Cities / Towns Visited: 35
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 17,943
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,321,572
May I just begin by saying that I know this is a lengthy blog, but I beseech you to stick with it as the atrocities I learnt about today need to be viewed in their entirety, we owe the victims that much. The day had come that we were going to be moving on from our home in Berlin, and continue on in our adventure. Before we left the area though, we had one more day trip to make in our pilgrimage to commemorate the atrocities of the Nazi regime; Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienborg. After stowing our luggage at Ost station near the hostel we took the two trains out of the city. After an hour we pulled into our final station and began the walk to the site. As we arrived we picked up audioguides and began.
The first exhibit outside of the visitor centre is a group of three models which show the three stages of the site’s history. The first and largest of them shows the camp at the height of the Nazi rule, and it spans out a huge area into the surrounding land; much larger than the main camp which houses the remains open to the public now. The second model shows the camp during the Communist rule after World War II when it was used as a prison camp for political inmates by the Stasi. At this point a lot of the outlying regions were no longer in use. The third and final model is of the camp when the soviets stopped using it as a prison camp and opened the main camp as a military museum.
Finally it was time to head down the path which was once used to march the unfortunate souls to, what for a large portion of them, was their final destination. The long road, with its massive wall topped with barbed wire, hiding its violent secrets from the world, was a solemn stroll for both of us. As we walked through the first gate, we were delivered into the first courtyard; the one in which the inmates were sorted, bathed in lye, and shaved, which was embarrassing enough without the fact that it was done in front of all of the other prisoners. The audioguide has first-hand stories, told by a number of survivors of the camp, and it is heartwrenching to hear them describe even this first step in their incarceration. To the left of this courtyard stands the commandant’s house. Inside sits a large amount of information about the past commandants, including a ridiculous photo of one standing smiling with their wife outside the house. How they could go about their life with any amount of joy when just behind the next wall they were commanding one of the greatest violations of human rights and general morality ever, is completely beyond my scope of comprehension.
Between the commandant’s house and the inner compound wall sits an open grassy space, dotted with trees, around which sits a number of memorials, placed there by everyone from government’s who’s citizens where sent here during their occupation, to private citizens. There is a memorial for Georg Elser, a man who had attempted to assassinate Hitler, and after his failure he was imprisoned and murdered here; a man who saw the threat and tried to eliminate it, long before the rest of the world caught on. There is also a touching memorial for Rosa Broghammer, a German woman who fell in love with a French P.O.W.. They were ratted out by a neighbour who heard them listening to foreign radio broadcasts, and subsequently she was imprisoned here in 1939. She managed to survive until the camp was liberated, however she died just a month later in the camps infirmary from the tuberculosis and the damage done to her during her captivity. The plaque was erected by a class of students who discovered her story when researching the stories of the camp’s prisoners, and is a touching reminder that every single story, of every single prisoner, is unique and should be told. This pain needs its faces seen, and its our job to bring them to light.
Finally it was time to walk through those most dreaded of gates into the triangular main compound. As we approached the gates we were faced with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ in its iron structure, which roughly translates to ‘Work Liberates’. An almost ironic sentiment when you consider the majority of inmates were purposely worked to death; unless of course the Nazi’s had meant it to mean that it liberates them from life, which in all honestly sounds just sick and twisted enough to be true. We entered the guardhouse that sits above the gate, and passed through an exhibition which tells the stories of the most heinous of the guards who worked at the camp, and the atrocious acts of abuse, torture, and murder they perpetrated freely on the innocent prisoners. Stories of them beating a gay inmate until he died of his injuries; or victimising prisoners until they were driven to suicide; or the horrendous story of the head guard forcing a large group of prisoners to stand in the -20°C weather in their thin clothes in the roll call area, while he sat up in the warmth of his watch tower, and watched them slowly, one by one, collapse and die of exhaustion and hypothermia. It was unquestionably one of the most sickening acts I’ve ever read about. I don’t believe in hell but I’ve never wanted one to exist as much as I did at that moment and throughout my visit to this camp. May I show you just a few of the smug faces of these monsters.
As we trod back down the stairs we finally passed through the gates. Its at this point you truly see the strategic nature of the camps layout. The main gate sits in the centre of the bottom of a giant equilateral triangle formation, from which a semi circular roll call area sits surrounding it, then out from there used to splay out the long rectangular prison blocks. There are other guard towers along the walls in such a formation that there is a clear shot to almost every single position of the grounds. The inside of the wall is protected from potential escapees by coils of barbed wire and high voltage fencing. I was deeply saddened to discover that it was not uncommon for a desperate inmate to purposely throw themselves against the electric fence in order to end their lives.
