One of the stops on our Berlin trip was the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. This was a place that was very difficult to see, it is still hard to believe that something like this could happen. We went to the memorial on what was already a cold day, seeing some of the pictures and hearing the stories did not make it feel any warmer
Now a very open place, these grounds would have been covered in barracks filled with people during the war.
Buildings just like these would have been completely crowded with people. Meant for about 120, these barracks could have up to 500 people in them at one time or another. The living conditions, as you can imagine would have been horrible.
These were the only bathroom areas for the whole place (all 500 people) and they had all of 20 minutes in the mornings to use these, have breakfast and get out to the grounds. Of course there were absolutely no excuses for coming out late for roll call and often people would be found trampled by their fellow roommates.
People were constantly being watched while they were in the camps. Originally the plan was to have one main tower that could oversee the whole camp. This is why the camps started off in a triangle shape when they later added the Jewish section this changed the shape.
The Clock on the top of the tower, is stopped just after 11. This is the exact time this camp was found and liberated by the Allied armies. The fence sign that can be seen as you walk in to the camp says “work makes you free”, or “work will set you free”, a very sinister choice of words by the people that created the camps. Just like the camp its self was originally constructed as a triangle so that it could be watched by a single machine gun in the watch tower, some of the barracks, especially the political prison as seen in the last picture are constructed in a T. This way a single guard could be standing at the intersection of the T and would be able to monitor the whole building. The cells that included beds were there as a form of torture and not one of comfort. The political prisoners were not allowed to sit or lay down and would be forced to stand in the same room as the bed (this among many other forms of torture they used). These people spent a lot of time finding different ways to torture the prisoners. One of the most frightening was that the prisoners would be tied to a post with their wrists behind their back, just high enough so their feet could not touch the ground. The weaker of these prisoners would eventually have their shoulders pop out and leave in agonizing pain. The prisoners that had a stronger musculature would be able to hold themselves longer but even their bodies eventually could not hold the strain and for them it would be their bones letting them down. Often their clavicles would break and sometimes puncture a lung. Anyone that had to go through this treatment would have had an awful time, those that had their clavicles broken and lungs punctured often did not live to tell about it. There were many different ways for life to end in this camp; a person could be tortured to death, shot for not obeying or even die of hunger. The whole point of this camp was for it to be a labour camp. This meant that many of the “jobs” lead to death. Some of the more tortuous jobs were those who were forced to serve the SS personnel in the casino. These people would be serving any food the SS officer wanted to him while not being able to touch this food after having only eaten his share of 350 calories for the day. The brick building factory was also known for being one of the worst forms of labour, this more in a physical sense. The reason the Nazis where having so many bricks built was that Hitler had a vision for Berlin to be the capital of his future Grand German empire, and for this it was to become the biggest city in the world.
Shoe testing path
This path has a very interesting story. The people running the camps would be paid to test shoes. These shoes would likely be for the German army. The prisoners would run up and down this path for forty miles, in shoes usually two sizes too small, all this with a bag of bricks on their back (one of the “labours” these prisoners were working as was brick making). People could never understand how these prisoners could possibly pull off such a feat, not only would this be a difficult task for an average person to complete (often their feet would be bleeding by the end) but these people were severely malnourished (often they were being fed about 300 calories a day, about a third of what a normal person should consume). What people didn’t know, is that they were also testing different drugs. These drugs made the prisoners perform through any pain they had and even gave them the energy to run for mines.
Sachsenhausen National Memorial
Now the memorial itself, this is where prisoners where publicly hung. The other prisoners were forced to watch this and it was an example for future bad behaviour. The tower with 18 triangles on it represents the 18 different “types” of prisoners that were kept in this camp, each one wearing a different coloured triangle on their outfit.
These are the outfits the prisoners would have been wearing. The triangle patch on the chest represented the “type” of prisoner the person was. At one point, three prisoners got away from the camp. The head of the camp had every other prisoner stand in the courtyard while the guards tried to find these three. This ended up taking 15 hours and during that time 140 of prisoners who were standing in the courtyard had died. The part of this story that shows the true evilness of these people running the camps, is that the person that made this order, for all those people to stand and wait, was given a head positions at one of the newer camps being built at the time. This camp turned out to be Auschwitz, the camp with the highest number of killings, and this person at the end of the war was found to be the person with the most kills of the entire war.
Eerily empty watch tower
As the camp grew, they started to realize one watch tower really was not enough, this is one of the watch towers that were added later on.
“Physical testing areas”
The concentration camps had many different medical tests going on at all times. In this building they were trying out different ways to avoid hypothermia, the tests involved submerging the prisoner in water to the point where they almost drowned and then trying to resuscitate them afterwards. This was in an effort to try find a way to protect the German soldiers whilst in the field. It is sad to know that some of the results of these testings were used as medical evidence for years to come.
At first, most of the killings in the camp were done by shooting squad. This was done just outside the walls of the camp itself.
When the people running the camps realized they just were not killing enough people and it was taking a toll on the mental health of the guards, they started to explore industrializing that as well. One of the favourites seems to have been the gas chamber which was then operated by prisoners as to avoid the guards feeling the full weight and guilt of their actions.
In this case, people would be brought in for a physical test. The doctor would look at their teeth, if they had gold teeth they would be put against a “measuring stick” with a hole down the middle and they were unknowingly shot through the back of the head. If they were not so lucky, they would be sent to the next room where they would have a “shower”. All these people were then cremated. The people that had been shot, would be brought straight through the building. The people who had been gassed would have to be taken around the outside… because they would not want to harm anyone?
One important note about these crematoriums are their size. It is important to know, only adult males were actually cremated here, we then have ghostly images come in to our head when we think some of these people fit in to these ovens.
Not much of these buildings remains, (probably a good thing) However it is still a horrifying site to walk by.
Walking out of this part of the tour, we see this quote. In many ways, it is astonishing that so many people have come out of these atrocious situations and still are able to come back to these places and think of what it might take for people to be more unified.
On the last days of the camp in 1945 the Red Army moved closer. Yet when, on April 22, Soviet and Polish soldiers arrived at the camp, they found only around 3,000 sickly prisoners who were too weak to walk in the march and they assumed would die shortly their departure.
They’d come one day too late. On April 21, the SS guards had evacuated most of the camp – around 33,000 prisoners were forced to leave on what later became known as the ‘death march.’
This is the part of the story that we know… The Germans have been very open about what happened at that time, the tragedies that happened at Sachsenhausen and many other camps around Germany have been well detailed at these memorials. The sad fact is that even though this camp was liberated in 1945, The Soviets then went on to use the camp in what is thought to be many of the same ways. Unfortunately we do not know for sure as the Russians have many unreleased documents about this time that nobody has access to.