On our second-to-last day in Berlin, our TOP 6 group finally visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Earlier in the trip, Wood, our group leader, confided that he did not always offer this option to the TOP educational tours because it focuses so heavily on Germany’s painful past, rather than their present experience. However our group voted to go because we thought it was impossible to fully understand Germany’s culture today without witnessing this dark chapter of their history.
This was the day that I thought about and dreaded the most since the trip began. It wasn’t easy to go to a place dealing with such a tragic, disturbing subject, but I had to go to Sachsenhausen in order to try and comprehend how this could ever happen, and to truly feel the experience through the perspective of the victims. Before I go into our experience, let me first explain a bit about Sachsenhausen.
In January of 1933, after Adolph Hitler was appointed as Chancellor, people viewed as political adversaries or threats began to be rounded up throughout Germany to be held in detention centers. These political prisoners were often held without charges indefinitely, and over time, the Nazis expanded the camps to include “undesirables” as well. Hitler promised the German people that they would become great again only by eliminating those who stood in the way- basically any group that did not have pure Aryan bloodlines, but some of the larger groups targeted for extermination included Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Originally, Concentration Camps were created from previously standing buildings for other purposes, but as the numbers of prisoners increased, the Nazis began to design new concentration camps built entirely for that purpose.
Sachsenhausen was the first designed concentration camp, and it was supposed to serve as a model for how future camps should operate. Originally it was a forced-labor camp, as most extermination camps were further east, but in the early 1940’s Sachsenhausen added crematoriums and gas chambers as well. The one major design flaw to Sachsenhausen was that they never planned to have as many prisoners as they did, so later tents had to be erected to store over 10,000 additional people on-site.
Everyone has heard the stories of the Nazi Concentration Camps, but you can never understand until you visit one just how evil and awful they were. On the way walking in, we were greeted with the slogan, “Arbeit macht frei”, or “work will set you free.” Many of the camps had this slogan branded on their gates, and though they did not intentionally create the slogan to antagonize the prisoners of the camps, is is undeniable that there is a cruel irony to the fact that most prisoners knew that once they entered those walls, the only certain means of release was their eventual death.
People who came through these gates were forced to work in grueling conditions, starved, beaten arbitrarily, victim to cruel medical experiments, subject to disease and often eventually executed for simply belonging to the wrong culture or holding the wrong ideology.
We had several hours to walk the grounds, but it wasn’t close to enough time to experience everything. What struck me when we first walked in was the sheer enormity of the place. Sachsenhausen was set up like a gigantic equilateral triangle in order to operate symmetrically around a center axis, and it stretched so far that it was hard to see where it began and where it ended. I could imagine how intimidating it must have felt to walk in the gates and get lost in the sea of listless faces, in such a gigantic space, and without any real hope of escape.
We walked by the infirmary, where victims were more often subject to horrendous medical experiments rather than treated for their ailments. The Nazis were interested in learning how the human body reacted to different chemical weapons and diseases, so prisoners here made perfect guinea pigs for their testing. One experiment told of Russian prisoners of war who were sent to the medical ward. The camp leadership ordered the soldiers to be shot with poison-tipped bullets so that doctors could analyze their slow and painful deaths to learn the effects of poison on the human body.
Pictured above are the tracks, where inmates would walk up to 40 kilometers a day in various shoe types on top of objects that included cement, cinders, broken stones, gravel and sand to learn which gear worked best for German soldiers. Later, Nazis used it as a torture tactic, with reports in the early 40’s of prisoners being forced to wear shoes two sizes too small and walking with 20 pound bags of sand on their backs. Some prisoners were given drug cocktails which included cocaine and other drugs to see if they could perfect a serum for super soldiers that would increase focus and energy. Nothing was out of bounds in this place, because to Nazi’s, these prisoners were less than human, and inconsequential to the greater cause.
In the center of the camp, visitors could walk through the remains of the crematoriums, where the bodies were disposed and burnt to ash. Walking along the path, I was disgusted to learn that the ashes were often reused later as road filler or fertilizer for the camp. What horror it must have been for a prisoner to walk over a road every day that was paved with the remains of their loved ones. Who could do such awful things to other human beings?
