Berlin, Germany….It’s a rainy grey morning in Berlin, and we’re joining two German friends and a Dutch couple to drive to Sachsenhausen, the former concentration camp (and later a Soviet special camp) located beside the town of Oranienburg north of Berlin. Tens of thousands of people, including many political prisoners, huge numbers of Russians, and even a few Brits, died there by the time World War Two was over.
I’ve never been to a concentration camp, and have understandably mixed feelings about our outing, yet I want to go. In fact, it seems like a moral obligation to make this destination a part of our trip to Berlin and Germany. My husband Russ, who visited a concentration camp many years ago, also feels this imperative to return, and to contemplate the horrors from a more mature and sober perspective than his 20-something self may have done in the 70’s.
One of our German friends escorting us today is a retired teacher who started taking his classes to Sachsenhausen years ago, and sees the trip as an essential history lesson for all Germans. He will be our guide.
It turns out he’s an excellent commentator, making sure we see what is most important to see: the dismal barracks where prisoners were housed; the brutally sub-standard toilet facilities where people crushed together and guards sometimes drowned men by pushing their heads under water; the watch tower where displays examine the question of how much the townspeople knew and why they didn’t try to help the prisoners; the brutal detention centre within the prison; the stark pathology building; and finally, the gas chamber, ovens, and execution site in an unspeakably awful building known as “Station Z” (the last stop).
There are also effective displays documenting the lives of many of the people who died here, showing them as young vigorous family people engaged in normal lives. Sachsenhausen was a “model” camp, not designed for the mass exterminations elsewhere, but as a place where the SS could learn and perfect the various methods of confinement, torture and killing. Hence, many “special” prisoners were sent here, including Hitler’s political enemies.
All day, the rain keeps coming down and we walk through puddles and mud. After seeing images of these camps for so many years, it is hard to believe I’m standing on the soggy ground where so many unimaginable horrors took place.
What lingers with me is the question: what would I have done if I had lived nearby? The townspeople who saw prisoners — including old men and children — getting off the trains, were told that these pathetic people were criminals who were responsible for the war.
Would I have risked my family’s safety by speaking out, or trying to help prisoners escape? Or would I have remained on the sidelines, averting my eyes and convincing myself that those nice SS men who played on our town sports teams and added music to our festivals were really just engaged in training activities behind the walls of a well-run prison?
We want to believe that we know what we would do. It negates our humanity to imagine that we could have accepted the reality of this camp in our midst. Yet, with a humbling icy horror, I recognize that I cannot answer these questions with certainty, and that is the reason we must keep these memories alive.
It’s about remembrance. It’s about human weakness and cowardice versus vigilance and courage. It’s about trying to fathom how “civilized” people could have allowed or taken part in unfathomable evil. It’s about exploring the depths of the human soul. But most of all here at Sachsenhausen, it’s about honouring those who died on this very spot.
All photos © Star Weiss
“Arbeit Macht Frei, was the slogan at every concentration camp and translates as “Work Liberates” or “Work makes us free”.
“The ovens in Station Z”
“Shows the wire and barriers at the walls”
“Inside Station Z”
“Inside a typical barracks”