Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Sachenhausen Concentration Camp

Today I went to a concentration camp. The Sachenhausen camp is in Oraienburg, just by Berlin. The camp was operational even before the war and the Soviets then used it as a special camp. There were Nazis stored there in the end.

Before I even reached the camp, I was following in the inmates footsteps. Once they got off the train at the Oraienburg station, they were marched through the town to the camp, the same path I walked today. It seemed a nice town to me but arguably, there were no guns pointed at me and I have no coloured patches sown to my sleeves. Once I reached the camp, I walked down Camp Street. The wall surrounding the camp reminded me of the Berlin Wall but what was slightly shocking was just how close the houses were, and still are, to the camp. Backyards border Camp Street. The wall had a few stories of people who had been prisoners at the camp from when it was opened until its liberation by the Soviets.

Just outside the gates is a building that was used by SS troops for training and also as a barracks. Directly opposite the building are the camp gates. The first in the concrete wall, the second below Tower A. Between the gates is the house belonging to the Commandt and the command headquarters of the camp. Now there is also a strip of memorials. The two gates stand at the centre of the camp's baseline. From Tower A, the whole camp can be viewed.

Sachenhausen had prisoners from many different walks of life, over 200,000 people suffered in it. It didn't house that many Jews, when all the Jewish people were moved to Auschwitz, there were only 49 (I think) who had to be relocated. The majority of prisoners were political prisoners and Slavs. There was also a group of homosexuals and other undesirables.

Tower A now houses a museum about some of the victims and perpetrators. The men in charge of the camp were ruthless. One of the displays was of the weapons they used for beatings on a daily basis. The men wielding these weapons were capable of killing with a whip, a crop or even just the boots they were wearing. If they were feeling particularly nasty, they would give the whip to one prisoner and tell them to beat another. They would also give certain prisoners a rope and tell them to hang themselves or face the guards, in the end, suicide was far less painful. It is true that the entire camp can be seen from the tower. It was a desolate place today, mostly empty and with an overcast sky, it was greyer than I imagine it is in the summer.

The second gate is made of wrought iron. When the camp was in use it was just iron with white words painted on it. Now the words are part of the gate, "Work brings freedom".  A quote on a neighbouring wall said "Above the gaping gateway in the sinister grey building, thick black letters announce: Sachenhausen Protective Custody Camp. White lettering in the iron gate proclaims: Work brings freedom. Behind us, somebody whispers: Yes, in crematorium number three.'" (Franz Balhorn, in his diary entry for December 16, 1940). There is also documentation of guards telling prisoners that "There is a way to freedom, but only through this chimney!" whilst pointing at the chimneys of the crematorium. My skin was already feeling cold before I walked through the gates.

Directly inside the gates is the roll call area, a semi circle of packed dirt and the occasional tuft of grass, today so empty. It used to be surrounded by barracks, all but a few have been demolished now, rock pits mark their location. Directly across from the gates are where the gallows used to stand. If standing for hours during roll call two or three times a day in any weather wasn't already cruel enough, hangings were carried out at the times. Prisoners couldn't avert their eyes and were often forced to play the role of executioner.

Along the edge of the camp wall was the security system. This, much like at the Berlin Wall, had a good deal of barbed wire and also a death strip. They even had an electric fence at the camp. Getting too close to the wall was deadly, people were killed for less. Surrounding the roll call area is the shoe testing track. Prisoners were used to test new army boot materials, particularly those who needed punishing. The track is created from a variety of surfaces from sand to large, sharp rocks. If you had the misfortune of testing shoes, you were forced to march the track for the equivalent of 40km, loaded with a heavy pack and guards yelling and beating people at the same time. The idea of the track seemed laughable until I realised just how harsh it was to work on it. There is a point where even the most bizarre things are no longer funny.

The camp had a small camp in it, rather imaginatively named Small Camp. They mostly kept Jewish prisoners there until they were shipped to Auschwitz. Two of the old barracks are still standing there, even after an arson attack in the early 90s. Half of one of the buildings was full of stories of Jews who had been at the camp, either before or during the war. The other half was set up as though it were still in use. The dormitory was cramped with three tier bunks, barely space between them. People would be forced to share this narrow bunks and towards the end people slept on the floor too. Not even the worst hostel was anything like that set up. There were lockers in the common area but there weren't nearly enough and they didn't lock, if a person had anything of value they kept it on them. Maddy and I dubbed the bathrooms and storeroom something from Hell. Guards would drown people in the wash basins, pack people into the rooms and lock them in all day in summer, wearing winter uniforms. Even empty, they were grim, unclean and slightly spooky.