The worst area had to be walking through the morgue, where the bodies were autopsied after their lives came to a bitter end. As camp numbers swelled and the systematic exterminations began, so many bodies came in that Nazi coroners simply didn’t have the manpower to get through each body, so most were simply discarded without any examination.
A dug-out pit that once served as a mass grave for the prisoners.
These memorials stand tall at the center of each former concentration camp. In this scene, the Soviets are depicted as liberators coming to save the victims.
The biggest takeaway I had from the entire experience was that it was far more than simply the Nazi leadership who were responsible for these atrocities.
In the media, the Nazis portrayed these camps as re-education centers where prisoners were being trained to live a new and fulfilling life under the regime. They would bring cameras into the camps and portray prisoners in comically nicer conditions compared to the realities the victims faced every day. But my bigger question always lied in the German population in general- why would they be okay with such terrible treatment of camp prisoners?
The answer was really two-fold: First, the Nazi’s were experts at using propaganda to promote anti-Semitic viewpoints and a deep nationalistic belief in a strong, pure, German society. Subversives or outsiders needed to be removed from their society in order to accomplish this goal. Second, many communities that surrounded the camps benefited significantly from the business that they provided. Local businesses in the community could take advantage of the free labor, and would bring their raw materials to Concentration Camps to turn them into finished products.
The West also bears responsibility for these travesties. In America, the majority of Jews fleeing from persecution who attempted to enter our country during this time were denied due to largely anti-Semitic feelings by the state department and the country as a whole. Between 1933 and 1945, in all about 132,000 Jews were allowed to enter the country as refugees, only ten percent of the allotted quota by law. This correlates directly to a 1939 survey in which Americans felt Jews were different and therefore should be restricted from entering the country. Also, once the allied forces learned of the camps, they did not immediately attack them or attempt to free the prisoners, as leadership felt that it would divert too much air support from the primary objective of winning the war against the Nazis.
Ultimately, however, no one believed just how dire the circumstances were until the first Russian soldiers began to liberate the camps and free the remaining victims. It was only then that they saw the starving, emaciated faces of the victims that were left behind to suffer and die. Even as the Soviets were closing in and the camps were being evacuated, the Nazi’s took their prisoners with them, and those who could not keep up were shot along the way. But did the Red Army stop the death and close all camps? Unfortunately, many of the camps remained open for Soviet purposes once they took control. Needing space to hold former Nazi soldiers and officials, as well as fearing opponents of Communism, the Soviets took over leadership of the camps and utilized many inhumane practices against their own prisoners, creating many mass graves of their own.
As I got to the end of Sachsenhausen, I grew physically ill at the thought of the terror and pain the people went through every day inside these walls. But my true horror lied in the realization that the Nazi leadership were able to condemn millions to their deaths because so many parties played a part in this process. Camps such as Sachsenhausen were able to exist because so many around the world were unaware or unwilling to stand up and put a stop to these factories of death.
Towards the front entrance of the camp, there was a mural that depicted the struggle for the victims and their eventual rescue. But even more impactful was the quote below it:
As the Presidents of the International Committees of Concentration Camp Survivors stated in 2009, “We are exceedingly pained and angered to recognize today: the world has learned too little from our history. Precisely for this reason remembrance and commemoration must remain the equal task of both citizens and states.” Despite the shame of their past transgressions, the German government has kept up the Concentration Camps to ensure that the world will never forget the horrors of the past. And as the survivors requested, this place must exist forever- We must let these evil places remain standing to remind us that we can never allow this tragedy to happen again. Every person who died in this camp deserves to be remembered for the life and opportunities that were wasted to bigoted, racist hatred in its worst form. The memorials must stand tall for all the people who were never able to stand up on their own in the past, and for those who may struggle to do so again in the future.
Sachsenhausen was the worst experience of my life, but I am forever better for it. Ignorance is the ultimate weapon of the unjust. We need to utilize these painful lessons from history to provide guidance to never, under any circumstances, revert to these ways again.