Day 11-Berlin (Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp)

Day 3 in Berlin- Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011


View of Sachsenhausen camp entrance from the parking lot-
‘Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen’
(Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum)

On our third day in Berlin, we drove out to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg or simply Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Sachsenhausen is not well known among most people I’ve met. Often when you ask someone to name Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland), Dachau (Germany) or Warsaw (Poland) come to mind. Some may even know about Buchenwald (Germany) or Treblinka (Poland). However, there were as many as 1200 concentration camps and sub camps at some point starting in 1933 when the Nazis seized power until 1945 when the remaining camps were liberated. A little known fact is, Sachsenhausen was built as a training ground for concentration camp commanders and security personnel. Sachsenhausen was the administrative center for Nazi death camps, as the so-called T-building here, housed the central office of inspection for all concentration camps.

Exterior camp wall on ‘Camp Street’

Sachsenhausen   (pronounced zaksənˈhaʊzən) is 35 km (22 mi) north of Berlin, but it seemed a lot further. I think we took the long way somehow. Although I’m usually an excellent navigator, I was really having a hard time with directions in Berlin. As I stated in my Day 10 blog post, I was very unaccustomed to navigating Berlin by car; street names change unexpectedly for no apparent reason and, nothing was familiar given the fact that we were never allowed to go into East German towns. I would definitely consider investing in a GPS next time I plan to traverse Berlin via car.

We left our flat later than expected and, because we got lost, we thought we had arrived too late to tour the place. I am so glad we did not turn around as we had contemplated, for it was open much later that evening than the website had indicated.

Barbed wire atop the camp wall

As I mentioned above, I had not been able to visit Sachsenhausen during my time living in Berlin because it was in the Soviet Occupation Zone during the Cold War (ie, East Germany). So, I was pretty excited about this opportunity to visit with my daughter–especially as a homeschool mom. What better way to understand difficult historical events than to experience them first hand?

Viewing the scale model of the camp while
listening to the audio tour

In the Visitor Information Centre building pictured above, we were given headsets for the self-guided audio tour. First, we listened to an audio tour overview as we viewed the model of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

“Camp Street”- prisoners were marched
down this street to enter the concentration camp
We were then led down Camp Street, which, as the audio guide mentioned, would be the last time most prisoners would see the outside world. It was a quiet and solemn march down the wide path to the front entrance.
Posters illustrating the camp’s history

As we walked the path, we stopped several times to read the large mural sized posters that illustrate in words and pictures the history of this camp as well as the events that took place as it was to be liberated by the Soviet Allied forces. About halfway down the length of this street, we come to the entrance to the Command Headquarters and Prisoner’s Camp. As the layout of the camp is an equilateral triangle, this entance lies at the exact axis of the camp (geometrically, it’s located at the midpoint of the base of the triangle). This was planned of course. In true National Socialist planning, the whole camp layout, designed by an SS architect, was to symbolize the absolute dominance of the SS over its captives.

One side of the main entry gate,
the ‘Green Monster’ in the background

Across  from the main entry gate (Gate Number 3) on the opposite side of Camp Street are the crumbling remains of the ‘Green Monster.’ This green building was the Casino, a place not for gambling, despite its name, but for SS troops to eat and socialize.

Stained glass mural inside the atrium
of the New Museum
After entering Gate Number 3, we came to a large courtyard. To the left is the Commandant’s House, to our right is a modern building– the New Museum. This building, which houses a collection of informative and sobering memorabilia (films, documents, artwork, artefacts and audio clips) which  bring the past into chilling focus.
Soviet era stained glass mural in the museum entryway- typical of
Soviet propogandistic anti-fascist art

We spent a long time in this building, I think time got away from us. By the time we finished going through all the exhibits, we were hungry, but we had only begun our journey, and obviously, this is not a place to enjoy a meal. So we quickly shared a couple of snacks from a vending machine at the back of the museum and continued on.


New Museum to the right, Gate House (Tower A) to the left
Commemorative sculpture

As we came back out of the museum we can look across the courtyard, where in front of the aforementioned Commandant’s House, there are various signs of commemoration– stones, sculptures and plaques commemorating various groups of people or indiviuals who were imprisoned and murdered here.

