*WARNING* I am going to talk about an aspect of one of the most horrible events in human history. This is a post about what I learned at a Nazi concentration camp. The details of which can be upsetting, immoral and dehumanizing. Please if you are offended by the events or details of the holocaust pick another article on my blog to read. Reader discretion is advised.
I loved Berlin. Over time it is the city that is always changing towards something but never quite becoming it. I am a World War 2 buff. I am by no means an expert, but I am fascinated but the events and history that took place during that time. I did a walking tour of Berlin (I love walking tours by the way) and after such, was given a pamphlet for other tours that they offered. I noticed there was one for Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp approx. 1 hour north of Berlin. Sachsenhausen was supposed to be the ”ideal” concentration camp. The one all others were supposed to be modeled after. I had never been to a camp before so this really appealed to me.
After a simple meet up with the guide we were off on the S-bahn train heading north to Oranienburg. Sachsenhausen is a suburb of Oranienburg. There is a small information center next to the parking lot as well as a full model of the entire camp. We had a guide to take us through the camp but this can be a good place to visualize your route if you’re doing this on your own.
After a bit of a walk, we come to the gates and my mind’s eye transports back to the 1930s-1940s. I can only image crowds of people coming through those gates with that now iconic slogan: “Arbeit Macht Frei” Translation – work will set you free.
After coming through the gates you are in what was the assembly area of the compound. This is where the prisoners would gather before their day of work and a count would be done. This is done facing the gate you entered the camp in. Also, if you look at the over hanging balcony now closed off (windowed and painted brown in the picture). We were told that use to be open and at the very top center was a massive world war one machine gun nest. No longer operational, but if you can imagine staring at that every morning…. this was one of many psychological effects the Nazi’s used in these camps.
Today, there are examples of a “no man’s land” that back when it was in use surrounded the camp. It consisted of two sets of barbed wire fencing and a mine riddled gap between them.
You are taken through the barracks to see their sleeping conditions. There was a big problem with lice in these barracks that spread to everyone who entered the camp as a prisoner.
Sachsenhausen was much more of a work camp than an extermination camp. Many things were tested here. For example, some prisoners were made to test wearing new boot designs that didn’t fit them properly. This sounds like something small but with someone forcing you to run in it all day you can imagine how painful that could get.
There was also a jail here. Sounds a bit odd for a prison or “camp” to have a jail in it but this was a place to be avoided even if you found yourself in a concentration camp. These polls here in particular were used to hang homosexuals by their wrists as they were tortured to give up other homosexuals they knew.
We also saw one building in particular, a very secret building that not even many of the SS officers knew what was going on. Some of the Jewish captives, because of their special skills, where used to create counterfeit English bank notes. Hitler’s plan (though never completed) was to fly over England and drop the counterfeit money and inflating and cause havoc in their economy.
Just by being inside, the walls and the towers along the walls still seemed alive to me. I was imagining being here while these atrocities happened and that’s when it hit me. Though I could show no physical sign other than silence, inside I was weeping.
The rest of the tour turned out to be the hardest to handle as well. Next you were led to what appeared to be the entrance of a trench. However instead of it continuing on it stopped with a large wall stacked wood. Our guide somberly said this was an execution pit. The reason it was dug out like this was to muffle the sound away from people working on the other side of the wall.
The tour ends with a walk around a ruined building which used to house the ovens. While they were only a few here our guide informed us that another method of execution in Sachsenhausen was a single gunshot to the back of the head. Prisoners were informed they had a medical exam. They would come in to a specific room and a doctor would perform some routine medical procedures (height, weight etc..) then exit the room asking them to stand in a specific spot. A “spy hole” of sorts would open up between the wall where the prisoner was standing and the room next to it with an SS officer ready with his pistol.
Horrifically, this was thought out by a Nazi to disassociated the SS officer from what he was doing. Think about it, your orders are when you see this light go on, to open that hold and fire a bullet. You don`t know who or what is on the other side. Than other prisoners are ordered to dispose of the bodies, usually by cremation.
To be mere feet from where this actually happened put a unbelievable world, from not too long ago, much closer to home. Silence is the only response I can muster to such horror.
After the Russians liberated the camp and freed the remaining prisoners they too used Sachsenhausen as a prison for Nazi criminals and suspected West Berlin spies. The identifiable Communist statue in Sachsenhausen is dedicated to the political prisoners who were kept here under Nazi control. Political prisoners in particular wore a Red triangle badge, now symbolized at the top of the monument on each side.
The Nazi’s didn’t use this prison for bad people it was a prison for people who were simply different. Being in the same place that these crimes happened put the smallest glimpse of their pain in my heart and I was left speechless. These tours are questionable to some travellers but this is a testament to show that racism, prejudice and intolerance has no place in the kind of world I hope for moving forward.
One day, I plan to tour Auschwitz/Birkenau. I’ve read the story and seen the documentaries. But I now know that I will need to mentally prepare myself for being there.