A former concentration camp
and death camp
near the city of Lublin
– as the first one of its kind in this occupied territory. Madjanek was also one of the first such places to be declared a memorial site, straight after its liberation in the summer of 1944, i.e. while WWII
A sizeable proportion of the original buildings and the camp grounds are still intact. Despite this, it is one of the lesser visited such Holocaust
sites (but still draws around 100,000 visitors annually) simply because it is located much further off the beaten tourist tracks than, say, the more accessible sites at Auschwitz
. However, in my view Majdanek is possibly the most impressive such Holocaust memorial site of them all.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Following a visit to occupied Lublin
and head of the SS
, Heinrich Himmler, the camp in the Lublin suburb of Majdanek was set up, from late 1941, initially as a POW
camp, officially at least. But before long it became a full-blown concentration camp
, in which the principles of deprivation, random violence and, ultimately, "extermination through labour" ('Vernichtung durch Arbeit') were applied as much as they were in other such camps.
The victims of Majdanek were primarily Polish Jews, but also POWs from the occupied Eastern European territories, in particular the Soviet Union
. Many people were murdered in mass shootings, but Majdanek was also one of those camps in which gas chambers were systematically used; just as in Auschwitz, the infamous gas Zyklon B
was employed here (as opposed to most other such places which used carbon monoxide). To this day blue colouration resulting from chemical reactions can be seen on the inner walls of the gas chambers.
Estimates of the numbers of inmates who died at Majdanek vary – figures initially suggested apparently were way too high (very early estimates went as far as up to a million). Today it is assumed that the total death toll of the camp was "only" around 80,000 or even somewhat fewer, but it's still a shocking figure.
It was already in summer 1944 that the camp was evacuated by the Nazis
, as the eastern front started to close in. And in this case the usual attempts at covering up the evidence of what had happened here were particularly half-hearted and superficial. Thus the camp fell into the Soviet liberators' hands almost completely intact and was presented to journalists as early as 10 months before the end of WWII
. They were able to form a gruesomely clear picture of what the Nazis had been up to here and reported all this in the West. It is also in this respect that Majdanek assumes a special place in history.
A problematic aspect about Majdanek's early post-war history is the fact that the Soviets continued using part of the site as a POW
camp (see also Buchenwald
), where they also interned many members of the Polish underground Home Army AK. The latter is still a sensitive point psychologically in Polish-Russian relations (see Warsaw Uprising Museum
On the other hand, commemoration also started early at Majdanek – in fact before WWII
ended, and as such it has to be regarded as the oldest Nazi concentration camp
memorial of them all. More efforts were made in the 1960s when the large concrete monument and the domed mausoleum were constructed. Later the visitor centre and some information panels were added. At the time of my first visit in March 2008, commodification
by means of proper exhibitions was still rather scant. But this has changed and is likely to change more. Now there are modern text-and-photo panels dotted around the site and several of the barracks contain exhibitions of varying size and depth. The latest addition is a multimedia exhibition about the history of Majdanek in one of the largest barracks – see below.
It may still not have as much information as other concentration camp
memorials such as Dachau
, but atmospherically and in terms of palpable place authenticity, Majdanek is hard to beat. A must-see.
What there is to see:
Majdanek has to be regarded as the best-preserved of all the former Nazi concentration camps
in the whole of Poland
. The site hits you immediately with its long sloping row of watchtowers connected by double barbed-wire fences and brooding rows of dark wooden barracks. Not all of this is authentic, there are also reconstructions. But the overall effect is to provide one of the best insights into what such camps looked like back in the day – although they would have sounded differently, much louder, whereas now they are largely silent.
Next to the main entrance and car park stands a newer building that houses the site's administration as well as the visitor centre
with a cinema in which a film about the camp's liberation can be shown. There's also a small shop selling books and a few other items. Furthermore several pieces of art on the Holocaust
theme are on display in the airy and light foyer.
A short distance north of the visitor centre and facing away from the main road, the site is dominated by a huge concrete monument dating from 1969. This displays the full "clout" of the monumental style of socialist memorials from those days. On my second visit in August 2021, the monument was cordoned off as it is apparently crumbling and unsafe. Evidently not much preservation effort has been given to this communist-era relic.
And then there's the camp proper with its rows of watchtowers and the rows of barracks. One of the camp's five constituent "Fields" of living quarter barracks is still complete – the remainder are empty fields. Even so, the position of the complete rows of barracks in the central part of the camp's area still creates a fairly good impression of what the whole camp must have looked like.