As we continued on, we passed the track that runs parallel along the same semicircular shape as the roll call area. It is made of several different surface types, and it is on this track that inmates were forced to do the gruelling task of testing shoe materials for the military by running, walking, and crawling along the tracks, usually up to 30+km a day. This was, to no ones surprise, one of the hardest and most feared jobs assigned to the prisoners and was often the task of homosexual and Jewish prisoners. Now, most of the cell blocks have been demolished, but two still stand off in the ‘small camp’, the small rectangular addition to the bottom the triangular compound, as within just a couple of months of the camp opening they had already filled it and needed more space. On the outside of one of these blocks you can still see the damage done by neonazi arsonists only a few decades ago; proof that we have most certainly not ridden ourselves of the kinds of people who worked here in the beginning.
The blocks hold an insightful exhibit on the Jewish prisoners who were housed in the camp, and who made up the entire population of the small camp. They also hold a sectioned off area in which they have reconstructed how the blocks would have looked when they were running, with the sleeping area absolutely filled with three high bunk beds which were only 70cm wide and yet often held two or even three men at a time. The day room held the plain wooden benches and tables at which the inmates would have eaten their meagre meals, as well as a few lockers for the inmates to store the few personal items they were allowed to bring with them. The communal toilets and wash basins allow no privacy, and were seriously lacking considering the blocks held around 130 inmates at times, and they were allowed only 30 minutes to wash and ready themselves in the morning (their day started at 4:30am, by the way). Here we also heard the horror story of a man who was beaten and drowned in the sink by guards as the other inmates could do nothing but listen on from the sleeping quarters.
Our next stop was the solitary confinement block, were men were held in small cells, fed nothing but bread and water, and tortured for days and sometimes weeks. Most of these poor souls either died from their injuries and maltreatment, or committed suicide. It was in its halls that we heard the heartening story of one prisoner who was kept here for an incredible six weeks and survived. He was mocked daily by the guards who often asked ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’, to which he simply responded, ‘If you want me dead you’re going to have to come in here and do it yourself!’. It was empowering to hear of the resolve of such a person in such extreme circumstances, in which it would be expected that his will would be broken and all hope lost. That man was imprisoned in the camp for seven years, and lived to see it freed by the allies at the end of WWII. However after the war he was imprisoned again in the camp under the soviet communist regime and lost his life then. That man’s story will live in my heart forever, and will give me strength in times when hope seems lost, or when my depression batters me into the darkness.
Next up we walked passed the wall, over which you can see the tops of the trees which make up the forest which flanks one side of the compound, and in which a number of mass graves were filled with the bodies of countless Soviet P.O.W.s by the Nazi’s. We then turned and headed toward where the gallows used to stand. Here we heard the story of a young Czech prisoner who was whipped and hung in front of all of the other prisoners for stealing a small amount of bread as he was starving. The tale was regaled by a survivor of the camp who had been forced to what the atrocity. We then headed to the old kitchen block which houses a number of artefacts found at the camp, including personal items, and some of the old uniforms worn by the inmates. Downstairs in the basement sits the few surviving remnants from the building’s original purpose, including the cool room, complete with menacing hooks hanging from the ceiling in which the animal carcasses were hung, as well as the massive concrete troughs in which the inmates on kitchen duty had to wash the rotting potatoes they were forced to used to make the prisoners food.
As we turned right outside the door, we swung past the massive pillar, which was erected as a memorial by the soviets when the site was used as a military museum. At its base sits a statue of a soviet soldier freeing two prisoners, and at the top of the massive pillar there are 16 triangles (the shape well knows to be stitched in different colours on the shirts of the prisoners to identify them, Jewish inmates had Star of David instead). Each of this triangles represents a country from which inmates were taken from their homes and brought to this hell hole, and a plaque at the base also notes down the names of the aforementioned countries.
It was time now to head to the most dreaded part of the visit; the area just outside the main compound in which prisoners were slaughtered. As we walked through the gap in the wall we were delivered just beside the execution pit; a pit with a slope going down into it in which prisoners were forced to run down only to be shot as they came into the space at the bottom. Marked out on the ground in the space back at ground level are the positions in which they found mass graves filled with human ashes. Next we went into the sectioned off area which houses the foundations of the building which used to hold the rooms in which thousands of prisoners were killed with gas, or where (as I found out, and had not been aware of previously) thousands of prisoners (mostly Soviet P.O.Ws, up to 10,000 a day at one point) were sent into what they thought was a physical check to see what work they would be fit for, but instead they were told to stand up against what appeared to be a height measure, but secretly behind the wall stood a soldier who used a small hole to shoot the prisoners in the base of the neck. The sounds of their executions were drowned out by loud music so that the other prisoners, and obviously the surrounding civilians, wouldn’t become aware. Atop some of the foundations sits the remnants of the cremation ovens at which the most unfortunate of living prisoners were forced to burn the remains of their fellow murdered counterparts. I honestly can’t even begin to fathom how soul destroying that task must have been for them.
