Gas Chambers at Majdanek
Upon entering Barrack No. 41, which is the gas chamber building, you first come to the bare, unfurnished undressing room which has narrow wooden boards over the concrete floor. Then you enter the shower room, a large room with rows of exposed water pipes and sprinkler-type shower heads on the ceiling; this room also has a wooden floor over concrete. At one end of the shower room, there are two large concrete bathtubs. The tour guide explained that the prisoners were not allowed to loll in the bathtub, but had to get in and out in a few seconds. The bathtubs were probably filled with disinfectant, as was the case at other camps such as Buchenwald. This shower room was also used by incoming prisoners who were selected to work at Majdanek, which was a labor camp as well as an extermination camp for the Jews.
An air-raid-shelter door, shown in the photo above, opens into the first gas chamber, a large room with an alcove, which resembles a three-sided room within a room. In the alcove, there are heavy blue stains, called Prussian Blue, left on the walls and ceiling by the Zyklon-B poison gas that was used there to kill thousands of Jews. The alcove is shown in the photo below and also in the photo at the top of this page.
There are two doors into this first gas chamber room. When I toured the gas chambers, neither door had a lock on it and no marks where a lock might have been removed. Each of the doors had a glass peephole which is protected by tiny metal bars to prevent anyone on the outside of the room from breaking the glass. On my visit, I observed that the glass in one of the peepholes had been broken, probably from the inside, and had not yet been replaced.
The main part of the first gas chamber room has a plate glass window, which lets in natural light, but it is too high up on the wall to be useful for observing the people inside. This window has no bars on either the inside or the outside. There were blue Zyklon-B stains on the window frame and the stucco around the window. The gas chamber next to the shower is the largest of the three rooms and it has the heaviest blue stains, caused by repeated use of Zyklon-B.
There are two holes in the ceiling through which the Zyklon-B pellets could be dropped into the room and openings in the wall through which hot air was blown in, according to the guidebook. This room also has a wooden floor over concrete; the walls are covered with stucco.
The door into the three gas chambers in Barrack Number 41 is located in the shower room. When I visited in 1998, a sign in the shower room said that the prisoners were given a shower before gassing to "quite (sic) them down." The tour guide explained that the victims were given a hot shower so they would die more quickly in the gas chamber because the Nazis found that the heat of the bodies caused the gas to work faster. Zyklon-B comes in crystal form, like tiny ice-blue rocks, and the pellets must be heated before they release the poison gas which kills lice or people.
The Majdanek gas chamber building has a heating unit outside the chambers which blew hot air into the chamber to activate the poison gas, so a hot shower, before the victims entered the gas chamber, was not really necessary.
At Majdanek, there are a total of four gas chambers, according to the Museum guidebook which says that the gas chamber right next to the shower room was "a makeshift chamber which presumably had begun functioning before the other three were opened." The fourth gas chamber, which is disguised as a shower room, is in the reconstructed crematorium.
The photograph below shows unopened cans of Zyklon-B and a gas mask which were found in the Majdanek camp when it was liberated by the Soviet Union.
In the second gas chamber in this same building, there is a small interior room which has a small barred window, about 6 by 10 inches, on one of the walls. This window had no glass and no window frame when I saw it. Through this window, the killing process could be observed by an SS guard standing in the small interior observation room, according to my tour guide. Inside the interior room were cans of carbon monoxide, which was also used in this chamber, according to the guidebook. The entrance to the small observation room is inside the gas chamber and there was no door. The tour proceeded very quickly through the gas chambers, as the tour guide wanted to get out of these creepy rooms as quickly as possible.
There are a total of three gas chamber rooms, not including the small interior room used for observation, in this building. Some observers have referred to the first room with the alcove as two separate chambers. All the rooms are connected, with each room opening into the next one. The last gas chamber room in this building is smaller than the others and has no heavy blue stains.
After gassing in Barrack Number 41, the bodies of the victims were hauled up the slope, along the main camp road, to the crematorium in wagons drawn by a tractor, according to survivor testimony. The Museum guidebook says that the engines were revved up while the victims were still in the chamber: "To drown the cries of the dying, tractor engines were run near the gas chambers."
