I wasn’t planning on writing about Berlin until I had completed my short trip here. However, after my visit to Sachsenhausen today, I was overcome with emotion and wanted to share my thoughts before the memories, inevitably, fade away.
Long rotten away, the gravel pits represent where the wooden bunkers once stood, housing 300 prisoners each (often many more).
A bit of background; Sachsenhausen is a 45 minute train ride out of Berlin and was one of the very first concentration camps built by an ambitious Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the German Police and SS Army (hmmm… dodgy much?) in 1936. It was initially used to contain political prisoners who had conflicting views with the upcoming Nazis. These political prisoners would soon be joined by other victimised minority groups of the racist and prejudiced Nazi regime including homosexuals, Jews, gypsies and, gradually, people from occupied neighbouring countries who didn’t fit Hitler’s ideal. This particular concentration camp was built as a model for other concentration camps, and thus was designed by an architect who went to extreme measures to ensure every inch of it’s triangular layout could be overlooked and monitored from Station A (the central administration building situated directly opposite the apex of the triangle, in the centre of the base). This camp was then replicated throughout other parts of Germany during the war.
This Station A linked the SS training camp (conveniently located next door, today used as training quarters for the Police; obviously the design was efficient enough for it still to be effective enough today) and the prison.
Station A was the only entry and exit point for the whole camp which included another fenced off section with a cell prison, a kitchen, farm, infirmary, brothel and laundry all ensuring the prison’s self sufficiency. There was also a building designed for termination called Station Z where prisoners were well aware of the murders and mass murders that took place there. Guards were known for telling prisoners, “you may enter through Station A, but you will exit through Station Z”.
A pit about 4m by 4m to keep prisoners in total darkness as a means of torture. Apparently after liberation the SS claimed this was a bomb shelter… Good try.
A prison cell in the separate, celled jail used for holding prisoners who were tortured for information or who had personally offended Hitler.
While none of the atrocities I heard today that took place at this concentration camp particularly shocked me (I am fairly well read on the subject of World War II and the Holocaust), taking a two and a half hour guided tour around this camp, and listening to these barbarisms in their original setting, is truly, truly mind blowing.
The laundry in the background, the kitchen closest to us, and the markings of more bunkers represented by the gravel pits.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and gave us an extremely comprehensive overview of the lead up to the war and the after effects as well. When it was accepted that the Nazis would lose the War, the prisoners at Sachsenhausen, like many others still in unliberated concentration camps, were taken on a pointless and fatal death march, in the hope that many more would die and not be able to testify about the brutalities that had occurred. Anyone who fell was shot, anyone who questioned was shot, anyone who personally irritated the guards for no reason was shot; we’ve all heard the stories.
The roll call area, very much in the same state as it would have been back then.
There were, however, some particularly pungent issues that stood out to me today. Firstly, the bitter cold I felt in the prison part of the camp chilled me to the bone. I can’t explain if the horrid truths I was hearing were having a physical effect on me, or if the lack of tall buildings was creating a wind tunnel scenario. Either way, I was frozen; two layers of pants, my usual two socks and boots, singlet, two thermals, woollen knit under a Kathmandu jacket and coat. Frozen. It got me thinking… These prisoners were literally wearing cotton pyjamas, wooden shoes and a tiny little cap, they were starving and overworked… You cannot begin to understand how cold they must have been. This is what was so incredible about today; we’ve all read accounts of survivors or fiction books set in these times, seen documentaries or studied this period at school, but to be there, in the actual setting, in this bitter cold and hearing these stories; it was an unbelievable experience.
Washing Facilities – These big basins would have sprouted water from the centre, the right pits are for washing feet – both served as means for soldiers to drown prisoners if they were so inclined.
Urinals for the bunkers, very much in original condition.
The eating section of the bunkers, bunk beds down the back – apparently a survivor, upon seeing this, could not believe how authentic it looked down to the tables and the peeling paint.