Commemorative Stone Marker

To our right as we descended the steps of the museum is the entrance to the prisoner’s camp– the Gate House (referred to as Tower A by the SS) overlooks this courtyard as well as the triagular camp behind it. As we walked through the gates of the Gate House, we came to a large open space which was the roll-call area for prisoners. Initially, prisoners had to assemble for roll call three times a day.

Later, it was twice a day– morning and evening– often suffering for hours in the rain or cold. The gate itself is large, black and ominous. Inscribed upon the top is the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (which can be translated: ‘work will set you free’ or ‘work liberates’ or ‘work brings freedom’) which most people will recognize as the words over the gates  of Auchwitz. However, it was first created here, by Rudolf  Höss who later became the Commandant of Auchwitz I and had it inscribed there as well.  Rudolf Höss should not be confused with Rudolf Hess who was held prisoner in Spandau Prison until his death in 1987.

Inscription on Tower A Gate

As we headed right, past the roll call area, we saw the Security System which surrounded the camp. It consisted of a death strip, an electric fence and a camp wall. Any prisoner who ventured into the death strip area was shot to death without warning.This is a reconstruction as part of the preservation of the National Memorial in 1961 by the Soviets (for, as I mentioned earlier, this camp was part of the former Communist East Germany).


Security System – gravel area in front is ‘death strip’

Straight ahead is the Shoe Test Track. This track, constructed by a research institute, consisted of nine different materials including: asphalt, sand, stones, gravel, cinders, concrete and mud. The claim was that the test track helped the SS test the durability of experimental shoe soles for local shoe manufacturers. Some  sources say it was to test soles for army boots. However, in hindsight, historians are skeptical as to the actual scientific validity of the types of ‘testing’ that was carried out here. For instance, starting in 1944, testers  were forced to wear shoes that were too small to add to the torture and to carry 20 k (44 lb) bags of sand on their backs. Prisoners were forced to march for hours upon hours, usually about 40 kilometers each day (24 miles). Anyone who fell was beaten.

Barracks 38 & 39 in the Small Camp area

One of the many categories of prisoners confined at Sachsenhausen were homosexuals. They were identified by a pink triangular badge which was attached to their clothing. Most of the homosexuals arrested in Berlin were taken to this camp. And, they were the main target of those sentenced to the shoe testing unit. For, until 1969, homosexuality was a crime in Germany. Thus, if they were ‘lucky’ enough to be liberated from Sachsenhausen, towards the end of the war, they were then imprisoned to serve out the remainder of their sentence.

Commemorative markers- each represents a barracks
Tables where captives ate-Small Camp

Just past the Shoe Test Track, we entered the ‘Small Camp’ site- there are only two barracks left in this area, all the others were torn down and have been replaced by stone markers. Barracks 38 & 39 house permanent exhibits of everyday life in the Small Camp.

Latrines for prisoners

The Small Camp was added in 1938 to expand the camp’s capacity. This special camp consisted mostly of Jews that were being held to be shipped off to Auchwitz. Auchwitz was an extermination camp, while Sachsenhausen was ostensibly run as a work camp.

Jail cell in ‘the prison’  commemorating
Jesuit Priest Rupert Mayer

There is also a prison within the confines of this encampment. It seems like an oxymoron to call it a prison, since one would think ‘Sachsenhausen  was a prison,’ but this was a concentration camp, which means there are various parts that made up that whole. The Prison was used by the Gestapo. It was a place of especially terrible torture and murder. These prisoners were either high profile persons or those who had broken camp rules. There is a wall separating the prison from the view of the rest of the camp. Now, all that remains of what used to be a T-shaped building is a single building that was restored in 1961.Outside of this building  is a courtyard with three ugly posts from which prisoners were tortured by strappado. I found it very difficult to look at, as the audio tour described this inhumane punishment. Each cell that remains has some type of memorial, such as a picture and/or the flag of the prisoner’s country of origin. The now famous Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller was interred here, though later moved to Dachau.

