“Hello, hello. This is Radio Majdanek. Good morning ladies.” How an imaginary radio station helped women endure horrors of WWII death camp
“Hello, hello. This is Radio Majdanek. Good morning ladies…”
This was how, 80 years ago this week, a radio station like no other before or since started ‘broadcasting’ in one of the darkest corners of the German occupation – the women’s prisoner barracks at Majdanek concentration camp outside Lublin.
The station had no microphones and no transmitter, and its audience was small out of necessity, but the message of hope it sent out was priceless.
While the news informed fellow prisoners about the latest whippings by SS guards or who had died of typhus, other shows such as radio theatre and education programmes aimed to raise morale and bolster resistance.
“And now time for the latest news from the past week. The past days have once again brought us many attractions, it's just a pity that they were mostly unpleasant," is how news broadcasts often started.
The initiator of the fictitious radio station was Matylda Woliniewska, who had been a message runner and underground newspaper distributor in Warsaw before her arrest in November 1942.
Soon after arriving at Majdanek in January 1943, she wanted to organise cultural entertainment for her fellow inmates, enabling them to at least temporarily break away from the harsh camp life.
The first broadcast took place on February 13, 1943, and then day after day they continued for several months.
The 'radio studio' was located on one of the top bunks in a women’s barrack in Field V. There was no microphone or transmitter and it had a broadcasting range of only one barrack.
Established on 1st October 1941, by the time it was liberated in July 1944, 78,000 people had died at the hands of the SS.
Agnieszka Kowalczyk-Nowak, spokeswoman for the State Museum at Majdanek said: “The announcers began their daily broadcasts by imitating the crowing of a rooster.
In them, they informed in a humorous way about events in camp life, gave political and cultural news, appealed for donations to be brought to those most in need, read out name day and birthday wishes, and sang religious songs and hymns.
"They recited poems, quoted excerpts from novels and reminded people of the basic rules of communal life.”
There was often time for gallows humour about the terrible conditions. In one broadcast, presenter Danuta Brzosko-Mędryk made jokes about the dreary camp uniforms.
“Hello, colleagues! The recent fashion trend is very unique: everyone ought to wear a dress, blue and grey stripes only!
“Also, the stockings mustn’t match – if one is black the other must be beige or, alternatively, one brown and one ash-grey.
“The currently fashionable shoes must be wooden with a very thick sole, and a wretched paper top.
“All the hats must be replaced with all sorts of headscarves and cloths – as unvivid and warm as possible. So much for the current fashion trends."
Speaking after the war, Brzosko-Mędryk spoke of the importance of Radio Majdanek: "A slice of bread is divisible, but not very divisible, well, because how many people can be divided by a slice; whereas a word, a good word, is indivisible, but divisible. (...) It was the radiation of values. Values prevailed."
The radios presenters - Danuta Brzosko-Mędryk, Alina Pleszczynska, Hanna Fularska, Wieslawa Grzegorzewska, Romana Pawlowska and Stefania Blonska – were all political prisoners who had been transferred to Majdanek from Pawiak, the notorious Gestapo prison in Warsaw.
Over the several months of the radio's operation, morning broadcasts ended with the slogan: "Let's remember that tomorrow will be better," while evening broadcasts: "Let's remember that every day brings us closer to freedom."
Janina Ogulewicz wrote about the radio in her memoirs: “[The radio] came as a surprise to everyone, because usually in the barracks in the morning all that could be heard were shouts of, "Get up, damn it! Who stole my clogs!"
“In any case, the day started with anger and aggression. And here suddenly the radio! It saved us from despair, from breakdowns, from tears, which often happened, especially at the beginning of this despicable existence.”
Meanwhile, Halina Lomocińśka recalled: “I remember how Danusia once overslept, and all the prisoners called out in amazement, the radio was broken!. Amidst the stench that spread through the barracks, the fear and the cursed uncertainty, Radio Majdanek was such a ray of light that each of us waited for."
The broadcasts ended in May 1943, when the Germans began moving the people who made up Radio Majdanek to Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
Matylda Woliniewska survived the concentration camps in Ravensbrück and the Leipzig subcamp of Buchenwald.
After the war, she was awarded the Silver Cross of Merit, the Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Auschwitz Cross and the Medal of the Commission of National Education and the Order of the Smile. She died in Warsaw in 2008.
Danuta Brzosko-Mędryk also survived the Ravensbrück and Buchenwald camps. After the war, she graduated from the dental department of the University of Łódź.
She testified against Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan during the extradition trial in New York. She was also among the witnesses during the Third Majdanek Trial in Düsseldorf.
She wrote several books about Majdanek and the German occupation of Poland. She died in 2015 and buried in Powązki cemetery in Warsaw.