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Soviet soldiers found the

FIRST PROOF

of Germany’s murder machine.
Nobody believed them
By David Shneer

S

oviet 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.
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
German POWs display cans of Zyklon B for their Soviet
of mass hangings in town squares and the burning of entire villages.
captors. This photograph by Boris Tseitlin was one of
the first to document the pesticide’s use in genocide.
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
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RIA NOVOSTI; OPPOSITE: CENTRAL STATE ARCHIVE FOR PHOTOS & FILMS, KIEV

WORLD WAR II II

Soviet officials examine a warehouse overflowing with shoes taken from prisoners killed at Majdanek and other extermination
sites in eastern Poland. At least 80,000 people died at the camp; 480 others, mostly POWs, were liberated by the Red Army.

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
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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
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WORLD WAR II

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.
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

A news poster informs citizens in Kerch on a mass grave found outside their city, where Germans left "7,000 murdered, and…didn't
spare old people, women, or children." The headlines call on the people to "Get Revenge" and for "Death to the German Occupiers."

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
COURTESY OF EVGENII KHALDEI/FOTOSOYUZ AGENCY

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
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Majdanek’s administrators fled without
destroying the last traces of past massacres.
Photos of camp ovens, like this one by
Mikhail Trakhman, supplanted previous
icons of German brutality.

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

Lublin residents pay their respects to the dead. Majdanek was the only suburban extermination facility, yet even eyewitnesses to
its gruesome operations could not convince the United States and Great Britain of Germany’s industrialized system for murder.

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
RIA NOVOSTI/ALAMY (ALL)

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.” ✯
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