R. Sujatha visits the first concentration camp built in Germany, where, today, black pebbles and dry wreaths are the only record of numerous nameless prisoners who died there.
On a pleasant Saturday morning late-September, I set out to Potsdamer Platz, one of the busiest cross-sections in Berlin. Potsdamer Platz was completely destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt. The weathermen had forecast cloudy skies and some showers which meant warm clothes. Every time the sun played peek-a-boo it became chilly.
The plan was to visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp, around 30 km north of Berlin. For an ordinary tourist in a city full of museums, it does not make sense to have the camp on the itinerary. “You need at least 10 days to visit the museums alone,” said a friend.
A visit to the camp is offered as a private tour by a few persons only. The tour I took lasts around six hours, including the half-hour train journey from Berlin to Oreinenburg, the small picturesque town at the end of which is the camp. The green-brown landscape brings to memory a scene from the film Schindler’s List in which a little boy runs his forefinger across his throat as a signal to the trainload of women and children who are unaware that they are being transported to an extermination camp.
Oreinenburg station has just one platform on either side of which runs a pair of rails. A flight of stairs leads to the road, with a school and a post office at the entrance to the station. Oreinenburg is a small, quiet town with neatly laid row houses and apartment complexes. The town has beautiful homes with flower gardens and in apartment complexes residents have flower pots in their balconies. When the prisoners walked down the road they could be seen by the entire town. Yet testimonies of some residents available at the camp indicate that they were not aware of the happenings in their backyard.
At Oreinenburg, the weather began to change. It became cloudy and windy. As we reached the concentration camp, cold winds swept the barren landscape. Soon it started to rain, the thin cold drops making us shiver and huddle into our wind cheaters. The stark, silent, cold surroundings added to the bleakness as our guide Sophia briefed us about the happenings in the camp from 80 years ago. Some photographs on panels along the walls leading to the camp depict cruel punishments meted to prisoners, while others show people hard at work. At Sachsenhausen, details about brutality come alive through testimonials provided by audio guides, some of them translated into English. A prisoner’s testimony said, “I don’t know how long I had passed out after the punishment. It may have been several hours or days.”
A 12-year-old schoolboy’s testimony at the museum in camp is a telling example of the townspeople’s ignorance of occurrences behind the high camp walls. The boy, who was spending his holidays with his grandparents, writes to his parents about hearing gun shots in the camp. The walls are too steep to scale so he has no way of knowing what was happening, he says. He ends his letter with kisses to his parents. Some testimonies reveal that during the height of the War, people living close to the camp did not hang their clothes to dry outside their homes as fine soot settled on them. The soot came from the cremation of prisoners who had died in the camp.
Sachsenhausen was the first concentration camp built in Germany, in 1933, with the intention of brainwashing political dissidents. They were warned of dire consequences and later released.
Within a couple of years, it became a camp for political prisoners of all hues, and though prisoners had come to terms with the hard work they were put to from dawn to dusk, their worst nightmare was the roll call which sometimes lasted one-and-a-half days. Despite the huge presence of SS guards and guard posts and the high walls, some prisoners made their escape and made life doubly difficult for others. In his testimony, a prisoner has recorded that on a cold winter night he, along with other prisoners, stood in the yard for nearly 12 hours because the SS men wanted to count the number of prisoners there.
At one time during the War an estimated 60,000 prisoners were forced to use one bathtub and around 20 toilets, all of them in just one room. Barracks and shelves provided little space for storing possessions, most of which were photographs of family. Although Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp and was designated for male prisoners, in the early 1940s, women were also brought into the camp and were exterminated immediately. A testimonial from one prisoner said, “I heard the gun shots and knew that the women were killed.” According to him the incident had a deep impact on the camp inmates.
In the camp an area has been marked “Neutrale zone”. Any prisoner who trespassed was shot dead by the guards. It was in this part of the camp that prisoners were employed in printing counterfeit currency. A sample of the pound and dollar notes minted at the camp are on display in one of the museums on the site. During the War, the counterfeit notes in 5, 10, 20 and 50 pound denominations were dropped in London in a bid to destroy England’s economy. A similar exercise was designed to destroy America’s economy but the plan did not succeed.
In the middle of the camp is a long pillar built as a memorial for political prisoners but there are thousands of other Polish, German and Russian prisoners whose death has not been recorded at all. At the memorial near the extermination chamber, which was built by the prisoners, is a monument where relatives and families have left black pebbles and dry wreaths for the numerous nameless prisoners who died there. Sachsenhausen was also the place where the German military experimented with the various kinds of punishments on prisoners and it was then enforced in other camps across Germany and Poland.
Complete with hospital, extermination chamber, neck-shot room, mortuary and pathology laboratory (to learn the details about a prisoner’s death), Sachsenhausen offers a glimpse into the thought processes of a generation. There is one prisoners’ barracks with skinned wooden beams and blackened walls. In the early 1990s, “some anti-social elements” are believed to have tried to destroy the camp by burning it down. People say it was an effort by neo-Nazis and the fire service was able to prevent complete destruction. Just outside the camp, the buildings occupied by the SS troop is now used as a police training academy. Instead of razing it after the War, the government finally decided to use the building for the purpose it was built.