Sachsenhausen Concentration CampDecember 11, 2022 in Germany ⋅ ☁️ 30 °F
Today was cold, eerie, and windy, with a constant flurry. Normally, I would say it was a miserable day but today I can only be grateful for the amazing life I live and those who fought to defend a right to that life. Today we visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
We arrived by train on the same tracks that prisoners would almost a hundred years ago. There was no bus or nice car to drive us, just the same rough streets that so many had taken, through the small town, to the entrance of the camp about a mile away. People sat in their houses, warm, watching us walk by just as many people sat in those same houses watching prisoners walking by on their way to almost certain death.
Sachsenhausen is a unique camp. It was one of the first in the SS concentration camp system and was considered a model camp. Every aspect of it was meticulously designed to be efficient. While it isn’t as well known as camps like Dachau and Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen served as the headquarters and training ground for the SS concentration camp system. After the end of World War II, Sachsenhausen was taken over by the USSR where it continued to be used for several more years as a concentration camp.
After completing the 20-minute walk, we arrived at the entrance road. We were greeted by three models that showed the scale of the camp at its height during WWII. Most of it had been leveled by the GDR but what remained was extremely powerful. It was a long stone path that stretched along one side of the perfectly triangular prison camp. To the right was a brightly colored hall for the concentration camp workers and to the left a tall stone wall with towers guarding it.
After the short walk, a simple iron gate appeared on our left which was the entrance to the camp. Every prisoner who entered Sachsenhausen walked through that same gate. After passing through the gate we entered a beautiful wooded area with a couple of buildings. This area was for the commanders and would have been beautifully decorated. This section was renowned for its flower gardens and overall beauty. This would be the prisoners' last sight before entering the harsh reality of the camp.
As we approached the tall inner guard tower of the prisoners' camp it was clear how everything would change. The size and depth of the camp were overwhelming. From up in the guard tower, we could see every inch of the camp as it was designed when being built. Every building was perfectly laid out in rows of semicircles stretching all the way to the tip of the triangle. Immediately in front of us was the roll call area. As we stood there listening to a recording about the area, we were shivering from the lack of sun and blistering wind. We looked at each other, bundled up for the winter yet shivering, and could not fathom how anyone could stand out here for hours on end for roll call and other activities. Through the gates of the tower, we could see the beauty of the inner section that would have been just out of reach for prisoners less than a hundred years before us.
Wrapping around the wall that formed the triangle was several layers of security which prisoners coined “Death-Strip”. This consisted of barbed wire, an electric fence, followed by a stone wall. But even more deadly was about 3 feet of beautifully laid gravel. Any prisoner, who took one step on the gravel, would be shot instantly with no questions asked. From the roll call area, we could see the empty rectangles laid out in perfect symmetry where over 50 barracks would have stood. Today most of them had been leveled, but a couple still remained.
As we walked over to the barracks, it was clear the ground was not even and contained lots of strips of different types of gravel in stone. These walkways were used as testing grounds where prisoners would be forced to walk 30 km a day to test out new types of boots and materials for soldiers. Inside the tight barracks we the original bunks, bathrooms, and washrooms. They were tiny and we couldn’t fathom how hundreds of people were crammed into these tiny quarters, yet many would consider this the place of relief from the manual labor.
Inside the prisoners camp was a prison that had 80 cells. Each of the cells was equipped with covers for the windows that would deprive any light from entering. Some prisoners were held in the darkness of solitary confinement for months at a time. While walking the grounds we also toured the prison kitchen, laundry facilities, and performance hall, where prisoners who had talents would come to perform for their captors in the hope of extra rations.
Towards the end of our journey through the grounds, we came upon an area next to the industrial yards in which the prisoners worked. Around the corner, hidden from view was a trench lined with wood full of holes. This was the execution trench, where thousands of prisoners were shot and killed by the SS and USSR. Sachsenhausen did not have gas chambers until the very end of the war when a very small one was constructed for special cases, so the trench was the main method of execution for those that didn’t die from other causes. Right next to it was the crematorium that was built on-site. It started with one burner but three more were added to keep up with the backlog of bodies.
As were walking, mounds of ground were everywhere labeled “Ashes of Prisoners”. These mounds consisted of thousands of prisoners' ashes that had mixed together and buried throughout the compound.
As our day came to an end something had been made clear to us throughout the process. Most of the buildings were gone. There were statues and memorials throughout the site, but they seemed off. The prisoners looked happy in many. This was because the original memorial to this ground had been made by the GDR, German Democratic Republic. It was clear the GDR wanted to hide a lot of the history that had occurred on the site and reshape the memorial to benefit the government at that time. In fact, the ground went on to be used for many ceremonies and banquets for the GDR during the late 20th century until the fall of that government.
The memorial today tries to piece together what is left from the different eras: SS, USSR, and GDR control but shows the power of what propaganda can do. As the sun set, we walked out of the gates with freedom. As the snow began to fall, we began to retrace our steps back to the station where it all began. Outside the entrance of the camp, the street split in two. To the right was a sign which signified the road from Sachsenhausen, which started the path to one of the many death marches. A lot of these prisoners, who were detained for characteristics and religion, never got to walk out of that gate. Many that did, took the split in the road to the right, to start their march to continued misery and hurt. We got to take the road to the left, to freedom, to life, to safety, to peace. Within an hour we were back at the hotel, in the warmth, with as much food and water as we wanted. How grateful we ought to be.Read more
Hi Jake and Julie, Very powerful story. Thanks for the words and pics. LOVE. [The Captain Cousins]