By the end of August 1943, the tide had turned in the Soviets' favour in their fight to repel the Wehrmacht from Russian soil. The Red Army was now on the offensive and it soon became apparent that they, rather than the western Allies, would be the ones to end German occupation and liberate Poland.
On 22 June 1944, two weeks after the Allied landings at Normandy, the Russians launched their own D-Day in Belarus, Operation Bagration. It was made up of several offensives operating concurrently and stretched across a wide front. One of these, the Minsk Offensive, completely destroyed the only major German force left on Soviet soil, Army Group Centre, and was one of the greatest Soviet victories of the war. It was achieved partly by sheer weight of numbers, but also by a deception plan that fooled the Germans into thinking the major attack would happen further south. Minsk was liberated on 3 July, opening the way for the Red Army to enter Poland, and on 18 July an assault was launched on the eastern Polish city of Lublin.
The Lubelskie province, of which Lublin is the capital, was, and still is, one of the richest agricultural areas of Poland. This made it a prime target for German colonization after the Nazi invasion, the aim being to remove both the Polish and Jewish populations. Jews – targeted almost immediately the war began – were initially sent to the Lublin Reservation – a large segregated Jewish “state” populated by Jews deported from across Europe, and used as a forced labour camp.
When the reservation idea proved unworkable, it was replaced by isolating Jews in enclosed ghettos. The Lublin ghetto was set up in March 1941 in the district of Podzamcze on the site of the former Jewish district; it held in excess of 30,000 people in a handful of streets, mostly Jews but with some Roma people. Though cramped and vulnerable to the spread of disease, it was regarded as less dreadful than other ghettos.
The Lublin ghetto was liquidated after about a year as part of Aktion Reinhard, the planned extermination of all Jews within the General Government. This entailed the building of a series of death camps. The first, completed in March 1942, was near the village of Bełżec about halfway between Lublin and Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine). The second at Sobibór was due east of Lublin and close to the border with Ukraine and Belarus, and the third at Treblinka, midway between Warsaw and Bialystok. In addition, the Majdanek concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin – originally a labour camp for Soviet POWs – was converted into an extermination centre. It is thought that Aktion Reinhard was responsible for the murder of about 1.7 million Jews, and an unknown number of Poles, Roma and Soviet POWs.
In 1942 a mass deportation of Poles from the Zamość region was carried out: inhabitants of around three hundred villages were removed and replaced by German settlers. This prompted a major uprising spearheaded by the Home Army and other groups, who encouraged villagers to destroy their properties before leaving. Some deportees were screened as potential candidates for Germanization on the basis of background or “Aryan” characteristics. Those that failed the test were sent to Majdanek. As many as 250,000 villagers managed to evade capture, seeking shelter wherever they could, some hiding in forests with the partisans. The Resistance continued to harry German troops and colonists over the next two years, but were eventually defeated with heavy casualties at the Battle of Osuchy in June 1944.
On 18 August 1944, Marshal Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorusian Front (equivalent to a Western army group) launched the Lublin-Brest Offensive. Part of Operation Bagration, five of its armies – including the Soviet-trained Polish First Army led by General Berling – broke through the German Army Group North Ukraine close to Kovel, 160km east of Lublin.
The River Bug – which marked the border with the General Government – was crossed by the Soviets’ Forty-seventh Army and the Eighth Guards Army on 21 July; Chełm was liberated on 22 July. It was here, on the same day, that the Soviet-backed Polish Committee for National Liberation (also known as the Lublin Committee) issued a manifesto, urging support for the Red Army and the Home Army, but at the same time denouncing the London government-in-exile and setting itself up as the new provisional government.
Lublin was entered by the troops of the Second Tank Army the next day. In the fighting, the Army’s commander, Soviet General Bogdanov, was wounded. He was replaced by General Radzievsky, who was immediately ordered by the Stavka (the Soviet High Command) to head north with his troops towards the River Vistula and Warsaw.
