Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Berlin Travel Blog

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I sat on the crowded train, in the only fold-down seat left at the end of the row.  On my right sat a mother with a toddler on her lap, a little blonde girl with eyes as blue as the sky outside the train.  The girl was swinging a little stuffed purple gorilla around by the legs seemingly oblivious to my presence.  It hit me several times.  After a while the girl realized I was there and held her gorilla out upside down for me to examine.  She gave me a big smile that revealed a missing tooth and asked, “Haben Sie meine Stufftier gern?”

“Ja,” I told her, with my almost passable German. “Das ist cool.”

The mother gave me an apologetic look. “Gehen Sie nach Rostock?” she asked pleasantly.

            “Nein, wir gehen zu Oranienburg,” I told her, indicating myself and the rest of my tour group.

            She switched to English and leaned in, lowering her voice like we were sharing a secret. “Oh, you are going to visit the camp?”


             Exactly 42 minutes after we left Berlin’s main station, our high-speed train glided to a smooth stop in Oranienburg.  Jake, Tim and I fought our way out with our tour group and several other passengers.

We gathered around the tour guide, Ida on the small train station platform.  Most of the group consisted of Americans but there was an Australian couple and a South African Family with two young teenage sons.  The group was mostly middle aged except for us, the South African kids, and two kids who had just graduated from high school —  I’ll call them Tom and Dick.  There was one woman with silver hair who was older.  She wore a white dress and flat, black shoes.  I couldn’t say what nationality she was and she gave no indication of why she was on the tour.  She was the only person in the group who had come alone and she didn’t say anything during or after the tour. 

“Welcome to Oranienburg station,” Ida began.  “This is the same stop which victims of the camp would have come to before being marched through the town.

  It’s about a mile to the camp from here.  It took about 20 minutes to get everyone off the trains and to the camps, which means they were force marched pretty hard.”

One woman raised her hand like she was in class. “Did the people in the town know what was going on?”

“Yes, but usually they pretended it wasn’t happening,” Ida said.  “When a train came in that they knew was carrying victims for the camp, the people of Oranienburg would go inside and close their shutters.”

“But didn’t they try to do anything about it?” the woman asked.

“Most people pretended it wasn’t happening.  It was a taboo to talk about during those years.  There was one time that they did do something about it,” Ida said.

  “A group of Polish prisoners, shortly after the invasion of Poland, were sent here.  The Nazi machine had convinced everyone that Poland was the one who attacked Germany so the German People hated the Polish.  When those prisoners were marched through the town…much slower than they usually would have been, people were leaning out their windows to throw things at them.”

The group was silent except for a short burst of laughter from Tom as Dick whispered something in his ear.  We looked at them, offended.  They weren’t paying attention.

We left the train station and jumped on a public bus that was stopped outside.  After a 15 minute ride that took us in a loop around the small town, we got off on a completely unremarkable residential street.

Two children were playing soccer on the front lawn of a house by the corner.  They had two training-wheel bikes set up to mark goal posts.  We followed Ida immediately around the corner and saw a 10-foot cement wall that formed the edge of the former Sachsenhausen Concentration camp.  We walked along the cinderblock walls in silence.  The mortar had been poorly laid and was splashed all over the sides of the wall. Small metal spikes stuck out of the top.  Jake said later, “I didn’t even want to go in anymore.  All that iron and cement and those teeth on top of the walls… It was trying to eat us and we were going to walk straight into its mouth.”

We stopped outside at a small model of the camp.

“This is the first concentration camp built after Himmler took over as head of police,” Ida said, pointing at the small model.  “You see it’s built in a triangle shape with only one gate, called Tower A.  All of the barracks fan out from the gate so a single guard on top of the tower would be able to see everyone at once.  It created the feeling for the prisoners that they were always being watched.”

“Yo,” interrupted Dick.  “Why didn’t the prisoners just like, rush the guards or something?”

Ida looked at him.  It wasn’t a reproachful look like we had hoped for.  She just looked at him for a second or two before she replied.  “The simple reason is they were underfed, unarmed, and had no opportunity to organize anything like a revolt.”

We walked up to Tower A and sat down on the Holocaust Memorial’s steps that were directly outside of the camp to hear some background on prisoner life. 

The camp opened in 1936. Its original purpose was to clear Jews and Communists who were being kept in improvised basement jails in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. When the camp was opened, it held 2,000 men.  In 1938 it held 8,000 men and was considered at capacity for toilets and food. When the camp was liberated in 1944 it held 58,000 men. About 50 percent of the inmates died every year from exhaustion, starvation, or beatings.  In 1943, just over 85,000 men had been held in Sachsenhausen. The lady in white stood with her back to us, looking through the doors of the memorial but not entering.  Dick started eating a Milky Way.

We finally entered the camp through the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “work will set you free,molded in iron on them, and we came out onto the parade ground.   Dick jumped up on the fence and pressed his face up against the forewarning words as Tom took a picture from the other side.

The parade ground was about the size of a rounded off football field.  There were two walls in the back that had been constructed as part of the memorial camp.  On them were drawn the outlines of where the cabins would have been. 

“What did the prisoners do for work?” an American man asked.  “I mean, after the camp was built, what was there for them to do?”

“When the German government sent all the able men to fight, the companies still needed employment,” Ida told us.  “They had all this free labor just sitting around so they offered all German companies their services if they were willing to relocate.”

“Slave labor, then?” the Australian asked.