Wash area for prisoners

We continued on to the back northernmost part of the camp, which is the vertex of the ‘triangle’– directly across from the entrance. Here, the Soviets built a memorial to the approximately 30,000 men and women murdered here. Called the Sachsenhausen National Memorial, it was built in 1961 by the GDR (East German government). The memorial is an obelisk that stands 40 meters high (131 feet). In front of the obelisk is the statue entitled ‘Liberation’ by Rene Graetz. This statue is typical of Socialist Realism or more accurately, Communist propogandistic art style. It is not dedicated to all who perished here, but specifically to the ‘political prisoners’ (ie, Communists and Socialists who opposed Hitler’s regime). These prisoners were identified by a badge in the form of a red triangle. Thus the 18 read triangles at the top of the obelisk represent those who wore the red badge.

Sachsenhausen National Memorial-
dedicated to the death of political
prisoners (communists & Socialists

A ways behind the obelisk is a doorway that leads to a mini-camp that lies outside the camp walls — the Soviet Special Camp Museum. Originally, the camp was built in 1941 by the SS for prisoners the regime wished to isolate. After the war, under Soviet rule, it became Soviet Special Camp No. 7. Ironically, the Soviets used it to imprison former Nazis. Even more ironic, they also used it to the same purpose as the Nazis– to house anyone whom the government deemed as undesirable. By 1948, only three years later, it was renamed Special Camp No. 1– for it was the largest of the three special camps in the Soviet Occupied Zone. It was finally closed in the spring of 1950– by then over 12,000 had died there. In 1956, after many years of use, plans were made to set Sachsenhausen up as a memorial site to commemorate the ‘victory of anti-fascism over fascism’. Yes, more irony and hypocrisy. One of the things you learn very early on living in and surrounded by a Soviet controlled state is they are petty and hypocritical. It was inaugurated on April 22, 1961–less than four mounths later, the Soviets would erect the Berlin Wall a few miles south.


Execution trench

Now we’ve reached the farthest end of the triangle from where we entered. Just outside this wall is the Industrial Yard which includes the Execution Trench, the gas chamber and crematorium. We came first to the trenches.The execution trench was the preferred way to murder Russian POWs. The SS nicknamed this area  ‘Station Z’ as a joke. For, just as Tower A (the Gate House) was the entrance, Station Z was the end of the line for anyone being led to this area. The gas chamber next to it– put into operation in 1943– was presumably built to gas Russian POWs, as all the Jews had been shipped off to Auchwitz in October 1942.

Ruins in the crematorium of the ovens

Extermination of Russian POWs began in 1941 after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The reason given was that the Russian soldiers had been given orders to kill as many Nazis as possible, and especially SS. When the Red Army did take German prisoners, they were almost certain to be killed in POW camps. Also, the Commissars were given orders to cause as much unrest as possible within any camp where they were taken prisoner. If captured, they were to perform acts of sabotage. So, Hitler gave strict orders to kill all Russian POWs.

Sachsenhausen Crematorium Memorial

No American POWs were brought here, because both the Germans and Americans followed the Geneva Convention guidelines for POWs– since the Russians did not sign it and were not abiding by it, the Nazis felt no need to do so concerning Russians.

Another method of executing Russian POWs involved shooting them in the back of the head in the crematorium area. The soldier would be asked to step into what appeared to be a clinic examination room, then told to stand against the wall where they could meaure their height.

Industrial Yard- outside of camp walls

When the soldier stood against the wall against the measuring stick, an SS officer standing in a shooting booth on the other side of the wall would open a slit in the wall and shoot the POW in the head. They would then clean up all the blood with a water hose before bringing in the next soldier, who never suspected what had just occurred to his comrade.

Exterior wall near Station Z

This method of killing Russian POWs was only employed at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. It is very inefficient, especially considering 8,000 soldiers were killed this way. I have not been able to ascertain an explanation as to why these two camps went to such inconvenient and inefficient (timewise) lengths to kill Russian POWs.

