The Horrendous Fate of Lublin Under German Control during World War Two

Peter Curry

4 mins

26 Oct 2018

The Nazis occupied Lublin as part of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. It held special significance in the anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, as in the early 1930s, a Nazi propagandist had described Lublin as “a bottomless well from which Jews flow to all corners of the globe, the source of the rebirth of world Jewry.”

Reports suggested that Lublin was “swampy in nature” and would thus serve well as a Jewish reservation, as this “action would cause [their] considerable decimation.”

Lublin’s population before the war was around 122,000, of which about a third were Jewish. Lublin was known as a Jewish cultural and religious centre in Poland.

In 1930, the Yeshiva Chachmel had been established, which became a well-renowned rabbinical high school.

Only around 1,000 of the 42,000 Jews officially stated that they spoke Polish fluently, although many of the younger generation could also speak the language.

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The invasion of Lublin

On the 18 September 1939, German troops entered the city after brief fighting in the suburbs.

One survivor described the events:

“Now, all I saw was these mad Germans running around the city, and running into homes, and just grabbing everything they could. So, into our home this group of Germans came in, tore the ring and and the, uh, watch and everything they could off my mother’s hands, grabbed all the things that we had, took whatever they want to, broke china, beat us up, and ran out.”

A month later, on the 14 October 1939, the Jewish community in Lublin received an order to pay 300,000 zloty to the German army. Jews were forcibly recruited on the streets into clearing up bomb damage. They were humiliated, beaten and tortured.

A ghetto was ultimately created which housed approximately 26,000 Jews before they were transported to the Belzec and Majdanek extermination camps.

German soldiers began to burn the books from the large Talmudic Academy in Lublin. One soldier described it as such:

“We threw the huge Talmudic library out of the building and carried the books to the market place where we set fire to them. The fire lasted twenty hours. The Lublin Jews assembled around and wept bitterly, almost silencing us with their cries. We summoned the military band, and with joyful shouts the soldiers drowned out the sounds of the Jewish cries.”

The Final Solution

Lublin came to serve as a terrible model for the changing Nazi plans towards those they deemed of impure stock. At the beginning of the war, Nazi High Command developed a “territorial solution to the Jewish Question”.

Adolf Hitler had originally proposed the forcible expulsion and resettlement of Jews to a strip of land near Lublin. Despite the deportation of 95,000 Jews to the region, the plan was eventually shelved. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942, German High Command resolved to move from a “territorial solution” to a “final solution” to the “Jewish Question”.

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Concentration camps were established across Poland, normally in remote areas. However, Majdanek, the German concentration camp closest to Lublin, was practically on the outskirts of the city.

It was initially designed for forced labour as opposed to extermination, but the camp was ultimately used as an integral part of Operation Reinhard, the German plan to murder all Jews within Poland.

Majdanek was repurposed due to the large “unprocessed” Jewish populations from Warsaw and Krakow, among others.

The gassing of prisoners was performed almost in public. Barely anything separated the buildings where Zyklon B was used to gas Jewish people and prisoners of war from the other prisoners working in the camp.

Reconnaissance photograph of the Majdanek concentration camp from June 24, 1944. Lower half: the barracks under deconstruction ahead of the Soviet offensive, with visible chimney stacks still standing and planks of wood piled up along the supply road; in the upper half, functioning barracks. Credit: Majdanek Museum / Commons.

Prisoners were also killed by firing squads, normally composed of Trawnikis, who were local collaborators aiding the Germans.

At Majdanek, the Germans also used female concentration camp guards and commanders, who had trained at Ravensbrück.

Prisoners were able to communicate with the outside world as they smuggled letters out to Lublin, via civilian workers who entered the camp.

The liberation of Majdanek

Due to its relative proximity to the frontline compared to many other concentration camps, and the rapid advance of the Red Army during Operation Bagration, Majdanek was the first concentration camp to be captured by Allied forces.

Most of the Jewish prisoners were murdered by German troops before they relinquished control of the city on 24 July 1944.

Red Army soldiers examining the ovens at Majdanek, following the camp’s liberation, 1944. Credit: Deutsche Fotothek‎ / Commons.

The camp remained almost completely intact as the camp commander Anton Themes did not succeed in removing incriminating evidence of war crimes. It remains the best-preserved concentration camp used in the Holocaust.

Although estimating the total number killed in any concentration camp remains difficult, the current official estimate for the death toll at Majdanek suggests that there were 78,000 victims, of whom 59,000 were Jewish.

There is some controversy about these figures, and estimates range as high as 235,000 victims at Majdanek.

It is estimated that only 230 Lublin Jews survived the Holocaust.

Today, there are 20 individuals linked to the Jewish community in Lublin, and all of them are over the age of 55. There may be up to 40 more Jews living in the city not linked to the community.

Header Image Credit: Alians PL / Commons.