If anyone has seen the movie ‘The Counterfeiters,’ this concentration camp was where that operation took place. Highly skilled Jewish artists were forced to secretly and illegally counterfeit English Pounds in exchange for better living and eating conditions; all the while being questioned and held in suspicion by their fellow prisoners. Because the barracks were made of wood, sadly none of them remain, however, because there are living survivors, and photographs, they have been able to reconstruct two of the barracks to give you an idea of the types of conditions these prisoners were forced to live under. Apparently, one re-visiting survivor was shocked at how exact they had re-built the scenario. How someone could return to that place after the things they would have seen is absolutely beyond me. What an incredible, strong human being.
Bunks three high and side by side.
Perhaps one of the most disgusting, insulting things I witnessed at the camp was this well known slogan on the entrance to the camp translating to “work will set you free”.
Work will set you free…
In fact, despite all their hard, physical labour on minimal, often half perished rations, these prisoners were treated unquestionably appallingly and only Liberated by the Soviet and Polish troops in April 1945, and even then, most died after Liberation because they were so malnourished and physically traumatised. Disease was thick, labour was forced, and thousands were systematically murdered by the SS. At the end of the tour we were taken to Station Z.
The protective roof built over the foundations in order to preserve them, and outdoor memorial honouring those killed in Station Z.
Although there were only the foundations remaining, it was easy to recognise the layout and intention of this building. Death hung thick in the air; decades past could not hide it. There was a small gassing chamber unoriginally disguised as showering facilities, there was a small room with double brick walls which acted as sound barriers for the shots fired through the wall to kill a man quickly, efficiently and with little blood, through a slit in the wall while the prisoner believed he was standing against the wall for his height to be recorded.
This ‘measuring stick’ was backed against a slit in the wall where an SS soldier could quickly shoot a prisoner who thought his height was being measured.
There are living survivors who all testify that loud, upbeat music was played here; undoubtedly to disguise any last gasps of the dying or the repetitive thud as lifeless bodies hit the floor after being killed with a single bullet to the back of the head; a mass production line in it’s simplest form. The procession of rooms conveniently ended with a storage room for the bodies next door to the crematorium where three ovens worked overtime to destroy the evidence. Ash was piled so thick and so high and often the names of the dead were not even recorded.
A memorial depicting a Soviet soldier Liberating two prisoners. The red stars symbolise the Soviets…
Similarly shocking was the order of hierarchy in the camp amongst prisoners themselves. Of course, the Germans and political prisoners were at the top of the food chain (often becoming leaders of their bunkers and earning their own separate, single bed), and of course, Jews and homosexuals were at the bottom. However, the most heartbreaking of all the plaques and memorials I read and saw today, was this one, that translates to something like freed but silenced; recognising the continuing struggle homosexuals faced both before, during and after the war.
A memorial dedicated to the ongoing struggles of the homosexual both during and after the War.
Despite being considered a different and inferior race, and having scientists and doctors study their brains to see if they were biologically unique, Jews were still compensated to some extent after the liberation of the camp. The homosexuals, however, went from one kind of hell, to another, finally given their freedom, but entering a world where their very being was illegal, taboo and often reported to the authorities by spies or general scumbag human beings. They were forced to wear hot pink triangles on their prison uniforms next to their number to indicate their crime, making them easily identifiable not only to guards, but fellow inmates alike. It is interesting to think that rapists and paedophiles also were allocated a hot pink triangle; are their offences so similar? Soviet prisoners wore red triangles, green was for ‘professional criminals’ (probably the only people who may have been deserving of a sentence, perhaps on a somewhat less drastic scale; thieves and murderers, etc), blue triangles were allocated to foreign forced labours like emigrants from occupied countries, purple for Jehova’s Witnesses (quite a niche group to be spiteful towards) and black triangles for those who were lazy; gypsies, alcoholics, beggars, pacifists (?), prostitutes and drug addicts… Although they were willing to over look 15 girls working in the camp’s brothel to act as ‘rewards’ for hard working male prisoners. Logical, no?
Prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were hung from these rods as a form of torture. The more they resisted and squirmed, the more likely they were to dislocate a shoulder or injury themselves further.