By the Jewish barracks was the prison. Yes, there was a prison in the camp, it was run by the Gestapo. The prisoners in it were either camp inmates who had broken the rules, or those arrested by the Gestapo. If the concentration camp was a nightmare, the prison was that of the highest degree. Terror, murder and secret keeping were the pillars of the prison. The cells now have the names of the people who were held and died in them, there were a British flags in there. The beds were hessian and straw, not at all comfortable looking and I imagine they were crawling with plenty of nasty bugs.

Sachenhausen had 68 barracks in total, the Jewish ones are the only ones still standing. They fan out from the roll call area. I shudder at how full they would have been, especially before the death marches. As I walked between where they stood, I was hyper aware of high the possibility that someone had died were I was standing was. Every inch of the ground must have had someone fall at one point or another. It made the thin grass, rocks and odd purple weed look slightly odd, knowing what had happened there.

Just outside the camp wall in the back corner is a gate that leads to what became a Soviet special camp. It had two zones but only one has above ground remains today. The barracks have a far more medieval take in bedding, bunks more like the ones you see in the dungeons of French castles were used. Prisoners here were originally people who had been charged with war crimes, boys from Nazi werewolf squads. One boy was 16 when he received a ten year sentence. The Soviets held about 60,000 people over the time their special camp was open, for various reasons, including ministers from churches and people who didn't share their political views. Children were born and raised in the camps but they didn't suffer as much as the actual inmates. There is a mass grave for 7000 of the dead from the camp just beyond the wall. Prisoners used to hear the dead being buried at night.

Back inside the wall, I walked to Station Z. It is one of the few times I will be ungrateful for something having a Z in the name because of its horrid story. Station Z was not a big building but it saw a lot of death. It had a gas chamber, which was far smaller than I imagined it would be, four cremation ovens, assorted examination rooms and a room that was specially designed so the people could be shot in the neck. 13,000 Soviet POWs were killed in the Autumn of '41 at Station Z. They were lead in under the pretence of a doctor's examination and then were taken to a room where they were shot in the back of the neck before their bodies were burnt. Around 600 bodies were reduced to ashes a day. The burial grounds that have been uncovered near by are several metres deep and full of tonnes of ashes. This helped me to put into perspective just how many people died because I know that one human doesn't become a lot of ash. The whole operation ran all day, every day, although sometimes the ovens were stopped if they started spewing flames.

The gas chamber, particularly the mobile units, were actually first tested at Sachenhausen before they were spread through the Germany territory for the purpose of genocide. Every time I think about how the process worked, I feel sick to the stomach. Carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation are not things I want to dwell in but I know enough that they are extremely painful ways to die. The people who suffered that way were treated as less than human, I could not wish that fate on anyone.

Possibly the most shocking thing I leant today was not in the figures of the dead, the sites of the mass graves or the appalling living conditions. No, in the infirmary barracks was a small exhibit about the doctors, Nazi doctors who deliberately killed patients and carried out grim and pointless experiments on them, as well as the inmate doctors. Those were things I knew about, there was something I didn't. Sachenhausen Concentration Camp had had a brothel. Female prisoners from Ravenbrük were used as the prostitutes. The brothel was open every evening and on Sunday would open earlier, a visit was a reward for good behaviour and men were given twenty minutes with a woman. Female prisoners who saw the others return to Ravenbrük could only describe them as broken. Only Jewish prisoners couldn't earn the chance to go to the brothel. One woman was shot when they found out she was pregnant. I think it shocked me because I was caught so off guard by the idea that that would happen in a concentration camp. The woman were much like the trafficked people today and that hurts me all the more. No one should be subjected to that, I had to leave the building before I was sick from the stories.

Today was a hard day. I knew that it would be, a concentration camp never does promise to be fun but I had underestimated just how hard it would be. It makes me realise just how atrocious they had been and how the people had been treated. It also showed me that the guards and people in charge really thought they were doing the right thing or they had really long vicious, cruel streaks. I am very to lucky to live where I do in the world and in this time. Everything that happened in that camp happened less than a hundred years ago, it's very recent history. Perhaps the worst part is that even though it's not happening in Germany anymore, it is happening in other places in the world. Wars are still being fought, innocents being killed, genocide is on the news quite often, refugees are kept in detention centres. People didn't know what happened in concentration camps, not to the full extent of the violence, I can see the similarities to how we treat and view dentention centres today. Humans look back at World War Two and condemn the actions of the Nazis, their camps, their methods and what they stood for. It makes me wonder how people will judge us in 100 years, what will they remember us for, what kind of historical sites will be visited? Is it futile to hope that war can ever end and that people will all be treated as equals? I have to believe that it can and they will.

Hi, this is taken directly from my travel journal. I visited Sachenhausen on Sunday the 18th of October 2015. This is my reaction as I wrote it down on the day. The only editing I have done is to correct my spelling, everything else is the same as the original writing. Thank you for reading it.
Love from Me and My Backpack

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