I am a lover of history. Whenever Linda and I arrive in a new country, I obsess over the past events that made that nation what it is today. Was there a civil war here? What type of governments has this country had? Has this society ever completely altered the course of world history? To answer those questions (among many more), I usually talk to the locals, read way too many history books on my Kindle, and of course, study Wikipedia.
So when we arrived in Germany, I immediately bought The Second World War by John Keegan and started learning as much as I could about the events that helped to literally shape the very ground I was walking on. Unfortunately, many of those events that took place in Germany during World War II carry a dark shadow with them. And most of the physical evidence of these atrocities no longer remain. However, a few of them have survived to serve as memorials as well as reminders to not allow history to repeat itself. When I found out that we had the opportunity to witness one of these memorials during our weekend trip to Berlin, I knew we had to go.
The Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial is about 40 minutes north of Berlin and was one of the first concentration camps set up by the Nazis before the start of World War II. It was never an extermination camp (like Auschwitz or Dachau), but thousands of prisoners were still murdered throughout the camp’s ten year history. It also served as a model for the 1,200 additional camps (including Auschwitz and Dachau) and sub-camps that the Nazis would construct during the first five years of the war.
To walk around the camp is a somber experience. We were led by a brilliant guide who was both respectful and informative as he walked us from place to place, telling stories to add color to the gray grounds.
^^^ The Sachsenhausen concentration camp was designed to allow the machine gun based at the main entrance to overlook every barrack. No one would be able to move around the camp without the guards at the tower noticing.
^^^ These barracks housed the SS soldiers that were being trained before being sent to other concentration camps throughout Germany. Many of these soldiers were only eighteen years old.
^^^ These barracks are some of the only remaining original buildings. During World War II, they were used to house the Jewish prisoners and were crammed with nearly double the livable capacity. The fire damage you can see in these photos (most notable on the roof) was caused by neo-Nazis in 1992.
^^^ We could have spent hours walking through the museum that is located in the old commissary. Former prisoner’s letters, stories of political prisoners, and countless heartbreaking accounts of the events that took place at Sachsenhausen are wall to wall in every room.
^^^ Soviet and Polish soldiers liberated the camp in 1945. The tall tower pictured above is a memorial the Soviets constructed to commemorate their work in the liberation. Ironically, after the Soviet Union liberated the camp (where many Soviet prisoners of war were executed), they used it as a concentration camp of their own in the late 1940s. History repeating itself indeed.
^^^ The spot where the crematorium was operated. The buildings are gone, but like in most parts of the camp, the foundations and outlines of walls still remain to give a feel for the camp layout.
^^^ These two views above are from the only place you can stand on the Sachsenhausen concentration camp grounds and have the same view that the prisoners did during World War II. The two green buildings stretching on either side of the road are the medical buildings.
^^^ The medical buildings were some of the more difficult buildings to see and hear about their history. The experiments that the “doctors” performed on prisoners through the camp’s history are quite simply, disgusting.
It feels odd to say that visiting a concentration camp was one of my favorite things that we did while in Germany. But, it’s true. It was an incredible experience full of history and emotion.
It’s hard to imagine that a place like the Sachsenhausen concentration camp actually existed. But when you’re there, the proof is all around you. The walls, the gravel paths, the gas chambers, the barbed wire. It’s all still there. Reminding you of what was and what should never be again.
Our time in Germany coincided with an increase of media coverage of refugees arriving to Europe, as well as the attacks in Paris which Linda has written about in other posts here and here. It was sobering to think about how easily cycles of fear and hate can persist, and we hope never to experience in our lifetime what happened so recently in places like the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Interested in learning more?