concentration camp

It is a freezing cold day. Polish winter is not gentle. Small ice particles swirl through the air and pierce our numb cheeks, while we stubbornly explore the site. Apart from a small group of teenagers accompanied by a guide, we are alone between rows of barracks, watch towers and barbwire fences. Everything is covered by a thick white layer of snow. Majdanek is not only the oldest memorial on the site of a concentration camp, but also unusually well-preserved. The Red Army freed the camp as early as July 1944. It was so sudden that there was not enough time for the Nazis to demolish the camp. At the crematorium we can even touch the muffle kiln and a tipper truck that was once used for transporting dead bodies. Scientists estimate that 250.000 people were killed in this camp.

Visiting Auschwitz concentration camp

Arbeit macht frei sign in Auschwitz concentration camp

Temperatures are still well below freezing when we visit the former camps of Auschwitz a few days later. Different from Majdanek, the site is a much-visited tourist spot. Most visitors come on a day trip from Krakow. We enter the complex through the infamous iron gate with the emblazoned Slogan „Arbeit macht frei“ (Work brings freedom). The first camp commander, Rudolf Höß, imported this motto to Auschwitz from his former work place at the concentration camp in Dachau.

Several of the remaining prison blocks today house exhibitions. They concern the general history of Auschwitz and the fate of specific prisoner groups. In blocks 4 and 5, the confiscated property of the murdered is displayed behind large windows, sorted by category. There are piles of shoes, suitcases, hairbrushes and childrens’ clothes. In a dimly lit room several cubic metres of hair are piled up. In their zeal for efficiency, the Nazis planned to make socks and warm clothes for the submarine crews from it. The exhibition, which somehow has the air of modern art installations, clearly has the intention to be shocking. But our uneasiness is reinforced by the way it repeats Nazi categories and the de-humanisation of the murdered victims. 

The satellite camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau

concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau

2 kilometres west of the main camp lies the satellite camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was purpose-built in 1942/43 for the mass killing of Jews. Although the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of mass-murder before they fled, the remnants of the big crematories and gas chambers are still in place. The trains arrived right next to the crematory buildings. New arrivals were immediately led into the gas chambers, and an automatic lift conveyed the bodies to the upper floor for cremation.

To preserve the ruins for memorial purposes, they have to be supported by concrete bases. After all, Auschwitz-Birkenau belongs to the UNESCO’s heritage list as a “World Cultural Heritage Site” since 1979.

When and how to visit Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau

We went on our Poland trip in winter. This meant difficult weather for travelling: There were few buses, and they were often very cold! We had to plan our logistics well to avoid long periods in the cold. But on the other hand, the icy atmosphere seemed quite appropriate. Both the Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps are close to towns. You can easily stay there, but it is also possible to visit the camps as day trips from Warsaw or Krakow, respectively.

Do we recommend a visit to Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Yes, we do. We have seen other German concentration camps and memorials, like Mauthausen on the River Danube. In places like Vilnius, we visit the Holocaust Museum, and in Cambodia, the so-called Killing Fields. Auschwitz, however, is another level. As Germans, we think the memorials of Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau should remain a must-see. And not only for Germans.

NB: Our trip to Poland – not least to visit Majdanek and Auschwitzwas not sponsored in any way. We paid all the expenses ourselves.

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