When I was a young girl, as most young girls do, I read, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” To this day, I remember how horrified I was. I tried to imagine what it was like to go through what Anne did as she grew into womanhood while hiding, simply because of being Jewish. The whole concept of the Holocaust was something I could not fathom. How could the Nazis commit these atrocities? How could the German people go along with it? Why didn’t other countries step in sooner when they became aware of what was going on?
Later in life, I learned that my grandfather was Jewish. He had moved to the US from Latvia after WWI and left a large family behind. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he changed his name and made up a new identity. We always assumed that his family was still alive back in Latvia but because it was part of the USSR, he had no contact with them. Close to the end of his life, he was visited by two of his nephews, Arnulf and Helmut, who were German but had moved to the US after WWII. I had no idea these relatives existed and was thrilled to find out that one of them had a daughter that was a little older than I. I connected with her and after my grandfather died, took my kids and went to visit her in Los Angeles.
Her father pulled me aside shortly after we arrived and told me that he had a deep, dark, family secret to share with me. It turns out that my grandfather’s family was Jewish. Most of them had been killed during WWII but a few had survived. Helmut’s wife, Minna, was also a cousin. She had been in several camps but spent much of the war in Bergen-Belsen. Helmut and Arnulf had grown up in Germany and had been hidden most of the war. To say I was shocked was a bit of an understatement. Apparently, my grandfather had sworn his nephews to secrecy; they were never to tell us that they were Jewish. They respected his wishes until he died. It is difficult for me to understand why he needed to keep this a secret and I am so sad that I never had the chance to talk to him about it. Pauline (Helmut and Minna’s daughter) and I have become close over time; she has been able to fill me in on the family history of that branch of the family. So, though I did not know it until I was in my early 30’s, my family has a personal connection to the Holocaust.
So, as part of our travels on this trip, we will be visiting several concentration camps. Despite the heat in Berlin, we were going to do a walking tour of Sachsenhausen with the Original Berlin Walks company.
The tour meets at 10 am in front of a restaurant at the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station. The Sachsenhausen Tour is 6 hours long and you must purchase a train ticket as well as paying for the tour. Sachsenhausen is located about 35 km outside of Berlin and so you need the ABC ticket (a little under 8 Euros). The information on the company website states that you can buy a train ticket from the tour guide but that is not accurate. You can save yourself some time and pre-purchase the ticket from at the S-Bahn station. We had our Eurail pass so did not need to purchase additional train tickets. I tried to verify this with the tour guide, but she was unfamiliar with the Eurail pass. I was a bit surprised that the tour company was not very helpful with that part of the tour arrangements.
This is advertised as a walking tour, and there was indeed quite a bit of walking! We first walked from the meeting point to a different S-Bahn stop. We stopped in front of a synagogue that was built in 1866 and destroyed on November 9, 1938 (Kristallnacht). Thirty thousand Jews were arrested on that night; six thousand were sent to Sachsenhausen. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1993 and serves as an information center now.
As we waited for the train to arrive, Beth (our guide) talked to us about how the Nazis came to power, despite Hitler only receiving 43.9% of the vote. She explained the brief history of Germany (it was united into a country in 1871) and how they wanted to be a country as powerful as England and France. The empire collapsed after WWI. Prior to the war, Germans thought they would have an easy victory, but the honor, glory and power they were seeking did not happen. It was a desperate time and the populace were shocked when they were defeated. They were looking for someone to blame; the Jews made an easy target. The empire collapsed and democracy was established. At this point in the narration, the train arrived. We boarded the non air-conditioned train and headed out to Oranienburg.
When we arrived at Oranienburg, Beth continued her talk about what lead up to the Nazi takeover of Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was harsh on Germany – the country relinquished both land and people. The military was reduced to only 100,000 and millions in reparation had to be repaid. There was a tremendous devaluation of the Deutschmark as more money was printed to pay their debts. In 1923, one US dollar would buy 4.23 trillion marks! During the 20’s, the economy slowly improved until the market crashed in 1929.
Two political parties existed at this time, the Communists and the National Socialist Worker’s Party. The Social Democrats clashed with the Communists. Hitler’s message was, “Enough is enough!” and pride in the Fatherland. The Nazis were able to come to power because the populace was so disheartened after the years of strife following WWI.
The Nazis spread fear among their opponents; many fled in fear for their lives. The Parliament was set on fire on January 30, 1933; Hindenberg was convinced to put Germany into a state of emergency which was never reversed. Any political opponent became an enemy of the state. At this point, concentration camps were established to house these enemies of the state. Sachsenhausen was one of the first; it was originally a repurposed brewery.
