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"Escapes". Episode 2. The great escape from KL Lublin

The second episode of the series about escapes from the Majdanek camp

"Escapes". Episode 2. The great escape from KL Lublin

The largest single escape in the history of all the German Nazi concentration camps happened in Lublin, on July 14, 1942. That day, the Soviet prisoners of war incarcerated at Majdanek went down in history in an unprecedented way as the scale of their escape can only be compared with the major uprisings in Sobibór, Treblinka, and Birkenau.

The captured soldiers of the Red Army were the first prisoners of the concentration camp in Lublin, who also laid the foundations for the camp’s first structures. They were subjected to extremely brutal treatment of the SS-men, which resulted in very high mortality rate. Out of the first Soviet deportees brought to Majdanek in October 1941, nearly 95% died by the end of the year. Not only the violence of the garrison members, but also the horrible living conditions, microscopic food provisions, and diseases would wreak havoc among the prisoners. Considering their hopeless situation, the Red Army captives incarcerated at Majdanek from early 1942 decided that their only chance for survival was to escape from the camp. They made their attempt on July 14, 1942. Under the cover of night, 86 Soviet prisoners of war kept within the two fields that existed at that time, left their barracks and gathered at the southern border of the area. At a given signal, they started to throw logs, boards, and blankets onto the barbed wire fence, climb over, and run for their lives. “Just like the manoeuvres!” – reminisced Wiesław Dobrowolski, a prisoner of Majdanek.

The odds were in the escapees’ favour. There were only two guards present at the night shift. In addition, the boldness of the plan astonished them so much, that they reacted with delay and opened fire relatively late.

“The guards shot only two Russians, who were crossing the fence. They failed entirely” – as testified by Hermann Hackmann during the Majdanek Trial in Düsseldorf. He was the first person to take the position of the head of the prisoner camp department at Majdanek. The other escapees managed to get away and fled towards the nearby Kalinówka village. They hid in grain fields to finally descend into the nearby forest. Their courage and the military experiences carried on from their service in the Red Army paid off as they were finally free.

Hackmann ordered a general pursuit, but to no avail. During the aforementioned Düsseldorf trial, Heinz Villain, one of Majdanek’s field leaders described that manhunt in the following way:

“An alarm was announced and we were all summoned and divided into teams. We were sent to search through the surrounding villages and settlements. We kept searching for some time but found nobody. We decided to break off the pursuit and returned to the camp.” Only two bodies of those shot at night were found.

The following morning, Karl Otto Koch, Majdanek’s first commandant ordered a general roll call. The inspection indicated that there were 41 Soviet prisoners of war remaining in the camp. It is very likely that these were the last surviving Soviets soldiers that were deported to KL Lublin in October 1941. Presumably, they did not want to participate in the escape as they were already settled in the camp hierarchy, or that the escapees did not inform them at all so as not to compromise their plan. The SS instantly held a swift investigation within the course of which the remaining Soviet POWs were all sentenced to death with immediate effect. They were all executed on July 15, early in the morning. They were forced to lay themselves on the ground in several rows, and the SS-man shot them all in the back of their heads. The corpses were then taken to the camp crematorium, while the execution site was covered with sawdust. Such was the tragic end of the first prisoners of Majdanek.

Photo: Ewa Sokołowska

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