I wasn’t initially planning on visiting Sachsenhausen during a week long trip in Berlin last May.
Sachsenhausen is a former concentration camp built in Oranienburg in 1936 by the Nazi regime. Used as a model for other concentration camps, originally it was mostly political opponents who were incarcerated here; to them were soon added increasing numbers of people who were thought by National Socialist ideology to be inferior, racially or biologically, and people from the occupied countries of Europe.
At least two hundred thousand people were imprisoned here from 1936 until 1945 when the camp was liberated by Soviet and Polish troops. Tens of thousands of them died of malnutrition, disease, forced labour and maltreatment, or were otherwise murdered.
After 1945 the camp was used by the Soviets as a “special camp”, that is, a prisoner camp. Mostly Nazi functionaries were kept here, but also people considered enemies of Communism and the Soviet Union. Often people were arrested without charges or evidence and kept here. By 1950 when the camp was closed, sixty thousand people were imprisoned in this special camp, of whom twelve thousand had died.
In 1961 a memorial was established on the site. Of the original buildings, only a few remain.
I was at first hesitant about visiting the camp; I had never visited one before. It is a depressing place to be in and Berlin already has too many places that have a heartbreakingly sad history. I do however believe everyone should see and be in one of the camps at least once in their life.
The Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum is located at Straße der Nationen 22 in Oranienburg, 35 km north of Berlin. There are several ways to get there from Berlin, one of which is taking the S-Bahn, line S1. You will be in Oranienburg in less than an hour. From the station, it is a 2 km distance to the memorial site. There are some signs along the way if you wish to walk.
In the next photo you can see the visitor center.
This building was built in 1939/1940 as a workshop for maintaining weapons.
Entry is free; you can get an audio guide for a small charge (3 euros at the time of my visit). The audio guide is highly recommended as it is very informative and helpful in making you understand the layout and history of the camp. You can also get a guided tour. Check the official website for more information on visiting.
The picture above shows the entrance to the Command Headquarters and the Prisoners’ Camp.
On the other side, across the entrance, is the SS Troop Camp, shown below. This is a building complex where guards were trained and housed.
Upon entering the camp, you can see the Commandant’s House on the left (pictured in the two photos below). Here the commandant took part in the decision making concerning matters like the planning of mass murder operations.
The area shown below houses signs of commemoration.
A museum (below) showcasing the history of the camp is also located here.
Upon exiting the museum, you turn right and walk through the entrance to the Prisoners’ Camp. The entrance door features the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign.
“Arbeit macht frei” means “work sets you free”. It is the title of a novel by Georg Anton Lorenz Diefenbach (1806-1883). The hero of the novel, a gambler and fraudster, eventually manages to find the path of virtue through work.
Considering that prisoners who were held at the camps had no way of obtaining freedom of any form, the use of that particular phrase is painfully ironic.
The entrance building, also known as “Tower A”, is where Department III (Protective Custody Camp) was located. Guards here had direct power over the camp prisoners.
On either side of Tower A, you can see the “security system”. This was built to prevent prisoners from escaping. It consisted of the “death strip”, an electric fence and a wall.
The “death strip” was a surface of gravel. Anyone that stepped on the gravel would immediately be shot without warning, as reads the sign “Neutrale zone – Es wird ohne Anruf sofort scharf geschossen”. Guards with high reflexes and capability at shooting “stray” prisoners would even be rewarded.
The security system was reconstructed when the Memorial was created in 1961.
The camp’s layout was formed as an equilateral triangle. Tower A was located on the central axis of the camp, and barracks were placed in a semi-circular form.
Below are shown barracks 38 and 39, used for the incarceration of Jewish prisoners.
Triple bunk beds shown below.
Washroom shown below. SS guards were known to drown prisoners in the basins here.
Barracks 38 and 39 were reconstructed using original material when the Memorial was created.
An anti-Semitic arson attack in 1992 partially destroyed both barracks. You can still smell the smoke.
Most original barracks have been demolished. These are marked in the ground, so the architecture of the camp is visible.
A guard tower can be seen below. The missing barracks marked in the ground are visible on the left and right bottom of the photo.
Near barracks 38 and 39 is the prison of the camp (as if the camp itself was not freedom-depriving enough).
Hanging posts outside the prison can be seen in the photo above.
The prison was used to keep people arrested for infringement of camp rules and important people arrested by the Gestapo.
The prison consisted of three wings. One wing remains today.
Near here a “shoe testing track” was located. This was made of different surfaces and prisoners had to march on it endlessly to test material for making boots for the army and shoes for various shoe companies. (Can be partially seen in the bottom right corner of the photo below.)
Next you can see the Prisoners’ Kitchen and the Laundry Room.
Both house exhibitions that illustrate the history of the camp.
Photos above, clockwise from top left: Hanging post, cart to transport deceased prisoners, caning rack, bunk bed.
The photo above shows a view of Tower A from this area.
In 1961, when the Memorial was created, a 40 meter high obelisk was erected to commemorate the political prisoners held at the camp. The DDR was at the time more interested in focusing on the political prisoners and victims of the Nazi regime rather than the other groups of people that were imprisoned in the camps. The obelisk has 18 red triangles at the top. The red triangle was used by the Nazis as a badge to identify political prisoners.
Eighteen triangles, to symbolize the eighteen countries from which the prisoners originated.
Looking left from the Obelisk, you can see the place where “Station Z” was located. Station Z was cynically named after the last letter of the alphabet, because this was the last station of an inmate’s life. It consisted of buildings used for murder and mass extermination.
Below is the execution trench.
In this area you can see a burial ground with ashes of victims from the crematorium.
The crematorium is shown in the photo on the left below.
In the photo on the right the foundations of the extermination facilities can be seen.
Upon exiting the Station Z facilities you go left towards Tower E, located at the northern end of the camp triangle.
In this area the sonderlager was located. It was built outside the main camp in 1941 to hold prisoners that the Nazi regime wanted to isolate. After the Soviets took control of the camp, this place was used as zone II of the Special Camp.
The Soviet Special Camp museum is located here. Fifteen original masonry barracks are seen in the area.
Heading back towards the west side of the camp, passing again outside Station Z, you reach the site of the camp’s first crematorium, which was built in 1939. Its foundations can be seen in the two photos below.
It was located near Tower C, seen in the photo above. It was used until 1942 when the crematorium in Station Z was constructed.
Reaching the western end of the triangle you can see the infirmary barracks. These original buildings are where medical crimes were committed. Experiments, compulsory castration and sterilization, race research, murder of those not healthy enough to work. Explanatory exhibitions are set here.
Near the infirmary barracks is the Pathology Building, built in 1941. Here autopsies were performed on those who had died. There were specific “death causes” in the camp’s terminology; “murder” was not one of them.
That was the last stop of the visit at the camp. Heavyhearted, I took a moment to think about everything I had seen here before I headed towards the exit.
There’s this strange feeling you immediately get when entering through the door. So much negative energy; there’s silence and the only thing you hear is the wind blowing through the trees and the crows cawing. That feeling is maintained throughout the visit to the camp.
Personally, I find it hard to come to terms with everything that took place in the concentration camps. Everything that happened after the National Socialist party took control in Germany, that led to the second world war, is beyond the imagination of any sound minded human being.
As one of the most famous Sachsenhausen prisoners, Reverend Martin Niemöller, said “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me… and there was no one left to speak for me.”
With the last few years’ rise of far-right political parties across Europe, I wonder if people have forgotten. Everyone should always remember; when people forget, that’s when history repeats itself.
Disclaimer: Some of the information in this article was taken from the leaflet provided at Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.