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.
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.
- 1938 – Kristallnacht, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: