KZ Sachsenhausen

On Friday November 9, 2012, was the class excursion to the KZ Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg — about 30 minutes by S-Bahn from the Berlin city center.

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Panorama within the prisoner barracks area of KZ Sachsenhausen, with view of the camp gates.

First of all, I should mention the importance of November 9th in German history. The date has in fact been nicknamed  Schicksalstag, or “Destiny Day”. Five crucial events of German history happened on this date (details courtesy of Wikipedia!!):

  • 1848 – Liberal leader Robert Blum is arrested in the Vienna revolts, which is symbolic of the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states (which called for the unification of all German speaking people into one nation). In the long run, however, famous politician Otto von Bismarck succeeded in unifying the German states into one German Empire under Prussian leadership.
  • 1918 – The end of monarchy in Germany! Kaiser Wilhelm II is dethroned in the November Revolution, and Philipp Scheideman proclaims the Weimar Republic from a window of the Reichstag building. Only two hours later the famous socialist Karl Liebknecht proclaims a “Free Socialist Republic” from a different balcony at the Berlin Palace.
  • 1923 – Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch” is a sign of the Nazi Party emerging as a player in German politics.
  • 1938Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass. This was a major pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria, perpetrated by both the paramilitary and normal civilians. 91 Jews were killed, but 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Jewish property was destroyed, and over 1,000 synagogues were burned.
  • 1989 – Fall of the Berlin Wall. The symbolic fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War.

Our visit to KZ Sachsenhausen thus fell on a crucial day of both German and Jewish history, and made our trip all the more significant to me.

Our trip started just after lunch, after which we met at the Friedrichstrasse S- and U-Bahn station. We headed to Oranienburg, where the KZ is located. The trip took about 30 minutes, ending at a small and pleasant station with a small-town feel. There was no sign of the KZ from the station – instead, the Oranienburg suburb’s homes filled our vision. The style of the red-roofed 1 family homes reminded me remarkably of Dahlem, quite unlike what I was expecting. Since I knew I was going to visit a concentration camp, I expected desolation, poverty, and other effects that unpopular real estate locations tend to bring.

Just outside the KZ border - a normal world.

Just outside the KZ border – a normal world.

We then caught a local bus, and rode 2 stops to the concentration camp. Again, I was surprised to note beautifully kept homes lining the street right up until the KZ gates. The discrepancy between the two worlds shocked me, and I found myself wondering whether the residents of Oranienburg notice the strangeness of  living adjacent to a KZ, or if perhaps they have been desensitized to it by nature of seeing it every day. Prof. Wagner explained that during WWII, these were the homes of the SS personnel and their families – conveniently located close to their workplace.

The segmented wall serving as the entrance to KZ Sachsenhausen also divides it from the "normality" of the world just outside.

The segmented wall serving as the entrance to KZ Sachsenhausen also divides it from the “normality” of the world just outside.

Road sign reads: "Mass Graves 1.7 km"

Road sign reads: “Mass Graves 1.7 km”

We finally got to the gates of the KZ, and then proceeded in through the information center (entry is free), and to a 3D map of the camp. The map was HUGE, and as Prof. Wagner pointed out, we would be walking around a small portion of it. KZ Sachsenhausen was the Nazi’s “model KZ”, and was where many SS personnel  received training before heading to work at other (perhaps more infamous) concentration camps.

KZ Sachsenhausen - a massive Nazi project aimed at "perfecting" the concentration camp. The region Prof. Wagner is pointing at is the one we explored - note the very small fraction of the actual camp that this region is.

KZ Sachsenhausen – a massive Nazi project aimed at “perfecting” the concentration camp. The region Prof. Wagner is pointing at is the one we explored – note the very small fraction of the actual camp that this region is.

We headed down the path followed each day by prisoners on their way to work, to a gatehouse featuring the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” mantra from Auschwitz. Immediately to the left inside of the gates was a small cottage, with a well maintained yard. This was the home of the camp’s commander, Prof. Wagner explained.

Heading towards the gates....

Heading towards the gates….

... one encounters the infamous Auschwitz mantra. The feeling of walking past these words is in reality undescribable -- the closest I can come is "haunting".

… one encounters the infamous Auschwitz mantra. The feeling of walking past these words is in reality indescribable — the closest I can come is “haunting”.

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The commander’s house — just inside the gates.

