'It looked singularly harmless from the outside.'
The Liberation of Majdanek Extermination camp 75 years ago.



 Jens Wehner, historian at the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History in Dresden

Military Background
In the mid-1944, the Wehrmacht was facing a very unfavourable situation at the Eastern front. Soviet offensive "Bagration" had breached enormous gaps in the German front line, allowing Soviet Units to advance to the Baltic Region and to Poland wothout encountering effective resistance. On 18 July 1944, Soviet artillery opened fire on Wehrmacht troops at the Vistula River. 170,000 grenades tore to pieces the sparsely manned German front line. The Soviet soldiers quickliy crossed the Vistula River and advanced towards the Polish city of Lublin. After they had conquered the city on 22 July, they came upon a gigantic camp the next day - the 270-hectare Majdanek concentration camp. Besides Auschwitz, Majdanek was thus one of the largest concentration camps the Nazi regime.



Soviet soldiers reconnoitring Majdanek © MHM / Samsonow


The Extent of the Crome
Soon, journalists appeared in order to Report on the camp. One of them was the American Alexander Werth, whose Initial Statement upon seeing Majdanek was: 'It looked singularly harmless from the outside.' But inside, Werth became Aware of the Horror. He inspected the gas chambers and thus understood the gassing process. Soviet war correspondent Konstantin Simonov also reported on the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide and hydrocyanic acid had been used as poison gases.
The Depots also contained many belongings of the murdered Jewish captives. During his Research, Werth was left particulary shaken by the indifference with which the Germans had proceeded in order to profit from the possessions of the victims. A German woman from Lublin had ordered baby clothes and Equipment, and the Hitler Youth had ordered 4,000 shoes and  clothing. Even the ashes of the victims were apparently sold as fertiliser and scattered on the camp's cabbage field.

Besides imprisoned Jews, the SS also murdered many captured Red Army soldiers. In July 1944, hundreds were found shot in a ditch. This created hatred among the Soviet soldiers against the Germans, and the wish for revenge. An example of this is the story of Soviet General Chuikov. General Chuikov was surprised when a veteran Stalingrad fighter, whose Family had been abducted and murdered by the Germans, presented an SS officer to him alive.

In total, some 80,000 people were murdered in Majdanek. In Addition, many possessions from victims of "Aktion Reinhardt" were stored here. In the scope of this Operation, the SS had murdered at least 1.7 million Jews in the Treblinka und Sobibór concentration camps between 1942 und 1943.



Depot with shoes from victims of Majdanek concentration camp © MHM / Samsonow


Reporting
Several Soviet war correspondents published reports on Majdanek. One of them was war photographer Samsonov, whose Pictures are stored at the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History. They Show the condition of the camp shortly after the Liberation. Things were more difficult for American journalist Alexander Werth. The BBC and other media doubted his reports and initially dismissed them as Stalinist atrocity propaganda. Only as the western Allies liberated more and more concentration camps, did his reports from Eastern Europe gain credibility.
The Liberation of Majdanek as part of the Soviet summer offensive was an important Milestone in the awareness of the Holocaust. Samsonov's Pictures are displayed in the permanent Exhibition in the "World War II" area and in the special Exhibition "Der Führer Adolf Hitler ist tot" (The Führer Adolf Hitler is dead) until 3 December 2019.