On March 5th, Hitler received 43.9% of the vote; the Nazis joined a coalition in order to push that to over 50%. The cabinet passed the Enabling Act which made Hitler dictator. His opposition, the remaining Communists, were now in concentration camps. Hitler bribed the Pope to get Catholics on board; they voted themselves out of power. The Pope later regretted the decision. The next couple of years saw violence against any opposition to the party; all those that opposed the regime were sent to camps. The camps were then expanded to house Jews and any that were considered “not valuable” (degenerates). This included the physically handicapped, mentally ill, homosexuals, and anyone not seen to be an asset to the Reich.
By 1936, a purpose-built labor camp was constructed at Sachsenhausen. We walked the same path from the train station as the prisoners did – a little over a mile. Along the way we passed “stumbling stones”; small bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalk that memorialize those that suffered and/or died in the camps. If the person died, their stone states, “Murdered in” and the year of their death.
We entered through the back of the camp so that Beth could point out some landmarks along the way. The houses that we walked past were formed SS officer homes. They were located here as a “buffer” so that people from the town could not near the camps to see what actually went on there. However, there is a road that divided the camp in two that anyone driving out of town would pass along, so I am not sure that explanation works. On one side of the road was a training ground for the SS; the camp is located on the other side.
The people of the town would see groups of prisoners being led to the camp. They would mock them and throw things at them as they passed. The Nazi propaganda machine had convinced the populace that the people being sent to camps were being rehabilitated; they were dangerous criminals and traitors, and that through hard work, discipline, and fair treatment, would come out of the camps ready to be productive members of society again. The attitude was that if the prisoners weren’t released; they must be particularly recalcitrant and unwilling to be “improved”.
On the training side of the camp is the Protectorate Building. Here, all of the concentration camps in Germany were controlled. Theodor Eickner was in charge. One of his more memorable quotes? “I’ve never seen such misery in my life.” Lest you think he was a human being with a heart, his quote had nothing to do with the prisoners and their treatment; he was referring to the guards and what low quality they were.
The training grounds here trained over 3,000 people to become guards. Originally, the SA (brownshirts) were guards. These were dumb young men with nationalist, militaristic views; undisciplined young thugs. The Nazis didn’t want that image and so Himmler’s SS killed off the SA leaders and disbanded the SA. The SS took over the camp. The SS was a volunteer organization – you had to apply to be part of it. It was prestigious to be in the SS, though the guards were looked down on and not seen as being proper soldiers. This attitude helped make them angry and violent. Of course, their training was to hone their violent tendencies. If they hesitated in carrying out an act of violence towards a prisoner, they were humiliated and emasculated. If that proved too much, they were free to leave. No one forced them to stay and to mistreat other human beings for a living. The facility is now used to train police.
Originally, Sachsenhausen was built to house 2,500 people; by 1945, 70,000 were housed here. Each barracks was supposed to hold 125 but 450 were squeezed into a building that had only 8 toilets. Over 30,000 were killed here over a total of 9 years. Its purpose was as a work camp as opposed to an extermination camp. To put it in perspective, Auschwitz was capable of killing 2,000 per hour; 1.1 million were killed there over 4 years.
As people arrived here, they were separated into groups and given a colored triangle to identify which group they belonged to. The lowest level was Jew (yellow triangle); second from the bottom were homosexual men (pink triangle). Criminals wore green triangles and were given more benefits than the lower groups, such as less work, more food, and trustee positions. Punishment was arbitrary; there was no consistency so no one could figure out what the rules were. Guards would try to one-up each other with creative ways of being violent towards the prisoners.
We entered the camp through Tower A which had the insidiously evil statement, “Work will set you free.” This was the ultimate propaganda; those on the outside apparently believed that the work being done inside the camps was indeed to rehabilitate those housed inside. In other words, if you are still in the camp, you are “choosing” not to be rehabilitated. At least that’s what they told themselves, right?
The camp was designed in the shape of a triangle, which turned out to be a bad idea since it made it difficult to expand over time. Most of the barracks have been removed but you can see where they were by looking at the gravel on the grounds. There are no trees inside the walls; the trees outside the camp were planted in the 50’s.
Twice a day, prisoners reported for roll call in the square in front of tower A. Dead prisoners were dragged in front of living prisoners at roll call as a show of power and total control. Prisoners were awakened at 4:15 and had to report for roll call at 5 am. There was not enough space or time in the barracks for all to use the toilets. The guards would come in to beat and kill prisoners as they were trying to use the facilities. Prisoners would have to step over the dead bodies in order to reach the toilets.
