Majdanek: a vast memorial camp with the Lublin skyscrapers visible in the near distance. Majdanek: in Edgar Snow's words, reflecting the Nazi's "most brilliant success in perverting the very virtues of a once great people into the service of a machinery of crimes almost too monstrous for the human mind to accept." Majdanek: the symbol of the Nazi regime's perversion of the old adage: "Waste not, want not." Majdanek: a planned technological system devoted to the reduction of a human being from an upright energetic animal to a kilogram of gray ashes, with the complete utilization of all byproducts. Majdanek: today an impressive collection of preserved buildings and artifacts, including an accumulation of over 800,000 dusty, decaying shoes. At Majdanek, nothing was wasted, everything was salvaged -- ashes, gold fillings, bones, clothes, wooden arms, legs, and crutches, toothpaste, nail files, children's toys.
Majdanek was a uniquely urban camp, in the suburbs 4.8 kilometers from the center of Lublin, chief city of a major Polish region. Bordering one of Poland's main highways on flat treeless ground, standing like a gigantic grotesque billboard, lies the only large Nazi camp constructed in the midst of things, without secrecy or subterfuge. The Nazis built many camps with a special purpose, and liquidated or planned to liquidate them once that purpose had been met. But Majdanek was different. From its inception, the camp grew and expanded. Had the German construction plans materialized, Majdanek would have become a large city housing hundreds of thousands of slaves forced to work in the mammoth SS industrial complexes of the future.
Because Majdanek stands on level ground at the edge of a major highway, its past functions intrude on the mind of the traveler and the Lublinite peering from his high-rise apartment. Surrounded by rich farmland, much of the original area remains. The tall crematorium smokestack observable to any passerby is silhouetted against the bright cloudless summer sky. Rows of brown weatherbeaten wooden barracks sprawl over the ground, enclosed by watchtowers and barbed wire. The major SS complex remains across the highway from the camp, in use today as a Russian-Polish military training base.