485 Days At Majdanek

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Editor’s note: This is adapted from the Introduction to 485 Days at Majdanek, by Jerzy Kwiatkowski, newly published by the Hoover Institution Press and available for the first time in English. In his memoir, Kwiatkowski tells the harrowing tale of the sixteen months he spent at a concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin in German-occupied Poland. Click here to buy a copy.

Jerzy Kwiatkowski, born in Vienna on June 8, 1894, was the oldest of three sons of a respected Polish surgeon who settled with his family in Czernowitz, the capital of the Austrian crown land of Bukovina. He studied law and served in Polish units under Habsburg aegis in World War I. The family moved to Warsaw after the creation of newly independent Poland, where Kwiatkowski became a successful entrepreneur and factory manager. After 1939, which saw the German invasion and dismemberment of Poland, Kwiatkowski was working as the director and part owner of a factory producing ammunition-making machines, airplane parts, and machine tools. A cell of the Polish Home Army, the largest underground resistance organization in Nazi-occupied Europe, was formed in the factory, supplying the Polish resistance with funding and weapons. As a consequence of his conspiratorial activity, Kwiatkowski was arrested by the Germans on February 18, 1943.

Eventually he was transferred with a number of other Polish political prisoners to the Konzentrationslager (KL) Lublin, known as Majdanek (My-dan-ek), on March 25, 1943, and became prisoner number 8830. A wily survivor of the trials of camp life, Kwiatkowski was a member of the last transfer from Majdanek on July 22, 1944, after which he was moved to Auschwitz and then Sachsenhausen, before being liberated by American troops in Mecklenburg during an evacuation march on May 3, 1945.

Kwiatkowski began recording the diary almost immediately after the war, writing in a cold, dark room in the Polish occupation strip along the Dutch border in the British occupation zone. He had committed to memory the details of camp life; his idea was to get the facts and the “feeling” of the camp down on paper, so that the diary could be used to bring the offenders to justice. He had witnessed hellish scenes of brutality and indifference to suffering, and he was imbued with a deep sense of responsibility to the victims and loyalty to the friends he had lost.

By June of 1945 he had already sent a list of names of the worst camp functionaries and their activities at Majdanek and Sachsenhausen to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London (the archives of the ministry were deposited at the Hoover Library & Archives after the war, thanks in part to the famed underground courier and witness to the Holocaust Jan Karski, whose papers are also held at Hoover). He used a borrowed typewriter, typing on the back of blank forms that he found in the German paper company where he wrote. The cost of his dedication to the task was frostbitten fingers that he had to rehabilitate with quartz lamp therapy for several months afterwards. He finished the draft of the diary by Christmas 1945, before immigrating to the United States in 1949.

Twenty-one years would pass before the memoir finally saw publication. Kwiatkowski’s attempts to generate interest in his work came to naught, explanations ranging from market realities for Polish memoirs to outright rejections claiming that the book was not worth publishing. Finally, in 1961, thanks to a meeting with a fellow former prisoner, Kwiatkowski learned of the publication program of the State Museum at Majdanek. After sending his manuscript there, he received a reply that expressed interest in publishing the memoir. Kwiatkowski’s enthusiasm for the venture was tempered by a long, invasive editorial process governed by the ideological dictates of Poland’s communist censors. The book was finally published in December 1966. Widely praised after its release as a powerful and comprehensive testament to the horrors of the camp, the book was a success in Poland and among the Polish diaspora. It was republished in 1988.

In the early 1970s, Kwiatkowski corresponded with Witold Sworakowski, by then the retired curator for Polish and Eastern European Collections and associate director of the Hoover Institution. Sworakowski, who had also grown up in Bukovina and probably knew Kwiatkowski’s family, persuaded him to send his archive to Stanford, and by 1976, ten large boxes of Kwiatkowski’s papers, including his original 1945 manuscript, had been secured in the Hoover Library & Archives. Kwiatkowski died in 1980.

In 2018, Maciej Siekierski (now curator emeritus of the European Collections) was contacted about the collection by Dorota Niedziałkowska, curator of the Exhibition Department of the State Museum at Majdanek. The museum was interested in publishing an updated and uncensored Polish edition of Kwiatkowski’s memoir and collaborating with Hoover on an English translation. After extensive research into the Kwiatkowski papers by the staff of the museum, along with scans of numerous photographs and documents provided by Hoover, a new Polish edition was released later that year. And this year, the Hoover Institution Press released 485 Days at Majdanek, which can be considered the definitive English-language version of Kwiatkowski’s memoir, finally free of communist-era censorship and heavy-handed editing.

Anguished Memories

In keeping with a long tradition of making priceless historical documentation available to the public, the Hoover Institution has published a fundamental source on the genocidal machine that devastated Europe during World War II. The English edition will reach a far broader audience than Kwiatkowski could ever have imagined and will serve as his tribute to his fellow prisoners who never left Majdanek.