In front of the fences lined with barbed wire is a strip of gravel. This was known as the neutral zone. If a prisoner stepped in to the neutral zone, they were shot and killed. There was a gallows in the center of the roll call area. Everyone had to watch hangings and the bodies were left to rot for days before being removed.
We walked down to the kitchen barracks; no photos are allowed inside. Upstairs, there are displays about the camp and the atrocities performed there. Downstairs are the kitchens where prisoners were given rotten potatoes to peel and make into soup that was used to feed them. One of the pictures on the wall shows prisoners at roll call wearing warm coats and ear muffs during the winter. This is propaganda; prisoners routinely froze to death during the cold winters here; no coats, hats or mittens were provided. One of the reasons photographs are not allowed is that there is a fear that people would think those photos are displaying reality as opposed to propaganda.
Outside the kitchen barracks is a Soviet memorial. The Soviets “liberated” the camp at the end of the war but then used it for their own purposes over the next 5 years. The red triangles on the memorial represent the color that political prisoners wore on their uniform. The memorial is supposed to represent “Communism Victorious”; a Soviet guard liberating two prisoners. If you look at the statues, you will notice that they are unrealistic – those prisoners look very well fed, don’t they? Soviet propaganda, apparently. The original statues were realistic depictions but were later replaced with the ones seen now. While the Soviets ran the camp for their political prisoners (anyone that was seen as a threat to Stalin), 12,000 of the 60,000 held here died. Many died from starvation.
Next up was a shooting range. This was the site of many executions of Soviet POWS. The block is where the shooter would stand; the prisoners were under the covered area. In 1940, 40 Polish officers were shot here. This was the first of the killings; over the next ten weeks, 12,000 were killed here. Hitler hated the Soviets. They were driven to the camp in vans and were greeted by men in white coats claiming to be doctors ready to give them a medical exam. They were told to strip and were given a dental check. If it was determined that they had gold fillings, a blue cross was drawn on their chest. A measuring device was placed around their head which was attached to a tube. The prisoners were shot in the neck through the attached tube. Station Z was created in 1942 to carry out these executions. There was a crematorium there and in 1943 a gas chamber was added. The gas chamber was only used twice towards the end of the war; it was a used for testing to find a cheaper gas to kill people with.
Near the entrance to the camp is the Interrogation Facility. High profile political prisoners were tortured and housed here in the cells. Most entered and were never seen again. Outside of the remaining standing cell block are poles. Prisoners were hung by their wrists from the back here for up to 8 hours. It was a slow, painful death.
The Jewish barracks were built in 1938. This was the first large influx of prisoners, swelling the population of the camp from 2,500 to 8,500. In 1942, the “Final Solution” was enacted. Hitler determined that Jews had no place in the Third Reich, even as laborers. Jews were rounded up from the labor camps and sent to Auschwitz for extermination. Beth told us an interesting fact that I was unaware of. Do you remember that in 1938, Jews were rounded up after Kristallnacht? Were you aware that after they were sent to camps they were subsequently released? The Germans wanted to scare them into leaving the country. They wanted to keep the Jews’ wealth, but get rid of the Jews. Unfortunately, no other country was willing to take them; they literally had no place to go. There was a conference to determine whether or not immigration policies should be changed to allow Jewish refugees from the Nazis. The answer was no. Australia’s position was that they did not have a race problem and were not about to start one.
We passed by the running track where prisoners were forced to run 40K each day to test out the soles of shoes for the Nazis. There is also an infirmary still standing that could house up to 30 prisoners. Of course, the Nazis didn’t care about the health of the prisoners; they were concerned with keeping diseases from spreading from the prisoners to them. Medical experiments took place here as well. The prisoners were guinea pigs for the war effort to keep soldiers healthy.
Lastly, we trekked the mile back to the train station. The train was completely filled for the ride back. This was a long, difficult day in every sense of the word. I believe the questions I started with had been answered. To close, I will quote the words of one of the famous prisoners here at Sachsenhausen, Martin Niemöller. He was a Lutheran pastor that was originally a Nazi supporter. As various ethnic groups and political prisoners were rounded up, he was unconcerned. Eventually, however, he clashed with the Nazi party and ended up a prisoner himself. He came to understand that if we don’t protect the rights of those that need it, no one will protect you; no one is safe.
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.