Coming back into the compound we headed out the top of the triangular walls into the second camp which houses a number of brick cell blocks in which the more important prisoners were held; those who were wealthy and notable, and especially those who’s identities they wished to keep hidden from the other prisoners. During the time of the Nazi’s these cells were practically luxurious with only around 8 prisoners to a block. On the other hand, during the Communist prison camp period these were the worst place to be placed, as they were crammed full in squalid conditions. Beside this area sits a black building within which stands an exhibition about the Communist prison camps, and the stories of some of the unfortunate people who were doomed to be sent here.
The only area left for us to visit at this point was at the bottom left corner of the main camp. Here stands the old infirmary; one of the only building still standing. Within its walls there is an exhibition talking about how any of the inmates with a medical background were forced to treat the sick, although they were given meagre provisions, as the Nazi’s did not actually wish for the restoration of health of the ill, unless they would be able to work again or would be useful for experimentation. Here there also stands boards telling of the medical atrocities committed in the name of ‘research’; the kinds of experiments you most certainly do not need an ethics committee to tell you are fundamentally inhumane. Things like making wounds in inmate’s limbs and sewing wet straw into them to cause gangrene so they could study how to treat it in their soldiers; although this, of course, simply ended with the inmates dying of sepsis within a few hours. There was also stories of the ‘doctors’ injecting young healthy children with hepatitis to see how the disease affected them; again obviously just ending in liver failure and death within a short period. Some of the ‘doctors’ who committed these crimes, as well as those who partook in the administration of gassing and otherwise executing prisoners, were somehow allowed to go back to practicing medicine after the war and were never prosecuted, and the thought of that makes my skin crawl.
The last building left on our educational journey was the mortuary. Just outside it there is the marked out space where the brothel used to stand. Although there were only a small percentage of female prisoners, a number of them were forced to work in the brothel, which serviced both the soldiers, as well as ‘privileged’ inmates who earned vouchers. This of course resulted in many STD’s, as well as a number of pregnancies of which, of course, ended in the soldiers shooting the impregnated woman. Hearing about it literally made me feel sick to my stomach, and furious at the same time. We then walked into the small mortuary building. With its two autopsy tables, it was almost comical to hear that they undertook autopsies on the dead, especially considering the fact they were only allowed to write one of only a few approved causes of death on their death certificates, non of which included maltreatment or murder, which were obviously almost the sole cause. As we walked down into the dark tiled basement which once housed the corpses, the hair on the back of my neck prickled; I have been to a number of morgues at old asylums, but there was something about the culmination of everything I’d just read and heard that made the experience sensorially overwhelming.
Finally it was time to leave, and with heavy hearts and troubled minds we handed back in our audioguides. Passing the remnants of the bottle in which a note from a pair of prisoners who unluckily did not survive the Nazi’s, was found in the walls of one of the buildings they had been forced to build during their imprisonment. We hurried off to the train. Having expected to only spend a few hours here, we realised just how much time had slipped away; it had been seven hours. We were running long behind schedule, much to the distaste of our AirBNB host, and after much hassle we managed to get back to Berlin, fetch our bags, and just miss our train to Hamburg by 30 seconds, making us a further 40 minutes behind. By the time we arrived at our accommodation it was 10:45pm, and we had planned to be there at 6:30. The neighbour of the host who let us in was kind and forgiving for our late arrival. Seemingly it was just our host (who we never met) who was gravely offended by it, despite him at no point having told us there was a cut off point for checking in, despite us asking for a time range. In the end though, everything we had learned today made our problems seem so mediocre. After a quick shower we settled into bed, and I took a moment to internally review my day.
I hadn’t known how visiting this concentration camp would affect me emotionally, I hadn’t known what to expect, but as I reflected on the spectrum of feelings I had experienced, I think the most overwhelming of them all wasn’t sadness, as you might think, but rage. A deep anger burnt in my chest, anger about the injustice of it all, anger about the intolerance, anger about the collective evil shown by this group of unremorseful people, anger that no one stepped in to stop it earlier, and anger that I had no power to change anything about the situation at all. All I could do was view it, learn from it, and speak about it as I am now in the hope that I, and any of you reading it, will endeavour to identify injustice in our daily lives, even on a small scale, and do what we can to stamp it out; to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and let them know that they are not alone and that they are just as worthy of life, if not moreso, than those who would endeavour to harm them. We must learn our history, really concentrate on it, and allow its pain to settle within us, let it harden our resolve, and let that empathy fuel us as we call out ‘Never again!’, and truly mean it.