“Remembering is a noble and necessary act. If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.” Elie Wiesel said it well. I know a lot of you visit my blog for fashion, travel and all things fun, but even if what I’m about to show you now don’t fall under these categories, I have this strong urge to share these photos and stories with you because you NEED to know.
On our second full day in Germany, my sister and I squeezed another out of town trip in before my official schedule with Goethe Institute and the German Foreign Office begins. It was the total opposite of our trip to Potsdam the previous day, where we ooh-ed and ahh-ed over grand palaces and parks. This trip was nothing of that sort. Instead, my sister and I joined Mosaic Tours‘ Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp And Memorial tour. I’m sure a lot of you have heard horror stories about the concentration camps built by the Nazis, the most famous of which is Auschwitz or Dachau. Sachsenhausen may not be as well-known but it’s definitely as relevant. It was built during the summer of 1936 to serve as the model for other concentration camps, both in its design and the treatment of prisoners, and also as training ground for SS officers. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned here until 1945. At first, the prisoners were primarily political opponents, but soon after, members belonging to groups defined by National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior (homosexuals, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and more) were also imprisoned here.
Sachsenhausen is located at Oranienburg, some 35 kilometers north of Berlin. Since our tour started with a train ride from Alexanderplatz, Berlin to Oranienburg, our first official stop was the Oranienburg station itself. The path we took to walk from the station to the concentration camp was part of the path the prisoners were made to take when they were brought to the camp. Boy was I feeling the heat and exhaustion already. And that’s with a stomach full and no guns pointed at me. Imagine how the prisoners must have felt! Our guide said that during those times, the townspeople were brainwashed into thinking that ALL the prisoners did crimes so they’d even throw rocks and other things at the prisoners while they walked to the camp.
The structure you see above is the T-Building, called such because it’s really shaped like a “T” so that when you stand at the center of the entrance, you can see all the offices and hallways. This building, located a few hundred meters away from the memorial site, is the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps. It housed the administrative headquarters of the ENTIRE concentration camp system, not only that of Sachsenhausen’s. The men who worked here determined conditions of imprisonment, coordinated forced labour and organized mass murder. In short, they were the brains behind everything.
All around the memorial site and museum, you’ll see a lot of old photos displayed. This photo shows prisoners in their uniform, during one of the daily roll calls in the camp before they’re sent to do forced labor. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was actually intended to be more of a labour camp than an extermination camp, but of course, it still had gas chambers, execution trenches and the the like.
This was how big the concentration camp was. It was actually extended/enlarged after a few years because there were so many prisoners brought in. But of course, it still wasn’t big enough to make living conditions humane.
Prisoners were taken into the camp along the Camp Street, which separates the Concentration Camp Command Headquarters and the Prisoners Camp from the grounds of the SS Troop Camp.
This is the Casino or what the prisoners called the “Green Monster” located at the Command Headquarters. SS officials eat and socialize here. It’s easy to understand why the prisoners hate this place. Here they are, starving away and only able to eat rotten food while SS officers get to eat and enjoy whatever they wanted in this place. Prisoners who get assigned to the Casino serve the SS officers food. Compared to all the other inhumane labour prisoners are made to do, it may seem like the dream job because they even have the chance to sneak some food for themselves. But in reality, it’s a double-edged sword. The key to surviving at the concentration camp is to keep a low profile, one that is hard to do when you’re serving at the Casino. This job makes a prisoner susceptible to getting harassed just because the officer is in the merrymaking mood or wants to show off.
Tower A is the main entrance to the Prisoners Camp and is the main watch tower for all the the happenings inside the camp. You see, the camp’s perimeter is that of an equilateral triangle and the tower is at the center of the triangle’s base. In theory, it was strategically placed there so that it dominates the camp and provides the guards with an omnipresent view. You can just imagine the psychological distress this caused on the prisoners.
On the gates of Tower A, where all the prisoners passed through, was the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”. This means “work makes (you) free”. This phrase is known to have been placed on entrances of a number of Nazi concentration camps. Never have I seen a phrase that has lost more meaning than this. We all know work never set any of the prisoners free. I wondered, if the prisoners outnumbered the officers, why didn’t they just unite and create an uprising? I mean, they were going to die anyway so they might as well go down trying, right? Our guide told me that there was actually a group that tried this. The Nazis locked them in their barracks in poorer than poor conditions, intending for them to die until finally, they were able to find a way to break free. This was when the Nazis realized they should give prisoners even just a tiny glimmer of hope so that they wouldn’t get so desperate, risk everything and create an uprising. The Nazis wanted the prisoners to believe that if they work diligently, they might be set free.
This track you see here (the dark part with all the stones and rubble) is the shoe-testing track. As I’ve mentioned, Sachsenhausen was a labour camp so part of the prisoners’ jobs was to create shoes for the SS troops and to test the material of the soles of these shoes by marching around these tracks endlessly. The shoe-testing track had a variety of surfaces and was laid out in 1940.
The borders with stones inside them (to the left of the track) mark the locations of the barracks that stood here during those days. The East German authorities demolished many of the camp’s structures when they started planning the Sachsenhausen National Memorial back in the 1960s.
