Our Moms Trip to Europe had been awesome so far. There is no better way to put it. We learned a lot about Berlin’s unique history and its alternative side. We Saw some great art and had some amazing food. Let’s be honest, I fell in love with Berlin. Even more importantly, our moms were having a great time. My mom was fascinated with all the history and we found out that Stephanie’s mom was a spy (I am sorry if I just blew your cover). But our trip continued on a more somber note. Our next journey was to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
Why Visit a Concentration Camp
While on our alternative tour, our tour guide mention that he never been to Sachsenhausen. This was because he lives in Berlin, and a trip to a concentration camp did not seem like a fun way to spend a day off. Essentially, he did not see the point. This came as a shock. History is extremely important. While it is beneficial to honor the positives in human history, it is more important learn about tragedies and never forget them. Winston Churchill once said “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. This is especially important in the current global political climate. All over the world we are seeing the resurgence of nationalism and in some areas a very extremely form of nationalism. This type of nationalism led to Hitler’s rise to power and the persecution and genocide of over 6 million people.
Sure, it is not fun to visit a concentration camp, but it is an important part of history. While these are extremely dark and dismal places to visit, it is hard to fully appreciate the atrocities of what occurred through pictures and books. There is a darkness that lingers over these places. Seeing the conditions, feeling the elements, and hearing about the treatment of these people while standing in the place it happened, really adds to the heinousness of holocaust. It makes it real. I believe that everyone should pay a visit to one of these places in their lifetime and pay tribute to those who suffered and reflect on the horrors.
Why I didn’t Take Pictures
I did not take many pictures while at Sachsenhausen. In fact, I only took two. One picture of each of the memorials. While there is no rule against photography, to me it felt wrong. Almost like I am disrespecting those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I am the same way in graveyards and cemeteries. I felt that in Sachsenhausen it was more important to be introspective. To allow myself to take in the full weight of the place for myself rather than through the lens of a camera. It was important to me.
Booking the Sachsenhausen Tour
While entrance to Sachsenhausen is free, I would highly recommend booking a tour. Normally I am all about saving money, but a well informed tour guide in at a place this is invaluable. The experience, while still important, will not be as impactful without a tour guide. Like our previous tours on this trip, we booked our tour through Viator. This tour was operated by Original Berlin Walks. They also ran our amazing history tour and our tour guide here was just as knowledgeable. I would recommend checking them out if you are in Berlin. This tour sells for $18.45 and is the same price on Viator as it is directly through Berlin Walks. The tour meets at a central point in Berlin and you guide helps you navigate the 30 minute train ride and 15 minute walk to Sachsenhausen.
Founding of Sachsenhausen
Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and is the closest concentration camp to Germany’s capital of Berlin. Due to its proximity to Berlin, it became the hub for administration of all the concentration camps throughout Europe. As a result, it also functioned as a training ground for the Schutzstaffe (SS) who would later governed concentration camps throughout Central Europe. Until 1938, it housed a reasonable number of inmates that were deemed enemies of the state.
Expansion of Sachsenhausen
Its inmate population didn’t really explode until the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938. On this night, known in german as Kristallnacht, Nazis broke into Jewish homes, synagogues, and business and took over 30,0000 Jews prisoner. They took Over 10,000 these prisoners to Sachsenhausen. It didn’t have the capacity to hold this many people. So, As they worked to expand the concentration camp, the inmates had to sleep 2 to 3 to a bunk. No matter what they did after that, the expansion could not keep up with the influx of prisoners.
It wasn’t just the typical holocaust victims (Jews, Gypsies, people with disability, and homosexuals) that were housed there. Large percentage of the population at Sachsenhausen were prisoners of war. As the war was coming to a close and Germany was losing hold of most of Central Europe, the prison’s again boomed. As the Nazis were forced to abandon the outer concentration camps, the prisoners were sent on death marches with Sachsenhausen serving as the end destination. Those who survived ended up at a prison housing over 40,000 people.
The Treatment of Prisoners
Sachsenhausen is a concentration camp. It is important fact to remember, as people sometimes label all Nazi prison camps as concentration camps. However, a concentration camp like this one differs from camps like Auschwitz because Sachsenhausen’s primary purpose was not death. Camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka are more correctly classified as extermination camps or death camps. This being said, people still died and the prisoners were treated as inhumanely as one could imagine. The Nazis only provided the absolute minimum necessities needed to sustain human life. In a lot of cases it really wasn’t enough. The inmates were forced to work for the war effort as well as for major german companies. AEG, BMW, Siemens, and Heinkel all exploited inmates for free labor. The artistically talented ones were put to work forging English and American money.
They abused those who could not work. The Nazis forced them to remain outside and stand at attention in minimal clothing exposed to the elements. They experimented on others. Nazi researchers developed a lethal form of sulfur mustard gas as well as testing many combinations of drugs.
Deaths at Sachsenhausen
People died at Sachsenhausen. A lot of them. Anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 people died either at Sachsenhausen or as a result of their treatment at the camp. The most common causes of death results of the inhumane living conditions; exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, and pneumonia.
When Sachsenhausen got so over crowded it could not possibly house more prisoners. They began executing the newly brought in Russian POWs in a process called Genickschussanlage. The Nazis brought the Russian POWs into a medical building for an examination. They played loud music in the waiting area to drown out any noise. One at a time they the Nazis called the POWs into the office for a medical examination. Then, while the doctor measured their height, someone, utilizing a hidden hole in the wall, shot them. They would quickly clean up the area and call the next person in. They killed Thousands of Soviet POWs in this manner.
After the War
After the war the Soviets used Sachsenhausen as a concentration camp. It held Nazi POWs until 1950. Another 12,000 people died during this control.
The Tour of Sachsenhausen
Currently Sachsenhausen is roughly 50% intact. Several buildings were destroyed over the years, but enough remains to give you a a sense of the life at Sachsenhausen. Our tour guide took us expertly through the grounds, providing an in depth history of its establishment and its processes. We were able to enter through the main gates, stand in the field where they would perform their count of the inmates under the watchful view of the intact guard towers, and see a reconstruction of the camp barracks. Visiting Sachsenhausen is a real eye opening experience. I could feel the weight of the pain on my soul as I saw the living conditions and heard stories of how the Nazis treated the prisoners.
Among the other remaining buildings are the infirmary, crematory, and the kitchens. One of the remaining buildings is now a museum. It houses documents and items that prisoners and guards of Sachsenhausen owned. This helps give you a clear picture of what life at the time. Spread throughout the camp are two memorials. The older of the two is the Soviet Liberation memorial. This memorial was built by the communist government of East Germany and is meant to memorialize political prisoners and prisoners of war.
Upon reunification of Germany , they built a second memorial which memorialized everyone who suffered at Sachsenhausen.
It is important to always remember history. A tour of a German concentration camp, like Sachsenhausen, will truly open your eyes the worst of what people are capable of and serve as a reminder of what can happen if hatred goes unchecked.