Public warning notice... We visited a former concentration camp today. If that could or would upset you, don't read today's blog. Come back tomorrow...
For us however, it was grim but fascinating tour of Sacshenhausen and our tour guide, Barry from Ireland, was amazingly good and knowledgable on the subject.
So just after 10am we paid and joined Barry to pick up some other punters at Hauptbahnhof (again...). From there we took a regional train to the small town of Oranienburg just outside Berlin, arriving just after 11am.
We soon noticed that unlike the "free" walking tours we've done in many cities, where we usually have a mix of nationalities and ages, this tour consisted of 12 mainly of middle aged white folk just like us. Perhaps because this history is still very close to us (no further than our parents or grandparents). And several Americans...
Oranienburg was described by Barry as typical small town Germany, quite nice but not with a proud history. Between 1933 and 1934 the town was hosted the first concentration camp of Prussia, right in the middle of the town, with town folk benefiting from prisoners doing local council labour.
Here is Oranienburg Bahnhof.
And the street looking away from the main entry of the railway station. Felt a little bit like a university town just here.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is about 5 minutes on a local bus from the train station. We all piled on, together with about 50 Spanish people on other tours. It was quite a chatty, noisy bus trip.
It takes hours (possibly days) to see and learn all about Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and we were warned that we would be moving fairly quickly in hour 4 hours there. We also had to BYO food and drink as nothing is sold on site, although it's probably a good thing as we did not have time for extended breaks as there was so much to cover.
So in what felt like true to historical conditions of cold and grey conditions we kept moving, ate little and took loo breaks when we were told we could...but it was still a good (and grim) way to spend a day learning so much.
The main entrance to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp memorial site.
Sacshenhausen was built as a model (or experiment) for concentration camps across Germany and opened in 1936 (before WWII) to "concentrate the minds" of the Nazi dissenters. This was so successful that Sachsenhausen held a special position in the nazi camp system and became head of all Nazi controlled camp administration.
Unfortunately the purpose continued beyond the end of WWII, when the soviets adopted the camp for the same purpose within 3 months of the war ending, and used it until 1950.
Many of the buildings did not survive after time and those that did have been preserved or used for other purposes. This is the main information centre but we were not sure of its original purpose or whether it was indeed a later addition.
We stopped outside the info centre to get an overview of the whole camp as it was by the end of WWII from a model. It was more than 350 hectares in size and whilst in Nazi hands more than 200,000 people went through this camp under the soviets more than 60,000 people went through the camp.
Our tour spent most of the time in the triangular campsite area where prisoners lived. Much of the rest of the site was for forced labour including brick making, an angora rabbit farm, laundry, shoe making and more.
Of course they also needed housing for the SS and the camp needed functions like supplies and mechanical workshops which also took space as Sachsenhausen. Other nastier "functions" were not there initially but added later... To give you the broader sense of mortality here, 20,000 to 30,000 people died here under the Nazis and the Soviets had 12,000 deaths, not a good mortality rate either. Most in both regimes died fom starvation and the camp conditions. Only towards the end of WWII was the camp used for exterminations.
We headed off into the main prisoner camp area.
Looking straight ahead was a normal town street, used to be called "Lagerstraße" or Camp Street so no confusion of what was there. To the right was accommodation for the SS troops and to the left was the camp.
Townsfolk still used this road to get from A to B during the camp's existence - so they can't say they did not know. Di (out the front like usual) asked Barry lots of questions.
Barry took time here to explain the different classes of prisoners - ranging from German political prisoners, homosexuals, communists, anti social types, Jehovah's witnesses, Norwegian socialists and in the later years of the camp, of course, Jews. Their treatment in the camp varied depending on their "class".
In the yellow colored buildings where Hans is looking (he is in the grey jacket and beanie) were the grounds and barracks for THE SS officer training for all of Nazi Germany.
Today they have a different purpose - it is now the regional Police Training Centre. A bit cringe-worthy for us...
We turned into the main gate of the camp and saw a sign at this building which said "cafe". Wait, says Di, I thought we could not buy food and drink here. Barry laughed - its actually just a vending machine and one chair!
Ok, this sent chills down our spines...
The first thing that you see in front of you today after entering through the gates is this memorial...
Yep, it is another USSR memorial commemorating the "liberation" of the prisoners from the camp.
Now, part of the Nazi strategy was to starve their prisoners and these two "liberated" prisoners in the statue do not look that thin. Secondly, the Russians promptly used the camp again, to house another type of prisoner, enemies of the communist state or way of thinking. Hypocritical?
That actually meant that some prisoners were there twice, some social democrats for examples, first as enemies of the far right Nazi regime and then as enemies of the communist regime....
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp entrance and building from the inside.
The clock was interesting... Note that its hands are painted on.... It shows the time when the camp was "liberated" by the Soviet forces.
So, if you wanted to escape from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, this is what you had to conquer. The "Neutrale Zone" meant that anybody stepping in there was warned that they would be "promptly shot" but not necessarily killed quickly. Leg and stomach wounds meant it took hours to die and was a real deterrent to using this as a quick suicide out.
Most of the buildings are now long gone, but their footprints could still be seen on the ground.