We also passed a small museum erected by the GDP’s communist government during the years when Sachsenhausen fell into their zone of jurisdiction. It stressed the identity of the prisoners and victims as communists, failing to acknowledge much else. This was also apparent in the giant memorial they built further along in the camp, which features only red “communist” prisoner badges.

This stained glass window inside the communist GDP's museum represents the victims of Sachsenhausen as mostly communists.

This stained glass window inside the communist GDP’s museum represents the victims of Sachsenhausen as mostly communists.

The giant Soviet memorial. The red triangle was used by Nazi's to designate communist prisoners. There were, however, many other colors of triangles -- including the white and yellow that were laid over one another to look like the Star of David, which were to label Jewish Prisoners.

The giant Soviet memorial. The red triangle was used by Nazi’s to designate communist prisoners. There were, however, many other colors of triangles — including the white and yellow that were laid over one another to look like the Star of David, which were to label Jewish Prisoners.

As we headed through the gate, we entered the grounds on which all the prisoner barracks had once stood. Almost all of them have been destroyed – either by the Nazi’s when their defeat became eminent, or by normal wear and tear after years of neglected maintenance by the GDP. Where the barracks once stood, however, are large outlined rectangles filled with gravel. I found this to be just as effective as the original buildings could have been for memorializing the location’s history. In fact, the absence of the buildings reminded me of the absence of the people who were imprisoned there. This is, I think, another prime example of a “counter-memorial” that actually manages to connect more emotionally with its intended audience than a classical memorial would.

One of the only standing barracks contrasts with the missing outline next to it.

One of the only standing barracks contrasts with the missing outline next to it.

One of the few objects in the barracks zone.

One of the few objects in the barracks zone.

Panorama of the barracks area shows its current emptiness.

Panorama of the barracks area shows its current emptiness.

The outlines of where barracks once housed prisoners, as an ironically beautiful ray of sunshine illuminates the KZ gates in the distance.

The outlines of where barracks once housed prisoners, as an ironically beautiful ray of sunshine illuminates the KZ gates in the distance.

Finally, we headed to Station z. This was where any prisoners who died as a result of the camp’s conditions were cremated by their fellow prisoners. Here I think it is important to outline a confusing concept: although thousands of victims died at Sachsenhausen, it is not considered a “death camp”. It is instead considered a “forced labor camp”. What’s the difference? I initially asked this question too, and it continues to seem valid to me (since thousands of deaths are just as atrocious, regardless of their “reason”). Apparently, however, there is a distinction. Death camps were built for the sole purpose of killing in an efficient and organized fashion. These are the camps at which train loads of healthy prisoners (who could have been used for forced labor) were sent directly to their deaths, then cremated. By contrast, forced labor camps worked their prisoners to death, then cremated them. I personally think both cases are equally horrible, but the academic distinction exists and should be mentioned.

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Sachsenhausen was organized systematically according to the alphabet. Since it wasn't built as a death camp, prisoners were worked from Station A (when they arrived) through the alphabet before reaching their deaths at Station Z.

Sachsenhausen was organized systematically according to the alphabet. Since it wasn’t built as a death camp, prisoners were worked from Station A (when they arrived) through the alphabet before reaching their deaths at Station Z.

Memorial to specific groups of victims -- including homosexuals, gypsies, and other minorities.

Memorial to specific groups of victims — including homosexuals, gypsies, and other minorities.

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Sculpture inside the entrance to the KZ crematorium.

Sculpture inside the entrance to the KZ crematorium.

Inside the crematorium.

Inside the crematorium.

The ovens.

The ovens.

That’s it with my written recollection. The KZ was a visual experience, and this is a case in which a picture says a thousand words:

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At the hanging post, where prisoners were hanged publicly in an example to the other inmates.

At the hanging post, where prisoners were hanged publicly in an example to the other inmates.

Base of the Soviet memorial, listing the nations of the communists imprisoned at the Sachsenhausen camp.

Base of the Soviet memorial, listing the nations of the communists imprisoned at the Sachsenhausen camp.

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To the dead of Sachsenhausen.

To the dead of Sachsenhausen.

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Inside the Jewish Baracks, which still show extensive damage from the fire which resulted from a neo-Nazi bombing in the 1990s.

Inside the Jewish Baracks, which still show extensive damage from the fire which resulted from a neo-Nazi bombing in the 1990s.

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One response to “KZ Sachsenhausen

  1. Pingback: Horror in the suburbs |·

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