The Lublin camp of Majdanek was liberated by Red Army troops, but not before the Germans had tried to destroy it, evacuating or killing the remaining inmates. Only a few hundred were left, mostly hospitalized Soviet POWs. Majdanek had been used as a storage depot for objects stolen from victims; the Red Army found thousands of shoes, spectacles and human hair, along with piles of ash. They also found gas ovens. This was the first evidence of mass killings, and was soon reported to a shocked world by journalists flown over from places like Moscow and New York.
The Red Army had begun to turn back the tide of the invading Germans and was scenting victory. At the Tehran Conference in November 1943 – attended by all the “Big Three” leaders but with the Poles excluded – the Allies decided that the frontier should follow the “Curzon Line” suggested in 1918, in other words the Soviets would retain the territory they seized in 1939 but shift the Polish-German border westwards.
Once Poland’s liberation from Germany was complete, the Lublin Committee now became a provisional government; other political parties were marginalized; and the government-in-exile ignored. In July 1945 Stalin’s ruthless fait accompli was reluctantly recognized by Britain and the USA. Poland would remain as a Soviet satellite state until 1989.
Lublin was renowned as a Jewish cultural centre before the war, with a population of 40,000, twelve synagogues and two Yeshivas – schools for religious study. The Jewish district was near the castle where the ancient Grodzka Gate marks the divide between the Jewish and Gentile sections of the city. Part of the gate is now used as a study centre and exhibition space dedicated to Lublin’s lost Jewish heritage. It’s run by a drama group, Teatr NN, which also organizes performances, educational events and tours. Both the Old Jewish Cemetery (ul. Kalinowszczyzna) and the New (ul. Walecznych) still survive, despite Nazi desecration. So does the Yeshiva Hahmei Lublin (ul. Lubartowska) and its synagogue. Lublin’s Great Synagogue was used by the Nazis during the liquidation of the ghetto as a collection point for Jews prior to transportation; it was then destroyed.
Majdanek is just a few kilometres southeast of the city centre. Tens of thousands of Jews and other “undesirables” were brought here, not just from Lublin but from across occupied Europe. Initially it housed Soviet POWs, most dying of cold or disease. Overall 78,000 people are thought to have been killed here, three-quarters of them Jews. After the Soviets liberated the camp, they used it to imprison members of the Polish Resistance, then opened it as a museum in November 1944. A long path runs through the site, with the Fight and Martydom monument at one end and a domed mausoleum containing the ashes of the dead at the other. Quite a few of the original buildings survive, including the gas chambers and crematoria, and the museum contains a range of displays that record and memorialize the horrors that took place here.
Close to the Ukrainian border, some 40km south of Zamość, the Bełżec extermination camp was only fully commemorated 63 years after the Nazis attempted to erase all traces of it. Mass deportations from the ghettos of Lublin and Lwów began in March 1942 and ended in December, when the camp was closed down. In that ten-month period, around 450,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered. Because little visible evidence remained, the site has been completely transformed into a powerful memorial, which combines architecture and symbolism to striking effect. As visitors walk the sloping path to the wall of remembrance, the walls on either side seem to rise up, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. The museum provides a history of the camp and displays objects found during archeological excavations. Guided tours are available but need to be booked in advance.
About 45km due west of Bełżec is the village of Osuchy, the scene of one of the biggest battles fought by the Polish Resistance. In June 1944, the Germans launched a major anti-partisan offensive, Aktion Sturmwind II, in an attempt to suppress the Zamość Uprising. Much of the fighting took place in the heavily wooded Solska Wilderness. Outnumbered and surrounded, all attempts by the Resistance to break through failed. Around 400 died in the fighting, while the 800 who surrendered were executed or imprisoned. The cemetery contains a memorial and over 300 partisan graves.
Like Bełżec, the death camp at Sobibór was located at an isolated spot, close to the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders, about 50km north of Chełm. The second of the Aktion Reinhard camps to be operational, Sobibór was completed in May 1942 when the first transports arrived. The number of deaths is estimated at between 170,000 and 250,000. A revolt in October 1943, in which three hundred prisoners managed to escape, led to the camp being closed and largely destroyed. The remaining inmates were transferred to Treblinka. The site is currently closed while a new memorial museum is constructed.
Top image: The State Museum at Majdanek © majicphotos/Shutterstock