Here is a description of the gas chambers in "Bath and Disinfection" Building Number One (barrack #41) at Majdanek, quoted from a guidebook which I purchased at the Visitor's Center:
"The gas chambers were built of ceramic brick, covered with a ferro-concrete roof, and provided with a cement floor. The installation comprised three chambers: a large one (10 m x 5.5 m x 2 m) and two smaller ones (4.80 m x 3.60 x 2 m) as well as a cabin for the SS man who pumped doses of gas from steel cylinders into the chambers and watched through a small grated window (25 x 15 cm), the behavior of the victims. Two chambers, the large one and the southern smaller one, were equipped with devices for the use of carbon monoxide (CO). In the smaller one, there was a metal pipe, 40 mm in diameter, running along the walls above the floor. The gas got into the chamber through holes in the pipe. Cyclone B was poured into a special opening in the concrete roof."
"The large chamber also had a metal pipe, 25 mm in diameter, fastened to one of the walls above the floor. As in the smaller chamber, the carbon monoxide from a steel cylinder got in through this pipe. In addition, there were two openings in the western wall, through which hot air (120 degrees C) was blown in by a ventilator from a stove placed on the outside of the chamber, which alone killed the victims and, at the same time, intensified the action of Cyclone B, since the lethal effect of the gas increased at a temperature of over 27 degrees C. The other small chamber, on the southern side, had only an opening in the roof to pour in Cyclone B. The massive metal doors to the chambers were air-tight, fastened by two bolts and iron bars."
The gas chambers are located within sight of the main road that goes past the camp. The gas chamber building is barrack Number 41 which is shown in the photo above. A sign on the building says "Bad und Desinfektion" (Bath and Disinfection), which the Museum guidebook says was "to lull the vigilance of those condemned to death." There are actually two buildings near the entrance to the camp where Zyklon-B was used. Only the building used for gassing people with Zyklon-B was shown on the tour; the other one is barrack Number 42 which was used for delousing clothing with the same Zyklon-B when the camp was in operation. Barrack Number 42 is off limits to visitors.
Behind the gas chamber building, where you see the row of poplar trees in the photo above, is the street which was part of a main road. The small black building to the right is a guard tower. The large gravel-covered square in front of the building was called the "rose field" or Rosenfeld in German. This was a Nazi joke. There were no roses there, but it was the place where the Jews were assembled on arrival at the camp, and Rosenfeld referred to the "persons selected," according to the guide book. Selection meant choosing which prisoners were fit for work and which would go to the gas chamber. Rosenfeld is a common Jewish name.
The concentration camp at Majdanek seems to have been laid out by the Nazis with an eye toward its future use as a museum for tourists. The gas chambers are the first exhibit you see after exiting the documentary movie at the Visitor's Center. If I had not had a guide with me, I could easily have missed the gas chamber building. Unlike the impressive brick buildings which once housed the gas chambers at Auschwitz II, usually known as Birkenau, this building is a very ordinary wooden, prefabricated horse barn set at right angles to, and only a few feet from, a row of wooden storage buildings outside the main barracks area of the camp. These former clothing storage buildings, which are identical to the barracks buildings, are where the Museum exhibits are now located.
The clothing taken from the Jews was stored and deloused at Majdanek before shipment to Germany for distribution to bombed-out German civilians. Clothing taken from the Jews was also brought to Majdanek from the three Operation Reinhard camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka; there was, in addition, a Clothing Works in the city of Lublin where additional barracks were set up for the Jewish women who processed the clothing.
There is no wall, nor even a barbed wire fence, separating the gas chambers from the clothing warehouse buildings, so there were many Jewish women working in the warehouses who were eye-witnesses to everything that was going on. Besides that, the gas chamber building is only a stone's throw from the barbed wire fence which surrounds the area where once stood the first set of prisoners' barracks, called Field I, the compound which housed Russian POWs, including three Russian generals. From September 1943 to the evacuation of the camp in April 1944, Field I was the barracks for the Jewish women who worked in the nearby clothing warehouses.
According to a guidebook purchased at the Visitor's Center, construction of the gas chambers at Majdanek started in August 1942 and was completed in October 1942. (The first gassing of humans by the Nazis was conducted in September 1941 at the Auschwitz I camp, where the first victims were Russian Prisoners of War.) By October 1942, the Germans had conquered most of Europe and the Eastern front extended well into the Soviet Union; they were in the midst of their plan to get rid of all the Jews in Europe. Using the pretense of "transportation to the East," the Nazis maintained strict secrecy about their "Final Solution," even on the blueprints for the Majdanek gas chamber building, by naming the gas chambers "Entlausungsanlage," which means "delousing station" in English. The Nazis used Zyklon-B, an insecticide, for gassing the Jews, the same poison they used in the disinfection building, right next to the gas chamber, to kill body lice on the prisoner clothing in an effort to stop typhus epidemics.
This page was last updated on October 8, 2009