Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp - Part I

One of the most moving and memorable parts of our trip was a visit to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany. In order to share the camp's story and the full impact of our visit, we've split this post into two parts.

It's impossible to visit Germany, and it's capital Berlin, without acknowledging the events that unfolded under Nazi rule during the Second World War. From the burning of the Reichstag (that enabled Hitler and the Nazi party to take control), to bullet riddled marble columns on Museum Island, and the crumbling remains of the Berlin wall, evidence of the war and its outcome, a divided Berlin, is everywhere.

Wanting to better understand the events in Berlin during this time, and pay our respects to those that suffered and lost their lives during the holocaust, we decided to visit the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum located on the former grounds of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. 

Although the memorial site can be explored independently, with the help of an audio guide, we decided to join a guided tour, hoping it would provide more insight into the events that unfolded there. Fortunately, our decision proved to be a good one, as our guide Dennis from Vive Berlin Tours, turned out to be not only a wealth of information, but also a very gifted and effective story teller, seamlessly weaving the real life accounts of three different prisoners into the tour and making the entire visit that much more meaningful. 

Located on the outskirts of Oranienburg, a small town about fifty minutes by train from Berlin, Sachsenhausen was primarily used as a labour camp and political prison from 1936 to 1945. Created as the model concentration camp, the standard from which others would be built, Sachsenhausen was the result of a thoroughly thought out architectural design intended to illicit feelings of complete Nazi dominance on those interned within it's walls.

Guard Tower A flanked by two of the only buildings still standing

Gravel pads mark the location of the former barracks

Sachsenhausen was an important concentration camp for many reasons, most notably it's close proximity to Berlin. As a result, the administrative headquarters for all concentration camps was located in Oranienburg, and the nearby grounds became a training centre for Schutzsaffel (SS) officers who would later be sent to other concentration camps throughout Europe. As well, Sachsenhausen was used as an example concentration camp for journalist tours and the well-oiled Nazi propaganda machine during the early years of the war.  Many reports at the time actually depicted the camp as quite pleasant; however, once fully immersed in the holocaust, the Nazi Party no longer concerned itself with maintaining the concentration camp's image. 

As a labour camp, prisoners at Sachsenhausen worked long days in the nearby manufacturing plants, including a brickworks factory that was known in camp for it's high mortality rates. Interestingly, the Concentration Camp was also home to the largest counterfeiting operation ever  which produced fake American and British currency as part of a plan to undermine the economies of these two countries by dumping them into the streets. Although this plan was never completed, millions of 5, 10, 20, and 50 pound notes were used to make purchases and and seamlessly made their way into circulation.

A single cell reserved for important political prisoners

A scratchy blue and white striped prison uniform

Although only two barracks are still standing, in addition to Guard Tower A (main gate) and the perimeter wall, it's actually quite easy to get a good understanding of the camp's layout. 
As we sat in the small common area of one of the barracks, situated between the lavatory and sleeping area, Dennis explained that the barracks often housed upwards of two hundred and fifty prisoners each, with only eight toilets and two washing troughs fed with cold water. The prisoners were only allowed access to use the facilities for thirty minutes at the beginning and end of the day, making it impossible for everyone to all maintain a proper level of hygiene. As a result of these living conditions, and the harsh winters, disease, infection, and frostbite was prevalent throughout the camp.

Eight toilets in a row

Two wash bins (left) and small foot baths (right)

Survivor accounts have painted a gruesome depiction of both the horrific conditions within camp and the prevalence of prisoner abuse. Abuse from SS guards was a part of daily life in the camp, including brutal beatings, torture, and murder; however, I was surprised to learn that infighting amongst prisoners was also regular. Fueled by the camp's practice of labeling the prisoners' uniforms using coloured triangles to represent their alleged "crimes" (red for communists, green for convicted criminals, pink for homosexuals, a yellow Star of David for Jews, etc...), a hierarchy quickly developed within camp. Although the main minority group targeted by the Nazi's was the Jewish community, it's important not to lose sight of the many minority groups targeted by the Nazi's, including Romani (gypsies), people with disabilities, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet and Polish citizens, and Soviet prisoners of war. 

This badge denotes a Jewish prisoner

Prisoners in this area were shot immediately

For more information about Sachsenhausen and our guided visit, you can read part two of this post here

By Calli D with 1 comment


Such a moving post. Trips to a concentration camp are indeed very touching and rewarding experiences that remind us of a terrifying but important part of our collective past. Really enjoying the blog and have a great rest of your trip!


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Calli and Travis returned from a four month trip through Europe more excited than ever to hit the open road. Who knows where they'll end up next...

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