Just as a warning, this post is about my trip to a concentration camp near Berlin. While none of the images are in any way graphic, I may touch on some things that could be sensitive to people.
Yesterday, after a slow morning stressing over a lack of wifi when I had two Skype dates lined up, I headed back into the city to join another tour by Sandemans New Europe. This time we were headed out of Berlin, to the infamous Sachsenhasen Concentration Camp, about 30kms north of the city (I think!). The tour was quite heavy and informative, however, confronting and coming to terms with the atrocities of the past is part of the healing process. This will also help to ensure that such mistakes are never made again.Our tour started by walking down Camp Street, just as the prisoners would have done back at the start of the Nazi regime.
A former SS compound, now a police training complex.
The weather was grey and muggy, which was somewhat fitting to the experience. I couldn’t imagine being here on a sunny day, and I think it would have changed the feel of the experience.
“Work makes you free”, the words inscribed in the entrance to the camp. Freedom here, of course, is not in the sense that we would imagine it.
Most of the buildings were destroyed by the Soviets during the 60s, before it was decided to keep the remains of the camp as a memorial. Gravel pits now line where the barracks used to be.
These two barracks were rebuilt, using what remaining original wood could be found. Visitors can enter them to see what living conditions were like for prisoners. At the back end of the left barrack above is a Jewish Museum. You were not allowed to take photos in there, due to the antisemitic nature of the original propaganda.
Sachsenhausen also featured a small walled off section to the side that housed the political prisoners of the Gestapo. Our tour guide had a fantastic knowledge of the history of the place, even if somewhat horrific as he described the torture techniques used to garner information of inmates (such as the technique that utilises the above poles, though I will spare you the details). The guide then posed an interesting question to us: what is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? When we talk about the prisoners of the Gestapo, we call them “freedom fighters”, but the Nazi’s regarded them as “terrorists”. Our guide then compared this to what is happening today in the war on terror: the difference is simply a matter of context. It was somewhat alarming to think that torture techniques described during this tour are still used today in the name of justice.
Food for thought, anyway.
The cells within the Gestapo prison were adorned with small flowers and memorials for those lost.
When Sachsenhausen was originally turned into a museum by the Soviets, it was set up in such a way that only the communist prisoners were acknowledged. This tour, for instance, only bears the red triangles that were used to identify such prisoners. Since then, the museum has changed, and know recognises all those who were captured and taken here: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, everyone who came through the gate.
The execution trench.
This is the site of the first instance of systematic extermination of Red Army soldiers.
The foundations of the extermination facilities, serving as a reminder of the horror of these camps. While nothing compared to the scale of killing systems developed in the death camps, it was still confronting. Our tour guide commented on the psychology at play in the running of this building: the SS guards never had any contact with those they killed, all the labour was done by other prisoners. As a result, feelings of guilt were avoided, as was the industrialised view of the process.
The interior of the pathology building, one of the few originals in the camp. This was probably the eeriest experience I had on the tour, which was further exemplified as I descended down into the morgue.
As full on as this tour was, I am glad I went on it. I learnt a lot about the history of the human race, and the mistakes that have been made. And may they never happen again.
I called this post “there are no words”, as I was struggling to think of a title that would encapsulate the entirety of my experience of this camp. However, I think one needs to experience this place first hand to fully grasp the feeling of it.