We then ventured into a barrack that contained Jewish prisoners. In our usual poor form, during the short break in the building (largely to read information plaques and warm up a bit), we sat down and had a cup of tea and biscuits at one of the tables. We did ask first...but considering others who sat here starved it was perhaps a bit tacky. But we were freezing...did we mention how cold it was outside?
Here follows a number of photos from inside the Jewish barrack...
Three levels beds and since the camp was seriously overcrowded, there were often times that 2 Jewish prisoners sleeping next to each other on each level.
The prisoners worldly possessions were stored in one of these lockers...
This is where you took care of business...up to 400 men had to take care of this business in a 30 minute time allocation before starting work. The 30 minutes also included dressing, washing, eating so several prisoners died during a morning "crush".
And your "hygiene" needs...and drowning did occur... (Sorry again for the grim details but they are fact).
Next followed the "prison within the prison". Yes, these squares on the ground showed where the cells were. The poles to the left were used to hang up prisoners with hands strapped behind their backs, onto the hooks...
A small row of cells had been saved and restored and the sign showed clearly their original purpose.
Many of the cells had small commemorations to prisoners who had stayed there, but this one did not. Also, some of the windows were partly or almost fully blocked which showed different way of providing more or less natural light to the prisoner. Those who came here were seen as leaders or politically sensitive and this was the worst punishment in camp. From here you did not leave alive.
Out again and the area is quite empty now, but also quite eery. The gravel rectangles mark where the other prisoner huts were.
And in a very central spot in the area, where roll call happened twice a day, was this, the "official" place for executions, for everybody to see. Typically, a dead prisoner could be hung here for days just to discourage anybody else to do something "irrational".
If any further evidence was needed that it was a cold day in hell, this might prove it. Less than 4 degrees and a bit damp. We moved briskly when told the next building had heating.
The building above that we visited used to be camp kitchen, but the ground floor had now been converted into a museum of sorts and an exhibition.
Hans found it interesting that quite a few Norweigian prisoners were interned here. In this photo 3 of the 4 cans of sardines etc originated in Sweden, with the first and the third had old Swedish kings pictures on them. The Norwegians were the top class of prisoner here and treated better than most because at least they were "pure" (not subhuman like most Poles, Russians, Romanians and Jews).
Downstairs in the basement kitchen space was empty apart from "graffiti" done by prisoners while working here.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp expanded later... To support exterminations.
"Only 10,000" were believed exterminated here - generally "humanely" with a bullet. Gas chamber experiments came later, were in the minority and mostly for "experimental" reasons to find more cost effective / cheaper ways to exterminate via gas.
This is a shooting trench where prisoners were lined up against the far wall, they were shot and their bodies dragged to the mortuary (to the right of the picture, but with the door hidden from this view).
This proved a bit inefficient, noisy and also tough for the guards who did the shooting (too much humanity involved), so the Nazis looked for a "better way".
Up against the wall...
The "better way" was inside Station Z - the main memorial site of the camp. This statue at the entrance to the remnants of Station Z reminds a visitor what went on in here.
Inside Station Z is largely only foundations remaining of the centre for exterminations. The Nazis tried to destroy it by blowing it up at the end of the war to cover their crimes.
An outline of the centre where Barry talked us through the process for a prisoner.
As a summary, the prisoners were told they were going for a medical exam and had their eyes, ears and mouths checked (to see if they had gold fillings worth saving) and then were ushered one by one into a "doctor".
The doctor stood the prisoner against a height measure on the wall, and which disguised a gap to another room where and executioner with a gun waiting and as the prisoner stood there... One bullet to the neck.
Perhaps one of the more humane sounding extermination methods used among this array of extermination methods.
Sorry, be prepared... These are the ruins of the 4 cremation ovens.
Back outside and we didn't mind the cold fresh air after that experience. Looking back to the main camp entrance.
The efficient design of the camp meant that in total they only ever had 225 guards for as many as 56,000 prisoners at one time. The watchtowers were well positioned.
You think you've heard the worst until you come to the Pathology Lab. Oh dear.
The stories of regular doctors supporting Nazi medical experiments, often with children who were good test subjects as the results could be determined faster, were so bad that most of our tour did not stop to read anything further and hustled out of there in record time.
These are the autopsy tables where the Nazi regime wanted doctors to discover the anatomical differences between the races and religious groups. Of course there are none to be found but they persisted.
Di putting on a brave face...
We may have mentioned a few times before that it was freezing...and by 3pm as the tour concluded, darkness also started to make an appearance.
We joined a crowd waiting for the bus and were happy that it was packed, and nice and warm.
It was a bit of a lighthearted trip as the female bus driver seemed to be "testing" those standing. She was hard on accelerator and hard on the brakes and in a 5-10 minute trip there were lots of "whoa" moments as we all clung on. We all probably needed a bit of a giggle after several hours or really serious stuff.
Back to Berlin from Oranienburg's station, this time by a slower, all stops S train, but we had a seat and it was warm inside the carriage so we did not mind.
Home just before 5pm and time for a hot bath each to get the chill out, accompanied by some alcoholic drink and followed by a warm home cooked German dinner. When in Berlin...
Fußball! We were looking for the World Cup qualifying game between Portugal and Sweden on German TV, but no luck there. However, ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) broadcasted a high class friendly game between Italy and Germany. We followed Germany in the last World Cup so some of our old favourite players were back in action. And when in Germany...
A perfect end to an otherwise tough day. Good night.