The NKVD reactivated this field before the Red Army arrived in Auschwitz

Majdanek: the German concentration camp reused by the USSR against anti-Nazi Poles

This week many media have talked about the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Red Army in Auschwitz. However, there is another much less known German concentration camp.

Polish Catholics: the great forgotten when talking about the victims of the Holocaust
Uroczysko Baran: the forgotten Soviet massacre of many Poles who fought against the nazism

The pact between Germans and Soviets to divide Poland

As you know, on August 23, 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR signed the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which included secret clauses (which were not discovered until 1945) for which both powers divided Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. On September 1 of that year Germany invaded Poland, and on September 17 the USSR joined the invasion, occupying the eastern fringe of the country as previously agreed with Germany. In the following months, until the start of the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, Germans and Soviets actively collaborated, including exchanging prisoners and holding joint meetings between the Gestapo and its communist counterpart, the NKVD.

An image of the joint parade organized by Germans and Soviets in Brześć Litewski, Poland (today Brest-Litovsk, in Belarus) after the joint invasion of the country as agreed in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.

The creation of the Majdanek concentration camp by order of Himmler

After the German invasion of the USSR, the head of the German SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered the construction of a concentration camp near the city of Lublin, in occupied Poland. Officially named Konzentrationslager Lublin, the field was built next to the suburb of Majdan Tatarski, so the locals nicknamed it Majdanek (the little Majdan). Built by Jewish and Soviet prisoners in conditions of slavery, in March 1942 this concentration camp became an extermination camp, beginning to kill prisoners by means of Zyklon B gas in application of the “Final Solution” policy approved by the Third Reich against the Jews. 150,000 men, women and children were sent to that camp, mostly Jews and non-Jewish Poles (remember that Majdanek was one of the destinations of 116,000 Zamość Poles deported by the Germans), followed by smaller groups of prisoners of other nationalities. In the spring of 1943 the Germans began sending Majdanek to a part of the Jews from the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos. According to the Majdanek State Museum, 80,000 people were killed there, 60,000 of them Jews.

An aerial reconnaissance photo of the Majdanek concentration camp taken on June 24, 1944 (Photo: Majdanek Museum / Wikimedia).

Stalin’s plans for post-war Poland

Majdanek has gone down in history not only for the crimes that the Germans committed there, but also because it was the first extermination camp discovered by the Allies. The Red Army arrived on the compound on July 22, 1944. That same year Majdanek also became the first stage of a commission to clarify crimes against humanity committed by the Germans in the death camps. However, in the summer of 1944 it would be the scene of a dishonorable and little known event outside Poland. At that time, Stalin was already thinking about the postwar period and his plans clashed with the existence of a great Polish resistance that for the most part was not communist. The Polish resistance began to form on September 27, 1939, in full German-Soviet invasion, with the creation of Służba Zwycięstwu Polski (Victory Service of Poland). In the following years, an authentic Polish underground State was formed, loyal to the Government of Poland in exile, based in London and whose purpose was to end the war with the Poland’s recovery as a free and democratic nation.

Soldiers of the Red Army next to the crematoriums of the German Majdanek camp after the arrival of the Soviets to the compound.

The Polish non-communist resistance: the AK, the BCh and the NSZ

The largest resistance organization against the Germans of World War II was created in Poland: the Armia Krajowa (AK, Home Army), formed on February 14, 1942 from the merger of other clandestine organizations. The AK had about 400,000 members, most of them Polish Catholics. Loyal to the Polish Government in exile, it directed its efforts to fight the Germans, even agreeing to collaborate with the Soviets – for example, in the liberation of Vilnius – despite the bad relations they had with them. In addition to the AK, the Bataliony Chłopskie (BCh, Peasant Battalions), similar to the Polish agrarian right, had about 160,000 members. Partially integrated into the AK, the BCh were also loyal to the Polish Government in exile and focused their work on fighting the Germans. Likewise, the Narodowe Siły Zbrojne (NSZ, National Armed Forces), related to the nationalist right, had about 70,000 members, many of whom refused to follow the orders of the Polish Government in exile, fighting equally against Germans and Soviets .

The Polish communist resistance: from the Czerwoną Milicję to Armia Ludowa

As in other countries occupied by the Germans, the Polish communist resistance did not form until the German invasion of the USSR. In 1941 the meager Czerwoną Milicję (Red Militia) was formed, barely active outside of Warsaw, and in March 1942 the Gwardia Ludowa (People’s Guard) was created, which in 1944 gave rise to the Armia Ludowa (People’s Army). Both organizations were loyal to Moscow and their troops were always far inferior to those of the other resistance groups (reaching about 40,000 members at their best), partly because the vast majority of Poles did not sympathize with communism – remember that the Bolsheviks had invaded Poland in 1920, being defeated in the Battle of Warsaw-, and partly also because of Stalin: remember the purge of 1937 and 1938 against the Polish minority in the USSR ended with the murder of between 50,000 and 60,000 people, many of them communists. So Stalin had a problem: he wanted to establish a communist dictatorship in post-war Poland, but Polish non-communist resistance was much stronger than those faithful to Moscow.

