Sitting on the train, listening to the dull rhythm of the wheels beating on the tracks no-one felt like talking.
We were heading out to Oranienburg, a town 22 miles north of Berlin, which today looks like a picturesque country retreat city-dwellers should want to relocate to, however, delve into the history of this quaint suburb and its dark past might make you think twice.
Back in March 1933 the first concentration camp in the state of Prussia was set up by local SA Storm Troopers in a disused brewery near the centre of this town. By July 1934, the SS had taken over, transferring many of the prisoners to other camps, turning this site into a reserve camp. In the short space of 17 months, more than 3,000 people were imprisoned here and alarmingly in this brief period of time at least 16 prisoners were murdered in savage, cold blooded attacks by guards.
Unfortunately, this was only the start of the brutality that would descend upon the region – by 1936 the trucks were rolling in once again and using the summer games as a blanket, hid the construction of a second concentration camp that would go on to imprison more than 200,000 people.
Sachsenhausen was a ‘new’ design camp, constructed in a triangular shape to impose total control and intimidation over its inhabitants, which after testing would become a blue-print for future camps, including Auschwitz. When the camp opened there was a limited amount of accommodation, set out in a long row facing the main roll call square. This was a labour camp, prisoners would therefore be building their own living accommodation as and when those in command felt it was necessary.
The labour was assigned depending on your status as a prisoner – each new arrival would be given a uniform similar to a set of striped pyjamas with a triangle on. Each triangle indicated the prisoner’s social preferences, you would then be segregated into groups according to your colour and treated accordingly. Murderers and rapists were often treated with more humanity than Communists who would be marked with a red triangle, homosexuals who wore pink triangles, Jehovah Witnesses who would have purple triangles and Jews who wore yellow. The worst jobs involved going to the local brickworks, spending hours breathing in intoxicating fumes without seeing daylight or enjoying a break in the fresh air – these grueling hours meant that your life expectancy dropped down to weeks, a month if you were lucky. Others were given the horrendous chore of testing out military footwear. A circuit of various surfaces was created around the inner perimeter of the camp and prisoners would be forced to march, occasionally run, around this continuously from sunrise until late into the night, clocking up between 16 – 25 miles per day often with little or no food.
Ten minutes is all it takes to get from Oranienburg to Sachsenhausen on the bus, making it hard to imagine how a population of people living so close-by can turn a blind eye to what was going on especially when prisoners were marched from Oranienburg train station through the streets to Sachsenhausen – with the influx of prisoners being transported to this camp it was not something that would be easily missed.
Standing in the heart of the open square, with my emotions heightened, it is easy to judge people but on reflection what would I have done back in 1936? Today, I have a voice, I can speak out however, if I was put in a position where my life was in danger what would I do?
From the Information Centre we made our way down Camp Street towards the main entrance. With tension growing, the sombre atmosphere surrounding our group continued with everyone falling into quiet contemplation. Walking under the clock tower, which now shows the hour of liberation, we passed through the iron gates where the words ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ (translated as ‘Work Will Set You Free’) are still prominent and would have been visible for all prisoners to see on arrival. This was to be our first introduction to Sachsenhausen.
Little remains of actual camp today, no reconstruction will ever take place here, so whilst we are able to wander the boundaries of this site many of the buildings have long since been destroyed. What still stands however, was enough to send shivers down my spine. Imagine sleeping crammed in bunk beds, 8 – 10 to a small cell, not knowing whether you, or the people around you would return at the end of each punishing day. The room set aside for ablutions looks like little more than a token offering; one large bowl in the middle of the room scarcely big enough for a family to wash in let alone a building full of people. Today, we would be distraught if we found animals living in these conditions and yet at some point humans were allowed too.
The prison block still stands, isolated from view by a small brick wall. Looking around the grounds here you can still see many ways in which prisoners were tortured for information – hung from wooden girders or placed in tiny blackened spaces for hours until their willpower gave in. Political prisoners in particular would spend the majority of their captive lives imprisoned within this soulless place trying to protect the secrets that they held so dear.
Across the open expanse you will see, marked out on the ground, large grey blocks on gravel. This is where at one time other buildings stood. Now, you may have watched The Great Escape but until you visit a site like this you will never quite appreciate the rabbit-warren of oblong-shaped wooden boxes. This is a large camp but even so, it would have been creaking at the seams towards the tail end of the war – this probably led to the crazy acceleration from labour camp to one that started to introduce execution.
Tucked around the corner and out of sight, the firing squad would have had the freedom to extinguish life without causing daily life to be affected within the camp perimeter itself. Simply walking across the threshold to this area turned my blood cold. Goose bumps spread the length of my arms and before I knew I had lost all concentration; maybe I simply didn’t want to know what atrocities had taken place here. Looking down into the firing pit roses had been placed in memory of those that had lost their lives: a chilling thought of exactly how many filtered into my mind causing me more distress than I thought it would – how would I react when we saw the gas chambers?
Walking into the enclosed space, the temperature cooling my skin even further, the execution chambers came into sight. Gassing was used here however, it was not the main form of execution. Towards the end of the war, when capacity was at breaking point and new inmates were arriving daily, each one was told that they would need to be interviewed, have a medical examination and be fitted for a uniform. Individually they would enter a room where music was playing and be told to stand against a measuring rod, innocently they thought this was to register their height when in actual fact they were standing against a wall with a hole in it. Behind the wall a guard would be positioned ready to fire a single shot into the back of the prisoner’s neck, killing them outright – a gutless but effect way to kill someone. In just 10 weeks 10,000 people would lose their lives to this form of execution alone.
When the SS knew that Germany were on the brink of losing the war they opened the gates of Sachsenhausen and took all healthy prisoners on what would be termed a ‘Death March’. 6,000 prisoners lost their lives during this time. If prisoners survived that would mean they would have witnesses to the poor living conditions and the inhumane treatment that took place at the camp. With no witnesses, no one could be held responsible for the atrocities and therefore no trial could take place.
Hearing about the degrading treatment and the torture that took place at Sachsenhausen only makes me admire those that survived not only this camp but any concentration or death camp set up during the Second World War. Their desire to move on, live a relatively normal life, return to families and often forgive those that have imparted such outrageous acts of cruelty upon them and others stands as a positive testament to human nature. For those that lived so close to the barbaric site, I wonder how you really felt.
Am I glad I visited? Yes. Even with my emotions running high I wanted to try and begin to understand what people had to endure all those years ago. Would I like to return? No. Once was enough and after visiting I know that a visit to Auschwitz would be intense, difficult and extremely emotional.
(Below is a short video showing several photos we took whilst on our tour combined with 1930’s/40’s images from the Wiki Commons gallery and music from Schindler’s list composed by John Williams.)
Have you visited a Concentration Camp? How did you feel after your experience?
We completed our tour with Sandemans New Europe Tours in Berlin. For 16 Euros per person (as of 2017) we had an experienced tour guide who met us at the Brandenburg Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and escorted us to Sachsenhausen (this also included entry into the camp). George, our tour guide for the day, has been sharing his impeccable knowledge of Sachsenhausen with others for the last six years; his tour was both informative and interesting.
If you enjoy walking tours you may also like our post on Free Walking Tours in Berlin.
Have you been on a walking tour? Which ones and would you recommend them to others?