Now for a far more serious post. Today I went on a tour with other travellers from my hostel to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It's about an hour out of Berlin and we took a train to get there.
I'll give you a bit of an overview to start off with and then some of my own reflections.
Sachsenhausen was opened in 1936 and was initially mainly used to incarcerate so-called enemies of the Nazi regime – usually opponents of fascism and Nazism. However, when the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 many Soviet POWs were sent there, as well as Jews.
Many people would know Sachsenhausen for the infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' slogan on the entrance gate into the main quad. Roughly translated, this means 'Work Liberates'. The prisoners were forced to undertake manual labour and built much of the surrounding grounds, including the swan-filled lake for the Commandant. Sachsenhausen was also used as a training facility for members of the SS, who were then transferred to other camps in Germany, Russia and Poland. Executions were common and though in the beginning were done by shooting or hanging, by March 1943 large gas chambers and oven were built to cope with the large numbers of people sent there to be executed.
When Sachsenhausen was liberated by the Soviets in 1945, it was immediately taken over by the Soviet secret police (the NKVD) as its own camp to house their own prisoners and enemies. It was used in this capacity until 1950, when it was closed. I found this fact surprising at first – wouldn't the first reaction of the Soviets be to raze the buildings to the ground due to the atrocities that had been committed against their own? But Sachsenhausen was known for its superb organisation and layout so I imagine that the Soviets saw this as an opportunity to use what had worked efficiently against their own enemies.
It is estimated that Sachsenhausen had over 200,000 prisoners while in operation by both Nazi and Soviet hands, and that 30-35,000 people were killed there.
Those who know me will know I love to study history – I took as many history classes as I could at high school and it is now my major in my degree at University. I love to study history because it is one of the ways I try to understand human nature. And for the most part, I can comprehend the various periods of history I study and am able to find something in what I am studying that I can relate to and see some commonality between myself and those who lived before me.
I've never been able to do this when studying the Holocaust.
I just can't comprehend the justifications put forward by the Nazis for the atrocities that were committed against those whom they considered to be undesirable to the Third Reich. The idesa of ethnic cleansing and eugenics make me sick. I can't understand how one could think that they were doing the right thing by taking part in the systematic extermination of an entire race. My teachers tell me that the methods of indoctrination used by the Nazis were so persuasive that you couldn't help but be caught up in the racist sentiment around you. However, I don't believe this is true. Yes, the propaganda may use methods of persuasion that could be considered sophisticated, but then how is it that there were those who resisted Nazism and all it stood for? Isn't then the real question not how come people believed this stuff, but rather how come more people did not object to it? I just don't buy into the idea that Hitler came out of the blue, that all his ideas were revolutionary and exclusive to him. A man, no matter how charismatic he is, can only gain support for his ideas if the ideas themselves are attractive in some way.
So much of my study of Europe since the Second World War has shown that it is still coming to terms (nearly 70 years later) with what happened to humanity during that conflict and indeed may never be able to. How does one explain the deaths of nearly 70 million people, most of them civilians?
This was all in my mind as I prepared for the trip today out to Sachsenhausen. I have just finished a semester of study of World War Two in which we looked extensively at the rise of Fascism in Europe. So on the one hand I was interested on seeing a part of the history I had studied with my own eyes, but on the other I was anxious about how actually being there would be.
Today it was especially eerie because it was snowing quite heavily while we were there and I was torn between how beautiful it seemed – pure white snow is so beautiful – and how so many of the horrors described by the prisoners seemed to involve snow – freezing in it, having to eat it due to extreme hunger and so on. I think visiting the camp in summer would be a totally different experience.
I was struck by how silent it was – the camp is really big and as I looked out across the expansive yard where the prisoners would have to stand to attention for roll call it was strange to hear nothing but occasionally a little rustle of wind. The only sound I heard all that time, other than the crunching of the snow as I walked around, was the crowing of the birds – I think they were crows. It was so bleak.
Walking around and reading the various stories and seeing some of the remains, I actually found it hard to imagine that once this place would have been bustling with activity – the labour of the prisoners and guards patrolling the grounds. It just seemed too quiet. But as I read the stories and saw the photos of people who both survived and perished, it became more real. And that's when I found it quite hard to continue. Every time you think you've seen something horrible, another story or picture is shown and it's worse.
I found the section about the children of the camp particularly difficult. There was one story about the death of a small baby that when I read sickened me so much I accidentally dropped the audio guide device on the floor. I had to leave that section after that.
I must confess I didn't see the entire place nor read every information board – reading the stories in a textbook are completely different to reading them on a site where those atrocities actually took place. Being there just drained me of all my energy and all I felt was sorrow for these people.
I did get angry to see some people who were taking photos of themselves, posing next to the Infirmary building or the Commandant's house for a glamour shot – I mean, come on. Have some respect. But most of the time, it was silent and cold.
2 hours was more than enough for me. After visiting the Infirmary, which I found to be the worst area because of the stories inside about experiments and euthanasia, I made my way back to the main visitor's centre. I met up with the rest of the group there – most people were pretty quiet. It seemed pointless to ask each other how each of us had found it. Most people looked pretty strung out. I certainly felt so.
I've included a few shots so you can get an idea what it was like. I am glad that I went because I certainly shall never forget it. And though I perhaps never will be able to understand how such a thing could happen, it's worth taking the time out of my own life of comparative luxury to reflect and pray for those who suffered more than I can imagine.
The main road along the gate, leading into the main entrance.
The famous gate
The grounds - the column to the left is a memorial statue that has 18 red triangles on it - one for each of the nationalities that had prisoners at Sachsenhausen.
A statue of the prisoners in memorial of the liberation of Sachsenhausen by the Soviets. The original design by the sculptor had the figures emaciated like the prisoners would have been, but as these figures were meant to represent the victors of Fascism, the Soviets wanted them to be strong and comrade-like.
This was a New Testament bible, pocket-sized, that one of the prisoners kept on him for the duration of his time at Sachsenhausen. When he was released during the camp's liberation in 1945, he gave it to his sister who had lost all her possessions during the war.
Words to reflect on.