There was this particular sign that gave me goose bumps also; apparently it translates roughly to ‘Neutral Zone; shooting without warning.’ When a prisoner was on this gravel, it was assumed he was trying to escape, and so, soldiers were entitled to shoot to kill, without warning; except for the warning sign. When a soldier addressed a prisoner, the prisoner needed to stand to attention, left hand by his side, take off his cap and press it to his chest, and recite his prisoner number. Apparently it was very common for a guard to snatch the prisoner’s cap and throw it into this free firing zone. The prisoners must wear their caps at all times. What would you do? You can ask yourself so many of these what would you do if… questions, but it would be hard to know what you would do in such extreme circumstances. Hopefully we will never be faced with making such soul breaking decisions.
Free Shooting Zone sign. Anyone who walked on this gravel for any reason was able to be shot.
Apparently there was only one recorded escape at Sachsenhausen and it was in the first month of the camp’s operation, before the above installation of the second barbed fence and subsequent free firing zone. Seven prisoners were able to dig under the fence and tunnel their way to freedom in the middle of the night. The following morning when they did not appear for roll call, the sirens blasted and 7 black crosses were erected. The General warned the other prisoners that this is where he would hang and kill the 7 escapees when he found them. Six out of Seven were found. This means that in all those years, only one successful escape was recorded. Out of 200,000 people. The numbers are mind blowing. At one point, there were 200 guards monitoring 20,000 prisoners. You wonder what kind of extreme psychological torture and physical disintegration would lead to the hesitation of these prisoners to attack authority with the figures so outnumbered in their favour.
Soldiers would come out of the door on the right and shoot prisoners lined against the logs. Initially this would occur at the top, in front of the concrete, but the bullets often would ricochet – the wood allowed the bullet to get lodged.
After the liberation of the camp in 1945, the Soviets took over the camp and imprisoned Nazis and anyone else who was against their ideology. There is karma in its finest form, surely? So basically, the camp went from worse to bad; Jews were still the cause of all the world’s problems and homosexuals were still vermin – these groups just can’t seem to catch a break? I could write a hundred pages on my thoughts and feelings after today’s visit. It is an area that has always fascinated me and to finally visit one of the places I have read so much about was truly indescribable. The walk home was spent mostly in reflective quietness; it’s almost unfathomable how one human being could do these things to another human being; let alone en masse. Without justifying or excusing anything, it is also interesting to hear about the other side; where SS schools and communities were raising children to be the perfect citizens, and brainwashing them about the enemies of their country; the threats these people posed and how they must dispose of them to right all the wrongs. If you are raised to believe one thing your whole life, taught by your family, your friends and your school that the sky is blue, will you ever really question it? Would you question the motives of the ones you loved? I dare say, probably not. I’m certain there are people who knew they were doing wrong; how else can the death marches and the mass destruction of evidence be explained? If you think you are doing the right thing would you really need to cover your tracks? These are the sickening congregation.
Some of the very few victims of Station Z who are not only known, but had photographs. Most of the victims were unknown and unregistered.
The crematorium at the end of Station Z, still in good enough condition to give you goosebumps.
It feels odd to say I had an incredible or great time today. I was moved to visit this camp, to walk over the same place where people were killed for speaking up for their rights, or shouting condemning last words about the Nazis as they hung from the gallows. It was humbling to finally see with my own eyes the barracks and bathrooms and infirmaries I have learned so much about in various readings and documentaries. It was an overly emotional day and it left me feeling tired and heavy; left my mind racing. I will be visiting Auschwitz next week when I go to Krakow. Unlike Sachsenhausen, Krakaw was a death camp; prisoners were not only worked to the bone, but also executed there by the thousands. If today has left me with these thoughts, I can’t imagine what it will feel like to visit such an atrocious institution. I am soaking up all the history I can, however, and feel that there are certain things in the World’s past we cannot ignore. I am glad I got to see Sachsenhausen with my own eyes, even if it did leave me with more questions than answers.
A memorial for the victims of the camp inside Section Z, the termination building.