Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

I've gone to quite a few places over the years but this one was different. I was a bit mixed on how I would feel. Would I be sad? Would I not be sad? Would it be life changing? Would it be "just another place" I had visited? I didn't really know what to expect for my first visit to a concentration camp. What could one make out of a place that, over time, became an overly-efficient factory killing machine? Up to that point, I only knew what I had seen, heard, or read about. On one side, the pictures of the skeleton-like bodies pilled up like raw materials and, on the other side, things like Hogan's Heroes, which is a television show that I had watched, and really enjoyed, as a kid.

Somehow, standing at the gate of the Sachsenhausen (pronounced "zox-zenn-how-zen") concentration camp gave me pause. I stopped for a moment to consider all of these mixed thoughts and feelings before going through the gates where so many had gone before:

Sachsenhausen is located about a 30-minute metro ride north of Berlin in what is now a suburban neighborhood. I didn't know it on the way there that some of the prisoners had been transported to the camp via those very same metro lines and walk from the nearby station to the camp.

On the way there, we passed by this memorial for one of the death marches that took place just prior to the end of the war. It's located about three blocks from the camp along one of the main roads. Before moving to Germany, I didn't know how people handled the whole Nazi/World War II/Holocaust topic much less how it was remembered. Over time, I've come to learn a lot more, such as that kids are taught all about these topics in school (way more than I ever was), smaller memorials all over the place (including things like Stolpersteine, which I've written about before), and larger monuments like this one in the middle of a suburban neighborhood:

The camp was originally built to house political prisoners as opposed to the mass-killing camps like Auschwitz that were built later. Interestingly, the camp wasn't closed at the end of the war, rather it was taken over by the Soviets who continued to use it as a prison until 1950. (That last sentence's structure made me realize how bad my English has gotten with the combination of German, Spanish, and English grammar floating around in my head. Oh, and I left it as written so you could see it for yourself.)

Just under the guard house, there's a gate where "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (work makes you free) is written. This saying, which became famous, originated here and went on to be used at many of the camps. What went through the 200,000+ (!!!) people's minds as they read this when being led in?

Just inside the gate the camp's large size is evident. It's really big and shaped sort of like a piece of pie (wedge) with the main guard building (above photo) at the point. All the buildings were laid out along axes that extend out from that one point so that a single tower could monitor the whole camp. It didn't end up working as well as they had hoped and other towers were added later.

There are only a few buildings remaining. None of them, as far as I know, are original. You can see two of the buildings below, which served as the laundry and kitchen facilities, along with a large concrete memorial tower built during the Soviet era, and in the foreground, the shoe test track where prisoners were punished by being forced to march many, many, miles each day to test out new army boot designs:

A section of the electrified fence, barbed wire, and wall around the camp:

The two buildings below are recreations of the prisoner's barracks. The gravel pits mark locations where other buildings stood.

Inside of one of the barracks. The second room where the sleeping area was is blocked off by a glass wall and the peeling paint was the result of some Neo-Nazi vandalism:

Other than the large machine gun installation by the front door and the shoe test track, the tour had been surprisingly light. My first face-to-face with the reality of what happened here was when I left the barracks and walked out the back to these strappado poles. Prisoners who were being punished for some infraction were suspended by their wrists tied up behind their backs. This, as you can imagine, was quite painful and would usually result in all sorts of damage including pulling their arms out of their sockets.

From there, it was over to the killing trench where victims early in the camp's history were shot or hung. The baby stroller and young child were an interesting juxtaposition to what must have happened here.

Just beyond the trench is a fabric-covered structure that surrounds "Station Z", which is where the gas chamber and crematorium were. The building itself is a bit hard to make out as it's overexposed to the point where it disappears. In an interesting coincidence, the professor that Diana is working under here in Stuttgart was one of the designers of the structure. The memorial sculpture is of two prisoners holding the body of a dead fellow prisoner.

Station Z along with the trench were definitely the most somber part of the tour for me. Just imagining what was happening here was/is pretty hard to take. The remains of a gas chamber are in the foreground left-hand side of this photo. You can see some of the plumbing in the chamber's far wall (left side corner running along the floor, not the four vertical support bars):

...and, located on the other side of Station Z, remains of the crematorium used to dispose of dead prisoners:

Random aside: A photo taken at the onsite museum showing a uniform in a glass case. The reason I took the photo, though, is that, hanging on the wall, there's a pattern nest for the uniform. Having worked in the clothing industry and making uniforms (but not Nazi ones...) at one point, I felt instantly at home!

Sachsenhausen was definitely not Hogan's Heroes, not that I expected it to be. For most of the time I was there, I was surprised how little "impact" that the tour made on me. It wasn't until I saw the strappado posts and the killing pit that it started to hit home. Then, on seeing the remains of the gas chamber and ovens, having it slam into me. Yep, people died here. A lot of them. They were not very different than you and I and they suffered and died here. The worst part is that I know genocide, albeit on a smaller scale, still happens today. I am guilty of sometimes thinking that there are just too many memorials to what happened here but, after seeing this first hand, I'm convinced that we may need even more so that we will be quicker to stamp it out.

Another random note... If you're wondering about the whole "what/do Germans think about Nazis/Hitler/etc.?" thing, let me share a little story from this past weekend that happened after I originally wrote this story. I was watching television with a born-in-Germany friend and her mother and the news was showing coverage of Merkel visiting Portugal. Some of the protesters' signs showed Merkel with a Hitler mustache and others had the word Nazi and/or the swastika written on them. Around 60 years later, this kind of stuff happens every day. I'm not excusing what happened back then at all but, trust me, Germans think about it in their daily life waaaay more than you probably do. I believe that lots of Germans, at some level, believe that most people in the world see them as Nazis. The past can't be undone, nor should we forget about it, but we have to make sure not to blame (today's) people that had nothing to do with what happened. That's just not fair.


  1. Hi Darren. We are studying the Holocaust as part of our 5th grade curriculum here in New Jersey. Your neice informed me that you had visited this location so we are sharing it with the whole class. Thanks for the blog!

    1. Thank you Miss Englehart! I hope that it was not only interesting but also well written. :-)


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