Friday, May 13, 2011

Sachsenhausen

As we said before, one of the most interesting things about Berlin is how much modern history there is.  It is interesting to see how all different time periods, religions, rulers, architecture styles, etc. mesh into one city like in the photo below.  This is one of the most interesting examples of the destruction of WWII as they left the church with the steeple bombed out.  It is quite striking.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

One experience that was very important to me while we were in Europe was visiting a Nazi camp in person.  We went to Sachsenhausen which is about 45 minutes outside of Berlin.  

Disclaimer:  The rest of this post contains pictures and stories about the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  I felt like it was important for these things to be seen and heard and given the reverence it deserves.  There are nearly 60 pictures, this post is quite long and some of the material is disturbing.  I encourage you to take the time to read some of the stories and view the pictures and think about them.



Sachsenhausen was a labor camp and was built to be a model for other camps and people would come to tour the camp.  They made it look nicer than other camps with landscaping, etc. to 'show off' but some of the most horrific things occurred at this camp.  This camp was a male camp, but I believe there were a few bunkers of women and children.  There was a female camp a few miles to the north of Sachsenhausen.  The first men to be brought here were political prisoners and people who openly opposed the Nazis, often Berliners.  Many were well-educated and prominent members of the community.  One of the most interesting resistance stories involves the Nazis forcing a skilled group of prisoners to forge counterfeit British and American currency--with the intention that this counterfeit currency would be airdropped over the cities of Britain, flooding the market with cash and ruining the British economy.  The inmates were able to successfully sabotage this act of economic warfare by subtly damaging the bank notes in a way only Brits would notice.  There was actually a movie made about this group of counterfeiters.

The route of the Death March as the Allies drew closer.


 I believe this drawing was made by a prisoner.


Barracks
Mess Hall



Entrance to the camp.  They were first brought to the rooms above the arch where they were stripped of all their belongings.  Next, they walked through the gate and were "welcomed" by this:
Translated to English it means "Work Brings Freedom" - a cruel joke


Inside the camp


This sign says that if a prisoner is found in this zone, he will be shot immediately.  It was about a 6 ft. deep zone.  Often Nazi guards would play a "game" and command a prisoner to go in this zone.  If they crossed they would be shot, but if they disobeyed orders they would be killed or tortured.

There were long "boot-testing" tracks made of this lose slate.  Prisoners would march from sun-up to sun-down in thin shoes, back and forth.  It was uncomfortable to stand on for the 15 or so minutes we were in this spot, and we had nice tennis shoes on.  They had meager meals and were not given breaks, even to go to the bathroom. If they didn't march exactly correct or if someone was too weak to continue, they were all punished and had to march longer.  One night they marched straight through the night.


Barracks

Toilets, sinks, bunks and uniform.  I believe it was 270 prisoners to one barrack.  They had 15 minutes in the morning to get ready and be in line for role call.  They had to fight to use the toilet, wash their face, etc.  Nazi guards were known to drown prisoners in the sinks/toilets for fun or as a punishment.


Wall and guard towers






Men were hung where other prisoners could see for humiliation and to teach other prisoners a lesson.




After the camp was 'liberated' by the Russians, it continued its purpose as a labor camp under Soviet Rule.  This monument built under Soviet rule, celebrates the brave Russians who rescued the camp and commemorates the power and strength and hope of Communism (while at the same time committing the same crimes).


The pit where bodies were collected.  Men were lined up along the perimeter then shot.  A bulldozer was used to remove the bodies.





After some time, the Nazis were looking for more efficient means to murder the prisoners.  Many methods were tried and tested at Sachsenhausen before being disseminated to the extermination camps.  Here is what remains of their murder machine:





The walls in the middle of this photo have a gap in the middle to act as insulation.  These were the rooms where the prisoners were killed.  They were stripped down, then told to back up against the wall to be measured.   A Nazi soldier stood on the other side of the wall with a hole just big enough, and at just the right height and angle to fit his gun through the hole and all it took was one, clean shot.  Next, a door would open, the body removed and the next prisoner was taken in.  This was seen as the best method because the soldier did not have to look at the man he was killing, it was anonymous and therefore they did not suffer the psychological trauma they were experiencing in other situations when they'd face prisoners pleading with them.  The prisoners did not resist as they did not suspect their fate and it was clean.  After they were removed, and gold fillings in their teeth were removed along with any interesting tattoos, then they were taken to the ovens.






Memorial





A few plots of grass are known mass graves.  They were marked with these memorials.







This was one of the most disturbing parts of the camp.  Although some of the things I told you are very disturbing this is, to me, probably the most disturbing.  This was the room where many science experiments, pre and post mortem, were performed.  It was surreal as we were standing in this nearly all-white room.  The tile, tables, glass, everything original and left the way it was while it was in use.  Very eerie and somber.







This is morgue.  The floor was very stained.

Ramp used to remove bodies.


Part of these barracks were redone and made into exhibit and research rooms, but along this stairway, they left the bottom half of the wall unchanged.


The hallway was so short, Richard had to duck far down.



I will let the sign do the explaining here.  Click the photo to view it larger.





More memorials and mass-graves: 














One of the things that was the most disturbing was the experience of going to the camp.  Most of the prisoners were brought by regular commuter trains to the town of Oranienburg.  We took the same train, just a modern version, on the same track and walked the same 15 or so minute route to get there.  We walked through neighborhoods past little shops and a primary school, just like it would have been in 1933 when this camp was constructed.  Then, all of a sudden we turned a neighborhood corner and there were the walls and the guard towers of the camp.  There was no way that the people of  Oranienburg and the surrounding communities would not have known what was happening.  I do think, however, that many did not realize the extent of the cruelty happening behind the walls, at least in the early years of the camp.  Many of the houses on the street leading to the Sachsenhausen entrance were homes of SS officers.  They were very weird with little yards and bedrooms for their children.  It was like a normal suburb, but with SS guards living inside and a camp at the end of the road.  Here are some examples of typical SS housing.










If you're to this point, thank you for reading and looking.  I think it's really important that we remember what happened and visual reminders are always very powerful for me.  There is nothing like walking the ground where these events transpired, but I hope you were moved in some way through our retelling of our experience through our photo-journaling.

3 comments:

Lori Smith said...

I felt like I was there! The surrounding suburb is so shocking! What a contrast to the brutality just a few yards away!

Camilla said...

D and I also visited Dachau when we were in Europe before kids. Your descriptions really brought me back. So sad and sobering. Thanks for sharing.

Mom~Grandma~Launa said...

Thank you for this post. It all breaks my heart as I remember other sites we saw when we lived in Germany and when we visited Berlin. The Berlin wall was still up when we were living in Germany.