“Essentially.  Dozens of companies moved to this area including a few that you’ve probably heard of.  BMW moved here, Bayer, the drug company put up a factory here, and a few others that you wouldn’t know.  A brick making company and an army boots maker.  It was mindless work, which was the only kind that the Germans thought their victims capable of.”

We walked in silence to the right corner of the triangle camp where two small shacks were standing.  These two buildings are the only original to the camp.  They were preserved by an Israeli grant as a memorial to the victims of Krystalnacht.”

Tom and Dick ran right up to the door. 

“If you’ll wait a minute,” Ida said, showing the first signs of annoyance, “I’d like to tell you why they were so special to Israel.” 

Tom and Dick came back to the groups hanging their heads like school kids that got caught passing a note. 

“Krystalnacht, the night of broken glass was November 9, 1938.  Some of you may remember it was the night it officially became dangerous to be a Jew.  All Jewish-owned businesses in Germany were vandalized or destroyed.  It was also the night that the government arrested 30,000 Jewish people at once.  This included some of the most prestigious people of the arts and business, most of whom thought they were immune because of their money or influence.  Six thousand people were arrested in Berlin alone.  These are the two huts they all were put in.”

Ida paused for an appropriate gasp from a few people in the group.

“The guards had so much hate for the Jews that they boarded all the windows shut and clogged the ventilation shaft on top of the building.  People were piled on top of each other.  Hundreds died the first night from being crushed or suffocated.  Hundreds more died over the next three days, of suffocation or dehydration.”

“Did they kill them all?” asked a man in the group as Tom feigned being crushed by an invisible weight. 

“No.  Actually, they were saved by the Communists.  They had been here for two years already so they understood the way the Nazi mind worked.  They started complaining to the guards, ‘Why do we have to do all the work while the Jews get to lie around?  Why not make them share the work?’  The guards agreed and after three days of little air, and cramped conditions surrounded by rotting bodies, the men were let out and sent to the brick factory.”

Tom and Dick were looking at the door, eager to go in. 

The group entered the building behind Tom and Dick.  The lady in the white dress stayed outside, sitting on a bench where we found her when we came back out.

  We toured the cabins and saw the area that 3,000 men were expected to live in.  We heard stories about different means of torture.  We toured the isolation jail, where prisoners of importance or people with leadership qualities were kept and tortured.  We went to the spot on the electric fence where Stalin’s son committed suicide because his father wouldn’t bargain for his release.  We learned about different means of keeping the victims in line, like dislocating their shoulders, hanging them from spikes in the wall and beating them with metal rods. 

Around the edge of the parade ground were 10 meter areas of different types of stone and dirt surfaces that represented the surfaces which German soldiers might encounter.  The boot factory wanted to test the durability of these boots on different surfaces, so the fittest inmates had these boots strapped on their feet and were forced to run back and forth on these surfaces all day.  The average inmate lasted one or two weeks before they died of exhaustion and malnutrition.

The Australian father put his arm around one son and grabbed for his wife’s hand.  Tom and Dick decided to run a few laps to test their own shoes.

It all began to blend together for us.  In an hour, not even the most squeamish of the group was gasping at the atrocities, or reacting to stories of death.  No one reacted to anything for a while after we heard that story.

We remained fairly somber until we reached the ovens.  A sickening silence caught in our throats as we walked into the execution house. 

“There were three main means of execution at Sachsenhausen,” Ida told us.  “The first was the firing squad.  This was considered an honorable death and was reserved for the most respected inmates: the soldiers, some Communists,” she said, waving her hand to a gradual trench with a wooden dead-end.  “Then there was the doctor’s office.”  She pointed to the wrecked frame of a building in which we were standing.  Only the foundation was left to show the rooms that the building once held.  “When a group of incoming prisoners were designated for extermination…” she paused as the context of the word sank in, “they would be told they were going to get a physical.  They brought them into this room and told them to strip.”  She pointed to the largest room of the foundation.  A dozen or so were told they were too dirty and would need a shower first.  These men were then put in that room, which looked like a shower, and the gas was turned on.  The rest of the men were called into the next room one at a time.  A guard dressed up like a doctor took their pulse and checked blood pressure.  He then told them that he was going to check their height.  They put their back up against the wall with a sliding measure on it.  There was a secret room behind the wall which hid two guards.  When the level was placed on the victims head, the guards behind the wall were able to tell exactly where the base of the neck was and they fired a shot through it, killing the victim instantly. They were then dragged into the next room, which contained the ovens where once the gruesome task was done, all the bodies would be burned.”

We stayed at the ovens for a little while, taking pictures and reading the memorial plaques that were put there by families of the victims. 

The lady in white had an empty look as she stared into the ovens.  She didn’t take her eyes off them until Tom and Dick asked a man to take a picture of them where she had just been gazing. The man took the camera from them and lined up the shots.  They both grinned broadly.  As the man pushed the button on the digital camera, Tom flipped two fingers up behind Dick’s head in the classic “bunny ears” gesture of second grade.  The iron beams that once held up the sides of the ovens were bent over from the bombing of the building.  Tom’s fingers were hooked in the same shape. 

As we left the camp through Guard Tower A, the lady in the white dress was walking slowly but determinedly.  She stopped right in front of me, by the iron gates.  She leaned over very slowly with one hand bracing her back, and picked a small clump of flowers growing in the grass by the old electric fence post.  She walked up to the gate, and wove the flowers in to the words ARBEIT MACHT FREI.  They stood out brilliantly pink against the lifeless black iron.

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photo by: CFD