There is no prescribed route through the whole site so you can start at the bottom or the top or anywhere else as you please. If you have a car you can drive on to two additional car parks, one at the bottom of the camp’s Field 1, the workshop barracks and gas chambers. Another car park is at the southernmost part of the camp by the crematoria and domed mound-of-ash mausoleum monument. From there a path with several open-air information panels at relevant points leads all the way along the southern and western perimeter of the five fields of the main camp and through the area of the workshop barracks. So you can walk this route all the way and then will have to walk the whole distance back to return to your car. Or you split the visit into two parts and first only do the southern half and then drive to the other car park to do the northern parts. That’s what I did on my first visit back in March 2008, which I also spread over two days. The whole site is vast, so this may make sense for you too – and especially so if you do not have a car and have to walk it all.
On my first visit there was also a weather effect to be taken into consideration: there had been a wintry spell that had brought a fairly deep layer of snow. At important spots and on the main paths this had been cleared, but it still meant that along some stretches walking was slowed down by the snow. On the other hand, the snowy layer created an atmospheric effect: for one thing it was very quiet and on the other the fact that no green grass was visible made for an almost black-and-white effect, i.e. closer in appearance to what you see in historic photos. On that first visit, there were also hardly any other people around so that my wife and I had everything to ourselves, until right at the end when a coach with a group of other visitors arrived just as we were finishing our visit.
I revisited Majdanek in August 2021 – but that was a much shorter visit, because we tagged it on at the end of a day excursion to Sobibór
and hence only had about an hour before the site closed and only concentrated on select bits. There were also more people about, but even though it was the summer season there were still far fewer visitors than at, say, Dachau
But now for an overview of the different parts of the site:
Starting at the far end of the compound, at its southernmost point, there's another huge monument dominating the scene: this is the Mausoleum
. This consists primarily of a gigantic concrete dome
over a huge mound of ash
– the remains of those murdered and cremated at the camp. It is thus especially at this spot, by the Mausoleum, that the site assumes the sombre atmosphere of a cemetery, further enhanced by the wreaths and candles placed at the head of the Mausoleum. Beyond this lie the mounds of earth under which the victims of the mass shootings of 3/4 November 1943 were buried (these mass murders were cynically code-named “Aktion Erntefest” or ‘Operation Harvest Festival’ – see also under Lublin
). A stone with a plaque commemorates this atrocity separately.
The nearby building with its tall brick chimney was the “new” crematorium, constructed in late 1943, to replace a smaller predecessor that was located between Fields 1 and 2 (and of which nothing remains).
Inside the crematorium you can see a set of five large cremation ovens, which look as if they are still in full working order! A side room has a memorial containing ashes and bone fragments of victims found at the site. Another side room contains a dissection table made of polished concrete (here bodies were searched for hidden or swallowed valuables and gold teeth were broken out). Needless to say, these parts of the memorial site ooze an especially grim atmosphere.
To the north of the crematorium and dome-of-ash mausoleum lie Fields 5 and 4, which are empty save for the outlines of the foundations of the rows of barracks that once stood here.
However, Field 3 in the centre of the whole compound still has two complete rows of barracks. Most are locked (and presumably empty) but two are open and inside are recreations of the crammed living conditions prisoners had to cope with, with simple three-tier wooden bunk beds. At one end of the rows of barracks stands a monument consisting of a column with three bird sculptures at the top. As a sign explains this had already been built during the camp’s operation in 1943. Apparently the camp’s administrators allowed the prisoners to decorate their quarters in this way. The monument’s Polish creators allegedly hid a container with victims’ ashes inside the column, and the top on which the birds look like they are about to take off in flight is shaped like an urn. (There’s also another prisoner-built monument in the area of Field 2. This monument is in the shape of a little castle.)
Just outside the other end of Field 3 is a fragment of a road the Nazis had built out of broken-up Jewish gravestones (matzevot) taken from Lublin’s Jewish cemeteries (see under Lublin
). This is now protected by a steel-and-a glass structure.
North of this is the second main part of the memorial site, namely the workshop barracks in which the prisoners had to carry out various tasks. Today some of these barracks contain a number of separate exhibitions and other memorializations. At the northern end of this section is another car park.
