An account of daily life in Majdanek (1943)

George Pfeffer was a survivor of the Majdanek concentration camp, located near Lubin in south-east Poland. In this extract from his memoirs, Pfeffer recalls Majdanek’s daily routine and the regular persecution and torture of Jewish inmates:

“You get up at 3am. You have to dress quickly and make the ‘bed’ so that it looks like a matchbox. For the slightest irregularity in bed-making, the punishment was 25 lashes, after which it was impossible to lie or sit for a whole month. Everyone had to leave the barracks immediately. Outside it is still dark unless the moon is shining. People are trembling because of lack of sleep and the cold. In order to warm up a bit, groups of ten to twenty people stand together, back to back so as to rub against each other.

There was what was called a washroom, where everyone in the camp was supposed to wash — there were only a few faucets — and we were 4,500 people in that section. Of course, there was neither soap nor towel or even a handkerchief, so washing was theoretical rather than practical…

At 5am, we would get half a litre of black bitter coffee. That was all we got for what was called ‘breakfast’. At 6am, a headcount. We all had to stand at attention, in fives, according to the barracks, of which there were 22 in each section. We stood there until the SS men had satisfied their game-playing instincts by ‘humorous’ orders to take off and put on caps. Then they received their report and counted us.

After the headcount: work. We went in groups, some to build railway tracks or a road, some to the quarries to carry stones or coal, some to take out manure, or for potato-digging, latrine-cleaning, barracks or sewer—repairs. All this took place inside the camp enclosure.

During work, the SS men beat up prisoners mercilessly, inhumanly and for no reason. They were like wild beasts and, having found their victim, ordered him to present his backside, and beat him with a stick or a whip, usually until the stick broke. The victim screamed only after the first blows, afterwards he fell unconscious and the SS man then kicked at the ribs, the face, at the most sensitive parts of a man’s body. And then, finally convinced that the victim was at the end of his strength, he ordered another Jew to pour one pail of water after the other over the beaten person until he woke and got up.

A favourite sport of the SS men was to make a ‘boxing sack’ out of a Jew. This was done in the following way: Two Jews were stood up, one being forced to hold the other by the collar, and an SS man trained giving him a knock-out. Of course, after the first blow, the poor victim was likely to fall, and this was prevented by the other Jew holding him up. After the fat Hitlerite murderer had “trained” in this way for 15 minutes, and only after the poor victim was completely shattered, covered in blood, his teeth knocked out, his nose broken, his eyes hit, they released him and ordered a doctor to treat his wounds. That was their way of taking care and being generous.

Another customary SS habit was to kick a Jew with a heavy boot. The Jew was forced to stand to attention and all the while the SS man kicked him until he broke some bones. People who stood near enough to such a victim, often heard the breaking of the bones. The pain was so terrible that people receiving that treatment died in agony.

Apart from the SS men, there were other expert hangmen. These were the so-called Capos. The name was an abbreviation for “barracks police.” The Capos were German criminals who were also camp inmates. However, although they belonged to “us,” they were privileged. They had a better barracks of their own, they had better food, almost normal clothes, they wore special red or green riding pants, high leather boots, and fulfilled the functions of camp guards.

They were worse even than the SS men. One of them, older than the others and the worst murderer of them all, would descend on a victim but would not revive him with water, he would instead choke him to death. Once, this murderer caught a boy of 13, in the presence of his father, and hit his head so that the poor child died instantly. This ‘camp elder’ later boasted in front of his peers, with a smile on his face, that he managed to kill a Jew with one blow…

Work was actually unproductive, and its purpose was exhaustion and torture. At noon there was a break for a meal. Standing in line, we received half a litre of soup each. Usually, it was cabbage soup, or some other watery liquid, without fats, tasteless. That was lunch. It was eaten in all weather under the open sky, never in the barracks. No spoons were allowed, even though wooden spoons lay on each bunk, probably for show for Red Cross committees. One had to drink the soup out of the bowl and lick it like a dog.

From 1pm until 6pm, there was work again… There were ‘days of punishment’ when lunch was given together with the evening meal and it was cold and sour, so our stomach was empty for a whole day. Afternoon work was the same: blows and blows again.

At 6pm, there was the evening headcount. Again we were forced to stand at attention. Counting, receiving the report. Usually, we were left standing at attention for an hour or two, while some prisoners were called up for ‘punishment parade’, for those who (in the Germans’ eyes) had transgressed in some way during the day or had not been punctilious in their performance. They were stripped naked publicly, laid out on specially constructed benches and whipped with 25 or 50 lashes. All prisoners had to watch the brutal beating and listen to the heart-rending cries.”