A guiding principle of the translation was to stay true to Kwiatkowski’s raw and honest recollections, written while the memory of his ordeal was still fresh. The diary provides extraordinary insights into the functioning of the camp. Like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek was the rare concentration camp that was also a death camp. Forced labor from the camp was to man the shops and factories of an SS empire that would be centered in Lublin. This empire never materialized as SS chief Heinrich Himmler had fantasized, but some of its building blocks, including Majdanek, were put in place. The Germans established an elaborate hierarchy of power and order in the camp, which relied on violence from the camp commander down to the barracks elders for its functioning. Kwiatkowski describes in searing detail the brutality and the wolfish exploitation by various levels of camp authorities of those below them. The incessant beating of prisoners by guards and inmate warders was only the most obvious manifestation of the violence. Prisoner-against-prisoner violence was also ubiquitous.

Majdanek was also the site of the elimination of Jews, Soviet POWs, Poles, and other Nazi victims; altogether roughly eighty thousand people died in the camp, sixty thousand of whom were Jews, most of the rest Poles. The SS constructed crematoria and the gas chambers in Majdanek employed the poison gas Zyklon-B. As one of the camps built relatively late in the war (fall 1941) and literally from scratch, Majdanek was primitive in the extreme. Transferred prisoners from Auschwitz or Dachau commented on its catastrophic conditions: terrible sanitation, meager food, insufficient water, poorly constructed barracks, and deplorable hygienic and medical conditions. Typhus, in particular, was a demonic plague in Majdanek, with tens of thousands of prisoners lying about inert on the ground and in barracks and then dying from its effects.

Kwiatkowski’s description of the life of the Poles in the camp is especially important. A typical member of the Polish interwar intelligentsia, he gravitated towards other educated, patriotic, and frequently religious Catholic Poles, who shared resources and supported one another, which sometimes meant the difference between life and death. He admired those Poles who tried with some success to keep the high moral standards of the Polish resistance alive in the camp and was involved in a couple of futile attempts by the resistance to plan an escape. He had considerable disdain for those Poles who collaborated with the authorities and engaged in the petty thievery and exploitation common to camp life.

As a leading camp gardener and then as an administrator in the camp offices, Kwiatkowski did everything he could to help out his Polish colleagues and friends in their efforts to survive the threat of disease and death that accompanied certain jobs and labor details in and outside the camp. Conditions improved for the Poles in early 1943 when the prisoners were able to receive packages from their relatives through the Polish Red Cross and the Polish Welfare Council. Food and immunizations from outside the camp made it possible for Kwiatkowski and his compatriots to survive. Still, the Poles were brutalized until the very end of the camp’s existence. The execution of periodic transports of Polish political prisoners from the Castle prison in Lublin made it clear that there was no end to the Nazi readiness to eliminate the Poles as a nation.

Historic Atrocity

Majdanek was also a prominent site of the Holocaust, and Kwiatkowski was an acute observer of the desperate situation of the Jews in the camp. He had close Jewish friends in the camp whom he tried to protect, but he also demonstrated resentment against those Jews who had managed, especially early in the camp’s history, to attain powerful prisoner administrative posts. His anti-Semitic attitudes were typical of the Polish nationalist intelligentsia of the 1930s. Still, he was disgusted by the elimination of the Jews that took place in Majdanek, writing particularly poignantly about the selections of those Jews who would live and work and those who would die in the gas chambers. (Some twenty thousand Jews would be gassed in the camp.) He was especially haunted, he writes, by the “crying, sobbing, and wails of mothers whose children were taken from them by force” and sent to the gas chambers.

In October 1943, Himmler made up his mind to finish off the Jews in the Lublin region, despite their value to SS production. As part of “Operation Erntefest” (harvest festival), the Germans rounded up some twelve thousand Jews in the region and marched and trucked them to Majdanek. There they were joined by roughly six thousand Jewish prisoners already in the camp, stripped of their clothes, and forced to lie down in deep trenches where they were machine-gunned in waves by German security police. The massacre of the eighteen thousand Jews at Majdanek was the largest of its kind in the concentration-camp system. Altogether in Operation Erntefest some forty-two thousand Jews lost their lives. Although the SS command of the camp tried to conceal mass murder from the other prisoners, Kwiatkowski understood exactly what was happening:

Suddenly, I hear music, some woeful milonga tango, then a waltz by Strauss, it’s music played from records through a loudspeaker. The sounds carry from the direction of the crematorium. Where did this loudspeaker come from, we had never heard it before. The music plays continuously. Record after record. A plane is circling low around the camp, so that sometimes you can’t hear your own voice. There are short breaks between the records and then I hear a muffled “ta ta ta—ta ta ta,” just like the sound of a machine gun.

When told all the Jews would be killed, Kwiatkowski was shocked and deeply depressed.

Kwiatkowski’s 485 Days at Majdanek is sad reading. It describes the perverse character of the concentration camp system, the senseless violence, sadism, and severe privation that took place there, the harsh trials of the Poles, and the barbaric persecution and elimination of the Jews. Kwiatkowski titles one of his chapters “Homo Homini Lupus,” man is wolf to man, and the evidence for this proposition is plentiful throughout the diary. But Kwiatkowski also provides glimpses into the power of pity, generosity, and friendship that sometimes make their way into confined spaces of camp life.

Kwiatkowski’s comradeship with fellow Poles is moving and inspiring. His religiosity and Polish patriotism are consistent and helped keep him alive in times when his life hung in the balance. He is an honest and insightful observer of the ways in which the Nazi camps could bring out the worst, and sometimes even the best, in mankind.