Further south, and still outside of the camp walls is the Brick Works part of the Industry Yard. Hitler had always wanted to be an architect, but failed the entrance exam in his native Austria. As Chancellor, he now had the power to realize his grandiose dream of remodeling Berlin into the capital of his eutopian Germananic empire. It was his plan to join all German speaking people (specifically Austria and Germany) into one Pan-Germanic empire. In my previous post about Tempelhof, I mentioned the monumental buildings typical of Reich architecture. Hitler planned buildings along the lines of classic Greek and Roman style. To this end, Hitler chose Sachsenhausen (for it was the only concentration camp near Berlin) for his brickworks. It was the largest brick yard in the world, created by forced prison labor.


Industrial Yard

It was a terrible punishment to be assigned to work in the brick yard. It was designed to annihilate certain types of prisoners. It was referrred to as punishment detail. Homosexuals were often the target of this detail. As anyone who has seen Cabaret knows, Berlin was quite famous for its open gay community– at a time when gays were closeted in every other country in the world. By law, homosexual men (not lesbians) who ‘flaunted’ their lifestyle were arrested and sent to prison. If they were caught a second time, then following their second prison sentence, they were sent to Sachsenhausen. The brick works was intended to destroy or ‘rehabilitate’ them. For, according to Höss ‘countless rehabilitated young men could be released [after their time in the brickworks] without having a relapse.’  By 1943 it had been converted to an armaments factory. An Allied bombing raid on April 10, 1945 destroyed the armaments factory/brickworks and, unintentionally, 200 prisoners with it.

West wall of guard towers

As we headed back towards the entrance along the final third leg of the triangle, we came to the Pathology Lab. At one time there were a total of 5 infirmary (hospital) barracks–yet another source of heinous crimes. The ‘doctors’ here would perform human experimentations on men, women and children. I was not able to listen to the the full audio description of the crimes perpetrated against the children here. There was also a ‘corpse cellar’ where bodies were rolled downstairs to later be cremated. Undoubtedly, Buchenwald had a similar cellar, except the persons were not always dead when rolled down to the cellar. Meat hooks were employed in the cellar there to hang people to death. All one can wonder about everything pertaining to mass genocide of any people group–whether here or in any other country at any time in history– is what depravity of mind and soul leads to such endless and cruel behavior?


Stones of rememberance placed atop
the memorial marker for Barrack #58

A little known fact about Sachsenhausen is that it was once the center of the largest counterfeiting operation in history. Code named  Operation Bernhard, after the commandant who initiated it, Jewish prisoners who were skilled at printing and forgery were used to make fake British pounds. More than 134 million pounds were forged (or $377 million in US dollars). The plan was to flood the world markets with fake pounds and destablize the British economy. They were to be air dropped into Britain. The assumption was that the Brits would eagerly grab them and spend them. The plan never succeed for various reasons that are detailed here. There was an attempt at one point to also counterfeit US dollars, but the war ended before this operation could be fully realized.


Base of the memorial statue entitled
‘Liberation’ – lists names of the countries
whose people were killed here
‘Liberation’ statue at base of obelisk, part of
Sachsenhausen National Memorial monument

As we came back to where we had entered, the audio tour recounted the end of Sachsenhausen under the Nazi regime. In the final days of the war, as the Red Army closed in on Berlin, Hitler gave the order to evacuate Sachsenhausen. This Death March led to the demise of about 7,000 prisoners who died of starvation and exhaustion. When the Red Army arrived in Sachsenhausen on April 27, 1945, they found 3,000  prisoners who were left behind because they were too sick to march. Those who survived the death march were finally liberated between May 3rd and May 7th by Red Army and US troops respectively in towns in close proximity to one another.

Inside the New Museum– one of the exhibits seen through
a memorial wall of cross cut outs

As we walked back down Camp Street, it was still overcast, as it had been when we arrived, and it didn’t seem to get any brighter until we were passing through mid-town Oranienburg, which is the town that sits right next to Sachsenhausen. Oranienburg is really quite a beautiful little German hamlet with a palace and winding riverway. It even has a McDonald’s which it was very proud of, for we had seen signs advertising the McDonald’s for several miles before we reached Oranienburg on our way there from Berlin. I thought to myself that one day I would like to come back when I have time to take in all the sights.

Memorial statue in the courtyard of the New Museum

Next blog post: Day 12 Former East Germany:Potsdam