Soldiers of the 27th Infantry Division of the Armia Krajowa (AK) in the forests of Volinia, in 1944. Members of this Polish resistance unit were among the prisoners of the NKVD camp in Majdanek.

Stalin ordered to liquidate the non-communist resistance without waiting for the German defeat

Stalin’s decision to solve that problem was to issue an order on July 13, 1944 to liquidate the Polish resistance that did not follow Moscow’s orders, and he did so without even waiting for the Germans to have been expelled from Poland. As I mentioned here, in July 1944, after their decisive contribution to the liberation of the city of Vilnius, thousands of AK fighters were persecuted and detained by the Soviet NKVD. Similar events occurred in Lviv and Lublin by those dates. It was a flagrant betrayal by the Soviets to Polish resistance, a betrayal that British Information Minister Brendan Bracken ordered to hide. Recall that on August 1, 1944 the AK began the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans. Many AK fighters who could have contributed to that operation had previously been arrested by the Soviets.

Majdanek’s reactivation by the Soviets to imprison the Polish resistance

On July 23, the Soviets took Lublin and turned the city into the new capital of communist Poland, with the creation of the so-called Polish National Liberation Committee, a puppet government of Moscow. Repression soon began: in Poland’s Holocaust (2007), Tadeusz Piotrowski points out that between July 1944 and June 1945, more than 50,000 Poles were arrested in the Lublin area alone. In mid-August 1944, the former German concentration camp at Majdanek was partially reactivated by the NKVD, previously evicted from former prisoners who had survived the captivity imposed by the Germans. The NKVD used the camp to recruit members of the Polish resistance, mainly members of the AK and the BCh, but also members of the NSZ and the Wolność and Niezawisłość (WiN, anti-communist resistance organization formed by former members of the AK). Paradoxically, the place chosen by the Soviets was the so-called Field III, which had previously housed Polish deportees from the Zamość region. Today it is known that thousands of members of the Polish resistance were executed by the Soviets, and tens of thousands were deported to Siberia, treated as enemies, spies and traitors, despite having been fighting for years against the Germans.

Soldiers of the Armia Krajowa with Soviet soldiers in Vilnius, after the capture of the city, before the Red Army began the persecution against the Polish resistance (Photo: Archivo Nacional Polaco / Wikimedia)

At present, the actual number of Polish resistance prisoners who passed through Majdanek Field III controlled by the NKVD, which was used as a transit camp for Polish prisoners who were later deported to other camps in Russia, is still unknown.refused to join the Red Army as a treason to their Homeland. On August 23, 1944, a group of 250 Polish prisoners from Dyagilevo also arrived in Majdanek, who were later sent to gulags in Diagilew, Susłongierz, Griazowiec, Czerepowiec and Skopin.

A direct testimony of the subhuman conditions of the NKVD camp

The NKVD continued to use the camp until 1945: while the Red Army entered Auschwitz, the Soviets already held Poles imprisoned in Majdanek in subhuman conditions, as evidenced by a document found in Field III quotd by the Majdanek State Museum, which contains a list with names of 84 officers and 52 noncommissioned officers of the Polish resistance who were there, along with a brief note that says: “We are treated as prisoners of war. The food is terrible – many men suffer from stomach problems. We are denied contacts with our families. No food or clothing parcels from the outside are allowed. The most pressing problem – vaccination against dysentery and typhus. Food is served in primitive conditions, no spoons, bowls, etc. Men are looking for some dishes in the garbage. We have not been informed about the reason of our internment or what is to become of us.”

These men were heroes who had fought courageously against the Nazis, to finally be treated as traitors, bandits and enemies by the Soviets. I dedicate this post to all the victims of the Majdanek camp, including those Polish patriots who are now practically ignored beyond their Nation.

Cześć i chwała bohaterom!
Honor and glory to the heroes!

Flower crowns with the Polish flag and candles in memory of the victims of the Majdanek concentration camp (Photo: Państwowe Muzeum na Majdanku)

Bibliography:

Main photo: Adam Jones, Ph.D. / Wikimedia.

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  1. Richard Varga

    Thank you for this concise overview of a complex and too little mentioned piece of central Europen history, almost unknown beyond Central Europe it affects more than just the history of Polish resistance to both fascism & communism, ie Baltic states, Ukraine.

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