Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp - Part II

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. You can read the first half of this post here.

Although not intended to be an extermination camp, as the war progressed gas chambers and ovens were constructed as a means to kill large numbers of prisoners. Due to intentional destruction and neglect during the camp's time under Soviet control, the remains of Station Z (the only "way out" of Sachsenhausen for many prisoners) have only recently been uncovered. 

Initially prisoners were shot by SS guards before the use of gas chambers

As we walked around the decrepit foundation, the only evidence remaining of Station Z's existence, Dennis explained the many different methods employed by the Nazi's to kill prisoners. Although it was extremely upsetting to talk of the Nazi's search for more efficient means of killing prisoners, always taking into consideration what was best for their soldiers doing the killing, it was even more dreadful to acknowledge the events that took place underfoot only sixty-ish years earlier. Estimates have put the total number of lives lost at Sachsenhausen at 30,000, however this number is difficult to determine as thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were killed immediately upon arrival at the camp without being registered, their bodies disposed of in mass graves. 

The faces of six Russian civilians upon arrival at Station Z

The slumping foundation - all that remains

Four large ovens inside Station Z

In the Spring of 1945, with the Red Army advancing, the SS officers ordered the evacuation of Sachsenahusen and 33,000 inmates were sent on a forced "death" march towards the northeast. Unfortunately many of these prisoners were malnourished or physically exhausted and were shot by the SS after collapsing en route. As a result, only 3,000 inmates remained on April 22, 1945 when the Red Army and the Polish Army's 2nd Infantry Division liberated the camp and surrounding area. After the liberation, Sachsenhausen came under Soviet control and was renamed Soviet Special Camp No. 1. The camp was used to house German officers convicted of war crimes, anti-communists, and Nazi collaborators. The use of forced labour, prisoner abuse, and poor conditions continued, and mortality rates during this time were no better than those under the previous Nazi regime. 

Looming wall and guard tower

In 1950 the camp was officially closed, and the majority of the buildings on site were demolished, likely to hide any evidence of Soviet wrong-doing. In 1956 the site was established as national memorial with a strong focus on the suffering of political prisoners over the other minority groups detained. However, not until the fall of East Germany was it possible to complete excavations of the site. Holding back tears, it was obvious that everyone in our group had been moved by the visit. Today, the memorial at Sachsenhausen is open to the public 365 days of the year for family members and visitors to pay respect.

Although difficult at times, our visit was extremely rewarding due to the way in which Dennis'  stories connected us emotionally to the site. If you find yourself in or around Berlin, don't shy away from this site - Sachsenhausen is worthy of a visit if only to pay respect to the brave individuals who spent time there.

At the end of our time together, while aboard the train back to Berlin, Dennis shared his feelings on being German and the confusion he has personally felt about his country's past, a struggle many young Germans seem to be dealing with. Although it may seem contradictory that he leads tours of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp while coming to terms his German heritage, Dennis explained that he has made a conscious decision to share the events that unfolded there in an effort to ensure that they are not forgotten; because as painful as it may be to walk amongst the looming guard towers, barbed wire fences, and twisted remains of four large ovens, "[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". (Santayana, 1906). 

*Vive Berlin Tours offers tours of Sachsenhausen for free (the guides work on a tip basis) and ask only for a 1 Euro contribution per person donated to the Museum and Memorial site to help pay for its maintenance and preservation. Although free, tips for the guides' time and energy are always appreciated and (probably) necessary to ensure great guides like Dennis can continue to pay their bills. We were only able to participate in this one tour with Vive Berlin Tours, however if Dennis is any indication of the quality of their guides, we are certain that any of their other wonderful sounding tours will be equally enjoyable.  

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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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