Impressions of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

by James Glazebrook

Sachsenhausen Neutrale Zone

It’s 4am and I’m wide awake, struggling to process the GetYourGuide Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial Walking Tour. I’m”suffering” from two things: a nasty cold I picked up wandering around in sub-zero conditions, and a hazy black cloud of half-formed negative emotions that hangs somewhere in the back of my mind. Both leave me feeling pathetic and weak-willed.

Sachsenhausen red rose burned barracks

I got sick after less than four hours in -10°C, wrapped in three layers of weather-resistant clothing. Some of the 30,000 prisoners who passed through Sachsenhausen work camp endured more bitter cold (as low as -20°C) wearing only one layer of thin cotton, and no shoes. Once they stood outside for a roll call of their identification numbers that lasted 26 hours. Listening to this, I wolfed down a sandwich, feeling particularly worthless. Impossibly brave people had survived unimaginably worse conditions, sustained by only one slice of bread per day.

Sachsenhausen frost

As I tried to make sense of our guide’s detail-soaked narrative, I felt a pale shadow of what Germans must, when they think about this part of their history. Hearing about the sheer number of prisoners, and the methods employed to dehumanise, punish and – later in World War Two – kill them, left me numb. Finding it impossible to put myself in their position, I tried to empathise with the citizens of the small town of Oranienburg, some of whom still lived on the borders of Sachsenhausen. I don’t blame them for doing their best to ignore the rumours of what happened inside, insinuated by the chimney stack smoking with the ashes of the Third Reich’s victims. If I can’t process this, generations later, no wonder they couldn’t at the time.

Sachsenhausen executions

Apologies if you were expecting specifics about the GetYourGuide Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp tour. No amount of words, images or facts and figures – although there are many to be found in the careful reconstruction of the camp – can truly represent the horrors that took place there. Go for the price of an ABC BVG ticket (entrance to the site is free), or book a guided tour, and support the invaluable work of the cash-strapped Memorial. But don’t expect to be able to comprehend what happened there.

Sachsenhausen barracks

Sachsenhausen prisoner uniforms

Sachsenhausen watch tower

Sachsenhausen prison

Sachsenhausen hole in the fence

Sachsenhausen morgue

Sachsenhausen barbed wire

Sachsenhausen prison cell

For more photos and another writer’s impressions of the camp, read this guest post about Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

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Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

by Guest Blogger

Natalye Childress takes us on a tour of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp near Berlin. All words and images her own.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Arbeit macht Frei sign

This past week, I paid a visit to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, one of the concentration camps from the Third Reich. Located in the Brandenburg town of Oranienburg, it’s a mere 35 kilometers north of Berlin. During the war, it was mostly home to political prisoners, which means that prisoners from all over Europe were brought there.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp memorial

One of the many memorials in the wooded area in front of the main gate.

My first experience with concentration camps was my visit to Dachau in June of 2010, which, for the most part, I did not enjoy. Certainly I have always been intrigued by historical events, and it was definitely interesting to see first hand a place that I have read about so many times. However, being in the actual camp was not something I was prepared for. Due to a combination of many things – the heavy visitor traffic, the hot weather, the emotional reality of it all – my reaction was visceral.

sachsenhausen concentration camp neutrale zone

The “neutrale zone.”

This time around, I decided to go because of a desire to increase my understanding, both of this country I have adopted as home and its people, as well as of the greater area in which I live. After all, Berlin is a bit like a pal of mine described it earlier today, a giant playground, but there is much much more to it that I have yet to discover and I feel that it is my obligation, particularly if I want to function in this society. And now that I live here and have been a member of German society for a year, the German mentality is something I am just beginning to understand on a more complex level.

sachsenhausen concentration camp prisoner identifications

A former prisoner’s reconstruction of the different identification each of the prisoners had to wear.

In some ways, it makes sense how a society ordered in this way could give rise to something like the Third Reich, but it’s a complicated and tricky kind of reality. That’s not to say Germans are bad people, but more to make the point that they are organized, efficient, and follow the rules. This makes things run smoothly, most of the time, but I can see how dissent during the early-to-mid 1900s was not something the government responded well to. I am simplifying things here, but these are just some general, surface-level observations I have made.

sachsenhausen concentration camp flowers

Flowers and notes left in jail cells in the solitary confinement block.

I have also seen how Germans wrestle with and confront their feelings about what occurred leading up to and during World War II in general, and about the Holocaust specifically. This takes the form of everything ranging from guilt, to a sense of responsibility and obligation to recognize and remain aware of what happened, to a backlash toward anything being regarded as remotely nationalistic, and more.

sachsenhausen concentration camp statue

A statue bearing the names of all the countries that the various prisoners came from.

My overall impressions of Sachsenhausen were quite different than those of Dachau. Again, the external circumstances played a huge role; it was a beautiful day and there were not many visitors when we arrived (mid-afternoon). This allowed us to take our time and truly absorb the things we were interested in.

sachsenhausen concentration camp Soviet Liberation Memorial

The Soviet Liberation Memorial, in the form of a tower reaching to the sky.

There were many things I learned on my visit that maybe seem like common sense or were never factually apparent to me, but also either had never occurred to me before or I hadn’t known about. The many exhibits here were also pretty thorough and intense. It gives a pretty in-depth look at the lives of the prisoners, which I appreciated. All in all, we spent three full hours exploring the grounds, but that was hardly enough time to cover even half of what was there. This is more like a full-day experience.

sachsenhausen concentration camp execution trench

The execution trench, where thousands of Soviets were killed.

And would I recommend it? Well, yes. One has to be in the proper mindset and have plenty of time to go. It’s free, and although there is the possibility of guided tours for a small price, I prefer having the freedom to pick and choose what I want to see and explore things more than surface level. So how one tailors a visit is up to the individual.

sachsenhausen concentration camp prisoner photographs 2

sachsenhausen concentration camp prisoner photographs 1

Photos of prisoners taken just before they were killed; the photographer smuggled out the negatives to release them to the public.

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