Sunday, July 13, 2014

Berlin - Day 2 Part 1

On our second day in Berlin, we took a tour of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It seems really morbid and disrespectful to be blogging about such a horrific place (it felt even weirder to be taking pictures and posing in such a place, but apparently some people don't care about that-- the poses and smiles people came up with were pretty ridiculous sometimes), as we learned on our bike tour and at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, its important to remember. So I apologize in advance if I offend anyone but we can't forget.

So to start off, a bit of history about the camp. Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps created under the Nazi regime. It was built (by prisoners) in 1936 and was supposed to be the model concentration camp. It was set out in a triangular shape such that, in theory, the entire camp could be watched from Tower A, in the middle of one side of the triangle. It reality, buildings prevented such a format from actually working well. Sachsenhausen was primarily used as a work camp rather than an extermination camp so the number of deaths, while appalling, is no where near that of other camps such as Auschwitz and Birkenau. Around 200,000 prisoners came through Sachsenahusen under the Nazi regime. 

After the Nazis were defeated, the camp was taken over by the Soviets (thanks to it's East German location) and used as a camp for Prisoners of War. It held both Nazis and "politically undesirable" people who were arrested arbitrarily because they somehow opposed the new community government. By the time this camp closed (again) in 1950, an additional 60,000 prisoners had past through its gates-- 12,000 of whom died due to malnutrition and disease. 

In 1961, the National People's Army of the DDR converted the site into Sachsenhausen National Memorial. Most of the buildings were destroyed to make way for the new memorial grounds. Instead of creating a memorial to the thousands murdered at Sachsenhausen, the "memorial" was more of a monument to the victory of communism over fascism. It was used as rally grounds where speeches were given and even as a wedding venue. 

In 1993, it was converted into what you would expect of a concentration camp memorial. Several of the demolished buildings were rebuilt to preserve the history of the site. Its a much more somber and appropriate memorial now that reflects the atrocities committed there. 

Our tour was conducted by Kate of Mosaic Tours. They are the only not-for-profit company doing tours of Sachsenhausen and all their profits go either to continue maintaining the camp or to Amnesty International. I HIGHLY recommend Mosaic if you ever come to Berlin!

So we started out at Alexanderplatz and took the S-Bahn to Hauptbahnhof then a regional express to Oranienburg where the camp is located. We then took a slightly different route to the camp than most groups. We went past a cemetery and memorial to the Soviets who died in the camps. We also went into what was then the administrative building for the camp and is now a finance building for the town.

As we were going through the town, Kate told us about the life of SS soldiers. They were very much encouraged to form a community of SS families within the greater community. Many of the soldiers lived in the town alongside normal people (in houses built by prisoners). There were very strict guidelines on what the soldiers could say about the camp to the town and the Nazis did a very good job of spreading propaganda to create a positive image about the camp. One thing we didn't know going into the tour was that the SS soldiers had to volunteer for both the SS and for duty in a concentration camp. It wasn't mandatory and they could ask to be transferred out (but that would likely place them on the front lines). Some of the houses in Orainenburg are still occupied by the families of the SS soldiers-- you can't (shouldn't?) punish a soldier's family for his actions, I guess. I should also point out that the actions of the soldiers was completely legal at the time. The international laws regarding crimes against humanity were actually developed as a method for condemning perfectly legal acts that are inhumane.

Here is a map of what the camp once looked like. I don't know how to edit the picture on Landon's computer so I can't outline where the camp actually was-- but it was the slightly askew triangular area slightly to the left of center. Its pretty small compared to the overall area. To the right, were the factories where the prisoners worked including the extremely dangerous brick factory.

We came in through the main Orainenburg gate like many of the prisoners at the camp. They were actually often paraded through town on their way to the camp while the townspeople threw rocks and shouted at them. Sachsenhausen, in the beginning, was mainly used for political prisoners who were anti-socalism. At the time, they were portrayed as horrific criminals going for rehabilitation at the camp and the townspeople thoroughly supported the Nazi Regime and were proud that their town served as such a rehabilitation point.  It wasn't until later that victims of racial purification were brought to Sachsenhausen. They were brought to the camp from a separate railway stop on the far side of the camp so the townspeople didn't know they were there. Inside the main gate is the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- Work will set you free. (Again, I don't know how to edit pictures on L's computer).

