I recently wrote an article for Stuff.co.nz about my visit to Sachsenhausen. Take a look. 

I have wanted to visit a concentration camp for a long time. I think it’s important to learn about what happened and remember those who suffered.

After being in Berlin for around 10 days and having already visited the Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, the Holocaust Memorial and the Anne Frank Zentrum all of which gave me greater insight into World War II and the Holocaust, it seemed important to learn more by visiting a concentration camp.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is located in Oranienburg, 35km north of Berlin – a 30ish minute train ride on the regional train or longer on the S-Bahn. I joined a tour to visit the camp, hoping it would give me greater insight into what happened there – it almost certainly did.

After arriving at the camp our tour group was lead into a classroom where we were given a brief introduction to the camp which housed 200,000 prisoners, and were shown on a map just how large it was – something that shocked all of us. Today we would only be seeing 10% of the original area.

Our tour leader explained that the life expectancy of working camp members was only 6-8 weeks and that work was not necessary for a goal, but rather to break a prisoner. A prisoner might have to dig out an area, then fill it in, then dig it out again. It was stories like this that brought home just how demoralizing it would have been as a prisoner.

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Arriving at Oranienburg from Berlin

My tour group entering Sachsenhausen

My tour group entering Sachsenhausen

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My tour group entering Sachsenhausen

Most of the original buildings have been destroyed so much of the area that is available for viewing is empty space. What is left though is very meaningful. Barracks have been reconstructed to show what it would have been like to live there, much of the infirmary still remains, there is a death pit, parts of experimental gas chambers and a large soviet liberation memorial.

The image below shows what prisoners would see when they first arrived at the camp. They would have arrived at the same station we did for the tour and walked the same 15 minute walk to the camp. Most would have suffered physical abuse. They would be taken to a building, which was situated in front of the white building on the left, where they would have to surrender all of the possessions, including clothing, and all of their body hair was removed. As my tour guide said “… they would be losing part of their identity, because the experience was so traumatic many of the prisoners would die within the first 24 – 48 hours, some from suicide.” In a building situated on the right, in front of the green building (pictured below) , the prisoners were given blue and white striped uniforms which were decorated with a symbol that would show their prison ranking (distinctions were made between persons who were deemed Jewish, homosexual, gypsy and so on).

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The ironic “work makes you free” lettering at the entrance to many German work camps.

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After being shown the general area, we were taken to see reconstructed barracks. These barracks had been attacked as late as 1992 by persons who presumably want to forget or deny the horrors that went on at the camp. Inside we could see wooden beds like the ones they would have been forced to sleep on. Overcrowding was such that it was impossible to roll over and only possible to change sleeping side if everyone did so. There was very limited time for prisoners to wash, so at times there would be as many as eight prisoners washing in the baths pictured below. It was written on a plaque beside the bathrooms that, often beatings would occur in washrooms with some prisoners being drowned in the toilets. A small room beside the toilets was used for punishments where men would have to stand completely still and without touching the sides. Sometimes it would be so crowded in the small room and prisoners would suffocate to death.

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Bathrooms where routine beatings and sometimes murders would occur

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Baths which would often have eight or more men in them.

I noticed my tour members grow quieter and more somber after we had seen the barracks, but the worst was still to come. We were now walked to the crematorium, execution trench and shooting practice area. Some 5,000 Russian prisoners of war were shot through the back of the neck as they stood against a tape measure during what they thought was a physical, but was in fact target practice for SS soldiers. The gas chamber was also experimental at Sachsenhausen. They experimented with different types of gas, using warm water and warm air to be more “efficient”.

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An execution pit

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The area where Soviet POW’s were shot through the neck so that SS soldiers could practice.

Roses at the memorial for the victims.

Roses at the memorial for the victims.

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After this the group tour ended, but I stayed at the camp and continued to explore on my own. The infirmary was one particularly chilling place that I found. I had heard that medical experiments had been conducted on prisoners at the camp. It was actually possible to walk inside a building where autopsies were done to determine the result of medical experiments and the reason for death.

According to a website called Holocaust Encyclopedia around 40 different medical experiments were conducted on prisoners. It reads:

“SS doctors conducted around 40 different types of experiments, including sterilizations, castrations, experimenting with hepatitis, inserting infectious material into incisions of the muscle, and testing the effects of potassium cyanide, phosphorous and other toxins on the human body. Many prisoners died as a result of such experimentation. Of those who survived, many would have serious health problems or deformities for the rest of their lives.”

Once the bodies had been assessed they were pushed down a slide to the corpse cellar pictured below.

Tables where autopsies were performed

Corpse cellar in the basement of the building used for autopsies. Bodies were placed here before being cremated.

Corpse cellar in the basement of the building used for autopsies. Bodies were placed here before being cremated.

Steps where bodies were taken down into the cellar.

Steps where bodies were taken down into the cellar.

Final thoughts on visiting Sachsenhausen:

It was a meaningful and powerful experience. I learned more about what some 200,000 people went through not so long ago. I thought I would feel emotional and upset during and after the experience, but it didn’t really hit me until I got back to my place in Berlin (where I found myself with a lot to think about and write about). The whole train ride home my mind was on other things, surprisingly happy things, but I think that was perhaps a coping method. It’s hard to imagine what it was really like, but visiting a concentration camp sure comes closer than a movie or a book. I just hope people keep visiting and remembering so that what happened is never forgotten.

Tip:

I highly recommend taking a tour; my first impressions were that the camp was too “prettied up” to really show what happened there. Without a guide explaining everything that had gone on in the area I think I would have left feeling as though I hadn’t really seen the horrors of a concentration camp.

Tours leave from Potsdamer Platz in Berlin on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays for 14 Euro – you can find out more information here.

Have you visited Sachsenhausen or another concentration camp? Let me know your thoughts on the experience below.