The southernmost barrack that is open to the public (No. 55) contains an exhibition about Operation Reinhard
along 20 text-and-photo panels. Inside barrack No. 52 is a striking memorial made of three long upright wire-mesh “cages” with tens of thousands of old shoes inside. These were partly confiscated from Majdanek prisoners but many also came from the plundered belongings of victims of the death camps
, especially, it can be assumed, Bełżec
. This shoe monument
is reminiscent of similar exhibits of amassed former inmates' belongings at the museum of Auschwitz 1
Barrack No. 47 contains another memorial installation, this time made up of balls of barbed wire with light bulbs in them. Opposite this on the eastern side of the path through the work camp is Barrack No. 62, the former shoemakers’ workshop. This now contains a modernized multimedia historical exhibition about Majdanek and its prisoners. This was not yet in place on my first visit in 2008 but is one of the additions I found when I returned in August 2021. Unfortunately I had run out of time and this exhibition was already closed when I reached the barrack (in summer the exhibitions close an hour earlier than the grounds).
Another upgrade I noticed on my revisit was that instead of the former very brief text panels in five languages (Polish, Russian, English, German and French) these have been replaced with bilingual (Polish & English) panels with more text and hence more background information compared to what was available on my first visit, and these newer panels are also illustrated with photos.
Yet another change I saw was at Barrack No. 41. This was the men’s bathhouse and in 1946 this was connected to the adjacent gas chambers. The bath hall still has the multiple shower heads suspended from the ceiling. These were genuine shower heads, not used for the delivery of gas (as is quite often erroneously assumed or portrayed as such in films and books). The gas chamber building was built from concrete and bricks with a metal roof. On my first visit in 2008, visitors could walk right into the two larger gas chambers that were used for mass murder. This must have been deemed inappropriate at some point and now you can only look in but a barrier bars you from actually entering.
One of the gas chambers is bare concrete, the other shows the typical bluish colouration that came from the use of the poison gas Zyklon B
. This was originally a disinfectant (and also used as such for sterilizing clothing) but was found to be a more “efficient” killing agent as well. Gassing by dropping pellets of Zyklon B into shafts at the gas chamber took “only” about ten agonizing minutes, whereas the use of carbon monoxide (the method employed at the death camps
of Operation Reinhard
) took at least 20 minutes and possibly up to 30–40 minutes. The other large gas chamber at Majdanek was fed with carbon dioxide from gas bottles (as had been the case at the T-4 “euthanasia”
centres). You can see two such steel gas bottles in the little chamber from where the SS men operated the gas chambers and watched through a peephole. Also on display in an adjacent storeroom are hundreds of Zyklon-B canisters stacked high to the ceiling! A particularly eerie sight to behold!
Next door at Barrack No. 42 was the women’s bathhouse, and next to that Barrack No. 43
, a former storehouse for prisoners’ belongings, currently houses an exhibition called “Majdanek. Past and present”, while in the neighbouring Barrack No. 44
, also formerly a storehouse for stolen possessions of prisoners, there is now a ten-panel exhibition about Lublin
A panel north of the workshop part of the camp points out the location of the mass graves and later cremation pyres from which the ashes in the mausoleum at the other end of the memorial site were collected.
The whole area between Field 1 and the main monument (this is where the camp’s main gate used to be) would have been the SS quarters. Today only a couple of barracks of this part remain (No. 38 and No. 39), but they are not open to the public or commodified for visitors.
A diagonal path leading back to the main monument and visitor centre passes a white stone building, called, yes indeed, “the white house”. This is a pre-war structure that was requisitioned by the Nazis and initially the camp’s physician lived there, later the infamous prison camp supervisor (“Schutzhaftlagerführer”) Anton Thumann, whose sadistic tendencies and brutality earned him the nickname “Henker von Majdanek” (‘hangman/executioner of Majdanek’). The inside of the “white house” is not accessible to visitors.
Back at the visitor centre there is a row of open-air text-and-photo panels that is about the conception and design of the memorial site and also has a number of plans of the entire complex as it once was – namely much larger by area than what today’s memorial site covers.
All in all
, I found this one of the most impressive concentration camp
memorial sites (and I’ve been to all of the ca. twenty major camps). In terms of atmosphere and place authenticity few can compete, which is mainly thanks to the preserved original structures. In terms of information provided for visitors this site had long lagged behind, however this has been rectified by the addition of more exhibition elements and outdoor info panels. Majdanek receives a fraction (ca. 5–7%) of the visitor numbers at Auschwitz
, which seems a bit unfair given Majdanek’s historical significance and rich structural authenticity. But on the other hand this has the advantage that at Majdanek there isn’t the issue of overcrowding that Auschwitz has to cope with. So on balance I would even say that perhaps Majdanek is the better of the two sites from a dark-tourism perspective. Very highly recommended!
in the south-east of Poland
, in a southern suburb of the city of Lublin
, ca. two to three miles (3-4 km) from the city centre south of the road called Droga Męczenników Majdanka. Lublin is the administrative capital of the province of the same name and is about 100 miles (160 km) south-east of Warsaw
and about 60 miles (100 km) west of the borders with Ukraine
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit remote, but not too difficult to get to; general admission free, extra services and parking fees fairly inexpensive.
