Note: Please be forewarned: the details I include in this entry are at times graphic and extremely disturbing. Also, and of lesser importance: I struggled with shrinking today’s entry to the usual 500 words. Considering the topic is so intense, I’ve allowed myself to double that tally, though I am trying not to be long-winded as I’m inclined.
I note that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, then Archduke in Austria-Hungary, the Dual Empire of the late 19th– and early 20th– centuries. The hell that assassination unleashed on Europe is comparable only to the hell that fell upon the continent not forty years later. Today’s visit to a memorial site is a stark reminder of that of which human beings are capable.
In the morning, I find myself back at the Orianenburger Strasse S-Bahn station. Today I visited the site of the Sachsenhausen (pronounced “Zahk-sen-hows-en”) concentration camp, and the S-Bahn line I intended yesterday to take south to West Berlin will now carry me north to Orianenburg station. This station was the point of entry to the camp for prisoners (many years ago) and for me (today). I’ve been struggling for a few days about the setup for this entry, but it may be best just to describe some of what I saw and felt during my visit…
I’m glad to be visiting the camp alone, to be honest. I want to be able to take my time, and – to be plain – I don’t know how I’ll react to standing on the same ground on which incalculable horrors took place. It’s a rainy day, which is perhaps appropriate for my visit, and I carry the umbrella provided to me in my host’s apartment. I walk the 2km to the camp from the station, imagining the path that prisoners were forced to march with whatever little belongings they could or were permitted to carry. They would be flanked on both sides by SS guards, and the only interactions permitted between the townspeople and the condemned were the mocking and the throwing of rotten fruit or stones on the part of the former and directed at the latter.
I’m walking the same path today, and, as the residents of this neighborhood might have done so many years ago, many of them sit on their balconies and watch as hundreds of people file past their homes, albeit we march for a different purpose and without ridicule. Some of these people live on the same ground on which the SS officers were housed, and I wonder how they can stand to be here. I could not live in such near proximity to such a place.
The camp itself is ringed with a preserved (or renewed) wall, and the interior of the camp is set up the same way as it was in the 30s and 40s, though it’s got many fewer buildings congesting its interior.
Only samples of each kind of building still remain inside the camp’s walls: many guard towers, two bunk houses, two medical buildings (more for experimentation than for treatment), the remains of the crematorium and murder rooms, and a few dozen meters of death strips (the crossing of which would mean free-firing on prisoners from the guard towers – a common means for prisoners of suicide).
The most powerful two elements of my visit are as follows: (1) the gate of the camp, situated in the center of a building housing an office and an overhead guard post and machine-gun installation; and (2) the grounds on which the kill-house and incinerators were located during the camp’s operation under SS-Nazi control. I’m also struck, to a lesser degree, by the oddity that is the Soviet handling of the camp after it was “liberated” by their troops in 1945 (it was operated as a camp for holding political prisoners, and twelve thousand more human beings died there between 1945-1950).
The camp’s significance to the USSR is indicated by the tall obelisk at the center of the camp that memorialized (through a modification of the story of the camp’s history) the freedom-fighting, anti-fascist (a favorite phrase in the Russian-communist propaganda throughout the Cold War) prisoners-of-war. The obelisk does not stand to honor the memory of any other kind of prisoner held in Sachsenhausen before or during the Second World War.
The gate to the camp itself is not huge. It bears the inscription “Arbeit macht Frei” which translates in a few ways. I prefer the somewhat (too?) literal “Work makes freedom” as a characterization of the message the Nazis intended to send to their prisoners in this camp. You may recognize this inscription as one that was adopted at the gates of Dachau and Auschwitz, among other camps. It is gripping and awfully sad to be standing at this gate, free to pass through its iron fittings and then to leave again at my decision whenever I will it.
The kill room: Originally and throughout its use, the camp was not set up as a death camp, per se. It was supposed to be a camp to hold dissidents and other undesirables who had “refused to leave” during a period of encouraged self-deportation (sound familiar, Americans?). It was used as a training ground and model camp to set the protocol for other camps throughout the concentration system in Nazi-controlled territory. Though Sachsenhausen was not explicitly designed as a death camp, 10,000 people were killed with bullets to the back of the head in a supremely terrifying and creepy mechanical process that involved telling the person to be killed that he or she is merely being fitted for a uniform, having them stand against a wall to be measured, and then shooting them through a hole in the wall from a room next door. (Music would be played loudly so that the line of people outside the kill room would not hear the sound of the gunshots). In addition, some 20k more were killed by other means or died of severe malnutrition. (After the Soviets took over, another 12k died of malnutrition or undocumented murders).
I was disturbed at times by the groups of students and some adults who were touring the camp. I realize that children are not well prepared to deal with the thoughts of atrocities, if they are capable even of cognizing them – I know I am not quite there myself – so perhaps I should not blame them for acting what I feel as inappropriately. To me, this is consecrated, holy ground. I do not mean this in a religious sense but in a historical one. Such awfulness took place on this very spot, and joke telling, snack eating, and smoking seem to be the wrong reaction to visiting the grounds. Yet, this is what many people (not even close to a majority of visitors, but enough to bother me) did.
I left the camp after taking two-and-a-half hours to listen to as much of the audio tour as I could manage. I got the feeling it was time to leave when I noticed the statistics and stories from the audio guide having an increasingly less severe impact on my psyche. I was getting numb to the horror of the place. I was feeling sick, too. I walked home feeling a little bit worse about humanity, realizing that individual and ordinary people manned the towers and shot at or engaged in acts of mass murder of other human beings who themselves had, in many cases, given up hope. All of us are potential guards in this camp or a new one just like it, and this is a gruesome fact of what it is to be fully human.