Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg, Germany

Actual date of this event: 3 November, 2013

I truly believe visiting a concentration camp is something that everyone should face - a different sort of bucket list item. On the evening of our visit to our first concentration camp, my mom asked how it was, and I said, "It wasn't as bad as I thought." It was the truth... at the time. The next day, all of the information hit me, hard, and I had to fight the tears. I remember sitting on the train, and Luke asking me what was wrong, and if I was okay. I couldn't even tell him what was going through my head.
We have all grown up learning about the holocaust. We all know the victims went through so much pain and suffering. But learning about it and reading about it at school or at home is very very different than actually standing on the grounds of where it happened. Nothing, that I can remember, has had such an affect on my life. Since the day we visited Sachsenhausen, so many emotions have built up in my head - sadness, rage, shame, embarrassment, gratefulness, joy, disgust, and more. You would think these emotions are just toward the Holocaust, but they aren't. I feel them toward the present and toward the future as well. Because of this, it has taken me seven months to finally write a blog post. If I can find the right words to express how I personally feel, then I will. But until that time comes, I will stick to the facts that I learned during my first visit to a concentration camp. 
Sachsenhausen is located in Oranienburg, Germany just outside of Berlin. Luke and I joined a free tour (excluding tip, food, drink, and train transfer) with Vive Berlin. Our guide, Anna, was young but very knowledgeable. She warned us from the beginning that some of her information may come off as sarcastic, but it would just be her coping mechanism. That having to tell this information so many times, is heart-wrenching. But she does it because it is so so so important. Not once did I feel she was making jokes - she did a fabulous job!
In order to understand why concentration camps were built, you need to know a bit about Hitler. In order to know about Hitler, you need to understand a bit about the First World War. So on the 45 minute train ride to Oranienburg, Anna gave us a brief history of the First World War, the effect it had on Germany, where Hitler came from, and how he rose to power. I won't go into all of that as it is not the purpose of my post. Anyway, when we arrived to our train stop, we walked about a mile to the camp.
Sachsenhausen was a male prison camp consisting of mostly political prisoners and Soviets, but other "groups" were imprisoned at the camp as well. Anna explained that each group got a certain triangle badge to wear to help the SS officers determine treatment for the prisoner and also to prevent an uprising within the camps. Since Sachsenhausen was close to Berlin, the training facility for the SS officers was located just next door to the camp. Currently, and Anna was very ashamed to admit this, the old training facility is a police station. Also nearby was the headquarters for all of the concentration camps. Himmler, who ran all of the concentration camps, was stationed just a mile down the road in Oranienburg. 
The guard banquet house was located just outside the entrance to the camp. Every single day, the prisoners had to walk by the "Green Monster" smelling delicious food, hearing music, laughter, and life.

The camp had a very unique design, shaped like a triangle, which was supposed to be the model camp for all other camps. The head guard was stationed in the tower at the entrance and could see down each row of barracks. He could see practically every inch of the camp. If there was an area he could not see, there was another tower with a guard that could. As more and more prisoners arrived, it proved to be the worst design of them all. More barracks were added, but eventually they ran out of space on the grounds, which led to overcrowding, and eventually more executions. 

As the barracks became too full, diseases broke out resulting in many deaths. Also, Jews were sent to Auschwitz for extermination. Sachsenhausen was not intended as an extermination camp, but many executions still occurred daily. Many Soviet POW were sent to Sachsenhausen and most were shot or hanged. As much as we may doubt it, SS officers had a rough time with the shootings. Officers tried to make it easier on themselves mentally by taking shots of vodka in between executions, but it still did not help ease their minds.

The inmates were forced to build "Station Z", a building designed for execution. First it was used for shootings where the officer did not have to see the inmate before shooting him, but later Station Z turned into a gas chamber. Prisoners were frequently transferred from one camp to another, so information from other camps was brought to Sachsenhausen and vice versa. Word of "taking a shower" in a chamber was no secret - everyone knew it meant death by gas.

Although almost impossible, prisoners tried to escape jumping over the electric fences. If any prisoner stepped foot into the danger zone, he was immediately executed. Some prisoners chose to do this on purpose.
The officers were not "allowed" to just kill someone. The prisoner had to do something "wrong", although that was not the case for most murders. Depending on the offense, some prisoners were sent to isolation within the prison. They were given their own cell, but had zero freedom and much less food. They were also abused and tortured to the point of dislocated joints, broken bones, unconsciousness, and more. 
The daily routine of a prisoner consisted of having only 30 minutes to get ready each morning (beginning around 4:30am). During those 30 minutes, they were expected to clean their space, clean themselves, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom, and get to the roll call area. It doesn't sound too bad... But think about doing it with only a few toilets, a few water basins, and hundreds of other prisoners all doing the same task in the same space in the same 30 minute time period... speechless. 
 {the toilet room above and the wash room below shared by hundreds of prisoners}
In most camps, the barracks got so crowded that the prisoners were sleeping six people in one "bed", which consisted of a wooden plank. Prisoners were not given multiple pairs of clothing, so they never changed clothes.

Roll call was one of the worst aspects in prison as each prisoner had to be accounted for, inspected for health, and the SS also used the time to humiliate the prisoners. If one person was missing, the count started over. During Roll Call, prisoners were not allowed to sit nor move. Anyone who moved received some sort of punishment. At Sachsenhausen, the longest roll call was 48 hours. After Roll Call, most of the prisoners walked to a nearby factory to do hard labor for the next 12-14 hours. During this time, rarely were they allowed a break, including time to use the restroom. At the end of their long work day, they walked back to camp for another roll call. Prisoners wore thin clothing, similar to medical scrubs, and if they had an extra layer, it was just a thin jacket. Winters in Germany are brutal, so prisoners were forced to stand in all sorts of weather during roll call occasionally leading to hypothermia and heat exhaustion. 

The prisoners had barely any energy. Not because they had been working all day. Or because they were up so early for roll call. But because they were given barely any food. During "good times", some prisoners took in a max of 1,500 calories worth of food a day, but most of the time they received much less.
Eventually the camp was liberated by the Soviets in April 1945. It continued as a prison camp run by the Red Army, but officially closed in 1950. The East German government established Sachsenhausen as a national memorial and built an obelisk and a few statues in honor of those who suffered.
"Bitterness destroys the person who is bitter ... You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined." - Leo Bretholz
During the period of the holocaust, 11 million people were killed, including 1.1 million children, 6 million Jews and other groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people, and Gypsies.

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