Once inside the gates, we entered the roll call area. It was an area of true torture for the prisoners. Roll call occurred twice each day and often included brutal commands that forced exhausted prisoners to roll around on the ground, even in the mud or snow.

One of the punishments at Sachsenhausen was shoe testing. The prisoners were forced to "test" shoes for their durability for soldiers by walking continuously on the shoe test track that was made up of different materials (sand, cobblestones, rocks, etc) for hours on end. The shoes generally did not fit the prisoner wearing them.

This is a memorial where the gallows stood.

These rock areas represent where the barracks were located prior to their demolition by the DDR.

This is the monument the soviets erected to celebrate the victory of communism over fascism.

So this is particularly disturbing. Once the Nazis started exterminating people at an extremely high rate, they realized that the moral of their soldiers dropped severely if the soldiers were forced to kill prisoners face to face. This is one of the reasons they developed the gas chambers. They also created fake medical rooms where prisoners were given fake physicals. During the portion of the physical where the victims' height is measured, someone in the next room shoots the victim in the back of the neck through a hole in the measuring stick. The "doctor" didn't kill anyone so he didn't feel bad and the shooter didn't have to see his victim plead for his live so he didn't feel bad. Horrific.

This is the kitchen facility. The walls are decorated with murals drawn by a POW after the Soviets took over the camp.

This is a guard tower.

This is an execution trench for resistance fighters, conscientious objectors, and other people the Nazis sentenced to die.

This is a memorial to over 13,000 Red Army POWs who were executed at the camp in 1941.

So here is the really bad part-- the killing building. You may want to skip this section. Originally, this building was going to be completely removed but there was an outcry from former camp prisoners who wanted it turned into a memorial. All that is left is the foundation, but it has been covered and and memorial was added. This building was called Station Z (pronounced zed).

Waiting Room (left), Gas Chamber (center/right), Body disposal (top right).

Fake doctors' offices for execution through the walls. The walls are double thick so those in the waiting room couldn't hear the gunshots and panic.

The crematorium ovens where bodies were burned to ash.

The memorial to the victims.

Outside Station Z, there are many of these bench-like structures. They mark mass graves where the ashes of murdered prisoners were buried.

This was the mortuary for bodies that weren't burned. Autopsies were actually "performed" on the bodies but the results were not accurately reported. About 6 different causes of death were used, none of which accurately portrayed the victim's death or the condition of his body.

As WWII was ending, most prisoners were forced to walk on a death march, however some 3,000 victims deemed unfit to walk were left behind. One prisoner who was also a doctor volunteered to stay behind and care for them. He was liberated soon after. Later, he came back to the camp and was able to identify these mass graves that were previously unknown. Each contain 50 victims who died after the death march left.

The electrified, bard-wire fence inside the wall.

This is the prison within then camp for especially important victims. This primarily included people the Nazis thought could provide information or just really didn't like. The prisoners were in solitarily confinement and often forced to stand all day without touching the walls or their bed. They tortured the prisoners within these walls more overtly than the prisoners outside of the walls. They also encouraged the prisoners in the prison to scream in order to create fear within the main camp. Hitler's first attempted assassin was held here as was the Reverend who wrote the "First they came..." poem.

The last part of the tour was the barracks. These were recreated because the DDR had destroyed all the originals. Shortly after they were built, Neo-Nazis firebombed them as an anti-Semitic movement. The designer was given the option to completely redo the buildings, but he chose not to. The burned walls serve as a reminder that the hate that brought about the Holocaust is still alive in some places.

One of the barracks is set up as a memorial and contains information about Sachenhausen victims.

The other is set up as it was when the camp was operational. Each barrack is split into three sections. At each end is a bunk room meant for about 60 people but sometimes held upwards of 400. In the middle is a washroom, a bathroom, and an eating room. Often the prisoners were given 5 minutes for all 400 to eat, wash, and use the restroom, and leave the place clean before roll call.

And that's the horrifying place that was Sachsenhausen.

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