29 June 2017

New publications by the State Museum at Majdanek include Dariusz Libionka's monograph on Operation Reinhard

Category: New publications, Editorial notes, XXw, Holocaust, News, Social history, Political history, Memory studies, Cultural history, history of Polish culture


Professor Libionka's book-length study, Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie, has been published by the State Museum at Majdanek. Available in English are Robert Kuwałek's study, Death Camp in Bełżec (2016), and the detailed exhibition catalog Districts of Extermination: Ghettos for Jews in German-occupied Lublin (2017).


The historian and author Dariusz Libionka is affiliated with the Institute of National Remembrance in Lublin and with the Polish Center for Holocaust Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Over eight sections, Libionka's new book provides an introductory overveiw to the situation of Jews in occupied Poland to June 1941, the preparations for Operation Reinhard then its two major phases from spring to autumn 1942, continuations after the extermination centers were dismantled at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, then final phases of the Holocaust across the General Government. 

Each section contains multiple subsections. Clearly marked topic headings open specific themes, typically covered in one to three pages. The eight-page bibliography shows largely Polish sources, with some English-language materials. One index covers people's names; another covers place names. Each of the eight sections opens with a black and white photo with the exception of the section on the situation of Jews in occupied Poland, where a map defines prewar Polish lands and highlights the General Government and the six killing centers: the Operation Reinhard sites and Kulmhof (Chełm nad Nerem), Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The spare selection of photos makes them even more powerful: several terrifying scenes of evacuations; key SS leaders Odilo Globocnik and Heinrich Himmler; Stanisław Szmajzner providing court testimony in 1978, having survived Sobibór at age 15.

Decisions are being finalized for the State Museum to bring the volume out in German in 2018, with a co-publishing institution there. A similar arrangement is being sought for co-publication and distribution in English. Publication of Yitzhak Arad's Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: the Operation Reinhard Death Camps was in 1987 and has long served as the major English-language source on the topic. Libionka's synthesis is much needed, in no small part because it includes archeological findings at Bełżec in the late 1990s and at Sobibór in several phases since 2000.

The State Museum has also brought out two other important recent publications in English: Death Camp in Bełżec, the late Robert Kuwałek's exacting study of the first Operational Reinhard facility, and Districts of Extermination: Ghettos for Jews in German-occupied Lublin, the catalog to an exhibition on the grounds at Majdanek that will be exhibited later in 2017 in central Lublin.

Kuwałek was associated with the State Museum at Majdanek and directed the memorial museum at Bełżec after the opening of its new memorial in 2004, of which he was a member of the curatorial team. His book provides a crucial source in English for present-day knowledge of development and operations of and knowledge about Bełżec, from which only half a dozen are known to have survived (including Rudolf Reder, whose account of the extermination facility, Bełżec, is available in a bilingual edition with supplementary introductions, published by the Judaica Foundation in Kraków and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum). His introductory statements include the telling observation that most Poles in Lublin and Kraków would reply that the Jews of their respective cities were murdered in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau – in fact, Bełżec was the killing site. Kuwałek's point about lack of awareness in the domestic context is only compounded by the international lack of awareness regarding Operation Reinhard sites and the industrialization of mass murder by the Germans in 1942.

Chapters 4 and 5 cover the SS staff then the SS-Wachmannschaften Guards, brought from the Trawniki training camp east of Lublin. Kuwałek writes that "the size of the SS staff never exceeded 20," and that names of thirty-seven SS men have been established. Few names have been established among those pressed into service as guards – perhaps four hundred from construction in late 1941 to dismantling in June 1943, with up to 130 as the killing peaked in summer and autumn 1942.

Chapters are devoted to the engineering of killing operations, which would then be developed further in the more remote sites at Sobibór and Treblinka; to processing stolen property; and the prisoners selected from transports then forced into labor. Postwar conditions take up the substantial chapter "Half a Century of Oblivion," then the author goes over the archeological work and establishment of the present memorial, for which he was one of the four chief curators. One annex is a detailed chronology of transports to the camp, in vast majority from occupied Polish lands, with other trains arriving from occupied Europe. Photo materials include the single page extant from the camp's paper records, which is not part of the exhibition at Bełżec site.

Districts of Extermination may be even more effective as a catalog than it has proved as an outdoor exhibition. While effectively arrayed on a series of panels, their position is in a less-visited sector on the Majdanek grounds, beyond the extant barracks and down the slope from other main objectives at the huge memorial to the dead and crematoria building.

The introduction presents a synopsis of Operation Reinhard and its atrocious impact on Jews in Lublin and the region, by Tomasz Kranz, director of the State Museum at Majdanek. Photographic evidence is wide-ranging and compelling, and is interspersed with testimonies. Curator Krzysztof Banach, in his essay "'Districts of Extermination' in Photographs, Documents and Witness Accounts," writes of the exhibition's focus on the "history of the two German ghettos for Jews consecutively established in the area of Podzamcze and Majdan Tatarski districts in Lublin between 1941 and 1942." He and his team drew together a hundred and fifty photos and documents, with some seventy excerpts from accounts. The sections overlap, deepening and broadening the views while carrying along the overall chronology – prewar conditions, persecutions of Jews, community and work in the ghetto, liquidation, Lubliners and underground efforts.

Near the end of the catalog, two overhead views attest to the loss of Lublin's Jewish community as it may be seen in the city's urban space today. One focuses on the castle hill alongside the old town's heights, with shading that delineates the vast stretches of the ghetto and former Jewish quarter that the Germans proceeded to destroy. The other, also spread over two pages, shows the beginning of construction of People's Assembly Square in 1953 (now Castle Square) – now a seemingly expansive vacancy, occupying the site of historical devastation. And a core site as people and organizations in Lublin strive to memorialize the city's Jewish past and the catastrophe that befell its Jews as the Germans implemented Operation Reinhard from March 1942.

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