: In order to get to Majdanek from the centre of Lublin
you'll need to get a taxi or use local buses – since the name of the site is also the name of the suburb it is located in, this even shows on the front of those buses going there. This includes bus No. 23 or trolleybus 156 that depart from outside the Krakow Gate of the Old Town or trolleybus 158 from Saski Park (stop on ul. Lipowa) or from the main train station take trolleybus 161. If you have a car drive to the big roundabout south of the Old Town on the 835 bypass road and take the exit to the road Fabryczna heading south-east. This becomes Droga Męczenników Majdanka. Majdanek is well signposted and you really can't miss where you have to go: just look out for the gigantic monument which is near the site's entrance. There’s a car park right by the visitor centre and two more can be found at the end of Field 1 as well as by the domed mound-of-ashes mausoleum monument. A fee of 5 PLN is levied for regular passenger cars, 15 PLN for vans and only 2 PLN for motorcycles. The use of bicycles is encouraged and you can use local bike rental services.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. between April and October; the visitor centre and exhibitions close an hour earlier at 5 p.m. and remain closed all day on Mondays as well as on a number of public holidays; and the whole site is closed between 25 December and 1 January; otherwise in winter closing time is at 4 p.m.
Guided tours of the site are available but have to be pre-booked in advance (at least a week ahead). Tours in English cost 200 PLN for up to 10 participants and 300 PLN for up to 20; tours are also available in Spanish and Polish (the latter at half the price); tours last ca. two and a half hours. Minimum age for participation is 14 years.
When I first visited Majdanek with my wife in 2008 we also paid a fee to see the film about the liberation of the camp shown in the cinema at the visitor centre; as we were the only visitors we had to pay 15 PLN (otherwise, if enough people are there, a single ticket would have been only 3 PLN). When I revisited in August 2021 I did not have time for rewatching the film, but I saw the cinema was still in place. But now I can’t find any mention of it on the official website (majdanek.eu), so I can’t tell if the film screenings are still available, and if so what the current fee is or what the schedule may be. Maybe the film is no longer shown to regular visitors at all any more, or maybe it has been integrated into the main multimedia exhibition in Barrack No. 62. I simply don’t know.
Time required: Guided tours last ca. two and a half hours. On the Majdanek website it says a “self-directed” visit takes approximately one and a half hours. I find that a serious underestimation. Just for covering all the distances on foot you need about an hour, and the various exhibitions and visiting the historical buildings is hardly possible in just half an hour. I would say three hours is the absolute minimum to see everything, ideally longer. In fact when I first visited the site thoroughly in 2008, I spread my visit over two days so that I could take it slowly and not be overwhelmed. There is a lot to take in and the site’s area is vast!
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under Lublin
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
See under Lublin
- Majdanek 00
- Majdanek 01 - main monument
- Majdanek 02 - fence and watchtowers
- Majdanek 03 - barbed wire
- Majdanek 04 - ash mound memorial
- Majdanek 05 - crematorium building
- Majdanek 06 - crematorium ovens
- Majdanek 07 - dissection table
- Majdanek 08 - rows of barracks
- Majdanek 09 - monument between barracks
- Majdanek 10 - watchtower and barracks
- Majdanek 11 - fence between main camp and works barracks
- Majdanek 12 - winter cold
- Majdanek 13 - bunk beds
- Majdanek 14 - shoes
- Majdanek 15 - walls of shoes
- Majdanek 16 - shower and disinfection barrack
- Majdanek 17 - communal shower
- Majdanek 18 - the shower heads were not used for gas
- Majdanek 19 - gas chamber peek hole
- Majdanek 20 - one of the gas chambers
- Majdanek 21 - the other gas chamber
- Majdanek 22 - the same gas chamber in 2008
- Majdanek 23 - colouration from Zyklon-B
- Majdanek 24 - stacks of Zyklon-B gas canisters
- Majdanek 25 - outside of the shower barrack and the stone building with the gas chambers
- Majdanek 26 - new multimedia exhibition
- Majdanek 27 - exhibition in another barrack
- Majdanek 28 - house where Anton Thuman lived
- Majdanek 29 - visitor centre
- Majdanek 30 - screen inside the visitor centre
- Majdanek 31 - main monument out of bounds in 2021
- Majdanek 32 - bell on the edge of the camp