To the right of the track, you can see part of the semi-circular roll-call area where prisoners had to assemble once in the morning and once in the evening, rain or shine. Often times, the prisoners would stand here for hours under extremely hot or cold weather so you can just imagine how many of them have fainted or simply dropped dead here. Every prisoner must be accounted for. If one prisoner was missing, everyone had to stand in the roll-call area until that one person is found. This is why, let’s say a prisoner dies in his sleep, his fellow prisoner would bring him to the roll-call area so that he could be accounted for.
Various watchtowers were added to the perimeter of the camp.
Aside from the watch towers, the camp’s security system consisted of a death strip called the neutral zone where anyone who steps foot here gets shot, an electric fence and a camp wall.
Here stood gallows where prisoners were executed in front of their comrades assembled at the roll-call area. The Nazis did this as a deterrent. During Christmas, the SS would then put a Christmas Tree here. Unbelievable.
These barracks used to be the infirmary where prisoners who needed medical care were murdered, experimented on, and forcefully serilized and castrated.
This eerie underground structure was the morgue. The camp had their own morgue and crematorium because the Nazis didn’t want the townspeople to know just how many people have died or were murdered in the camp.
This memorial obelisk was built by the East German authorities when they opened the Sachsenhausen National Memorial in 1961. The government of East Germany emphasised the suffering of political prisoners over that of the other groups detained at Sachsenhausen hence the eighteen red triangles on the obelisk. The red triangle was the symbol given by the Nazis to political prisoners, usually communists, and it’s found on their uniforms. (Homosexuals had pink triangles; Jews had yellow; and Jehovah’s Witnesses had purple.)
This was the execution trench where resistance fighters, conscientious objectors and prisoners sentenced by Nazi Special Courts were executed. The officers would stand above ground and shoot them in the trenches. Some of them were hanged.
This commemoration is dedicated to the victims of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It shows two prisoners, both malnourished and tired, carrying their fellow prisoner’s remains. During those times, it was the prisoners who were task to get rid of their comrades’ remains.
This here marks the remaining foundations of the crematorium and extermination facilities of the camp. It used to be a large, single-storey building called by the SS Station Z, the last letter of the alphabet, as a cynical reference to the last station in the life on an inmate.
Station Z had a gas chamber and a firing squad execution area. The Nazis were always looking for ways to kill efficiently. Translation: mass murder. Their solution was to create gas chambers. Prisoners who go here were made to believe they’ll be taking a shower. Once the water was turned on, gas was released as well. You see that sloped entrance on the upper right part of the photo? That’s the Nazis’ way of removing dead bodies quickly, which was done by the prisoners as well. In the other room was the firing squad execution area. This was created because a lot of SS officers would complain about getting nightmares after killing someone face to face. With this room, the prisoner goes into the execution area thinking he’s just in for a checkup. The officer who’s with him in the room doesn’t do the actual killing. Instead, there’s a tiny hole in one of the walls where the prisoner would have his back against and another officer situated at the adjacent room shoots the prisoner through this tiny hole. Therefore, the officer who does the actual killing does so without ever seeing the prisoner’s face. Another prisoner would then take the body away and clean the room for the next victim.
Station Z also had four permanent crematorium ovens where all the victims that were murdered were cremated. Since they had to get rid of so many bodies, often times, they don’t remove the ashes of the victims before putting another dead body in.
This is one of the three-wing block of cells used as a prison by the Gestapo and camp authorities. Built by prisoners themselves, this place was veiled in secrecy. Prominent figures arrested by the Gestapo and those punished by the SS for infringement of camp discipline were held here. Labour wasn’t enforced upon them but they were often tortured and tormented.
The prominent figures held in this area were tortured on these gallows. Ordinary prisoners don’t get to see them since there’s a wall separating the two areas but they’d hear the screams and cries for help. So in a way, it was psychological torture for the ordinary prisoners.
The Jewish prisoners were housed in barracks 38 and 39. It was here that the SS incarcerated Sachsenhausen’s Jewish prisoners from November 1938 to October 1942, before they were relocated to Auschwitz. Here’s a glimpse of the bunk beds inside the barracks.
Barracks 38 and 39 were severely damaged when an anti-Semitic firebomb attack was executed by Neo-Nazis in September 1992, which is why the ceiling and walls look like this.
Beneath these gravestones lie ashes of victims who died at Sachsenhausen. It’s a Jewish tradition to place rocks on gravestones.
When the Red Army and Polish troops came to free the prisoners, tens of thousands of them were already evacuated by the SS to go on death marches. Around 3000 sick prisoners were left behind in the camp. Some of whom still passed away anyway even after being liberated because they were already in really bad condition.
I know this post must’ve been hard to read and may have given a lot of you a heavy heart, but I believe it is important to share what I’ve learned. Awareness is key in order for us to move forward and strive for a better future. We may no longer have concentration camps but violations against human rights are still present today.
If you’re even in the area and decide to go on a Sachsenhausen tour yourself, I highly suggest joining Mosaic Tours. Mosaic Tours is a 100% non-profit registered charity that donates all profits to Amnesty International, Brandenburg Memorials Foundation and Friends of Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum e.V.