We left Berlin early in the morning and caught the train up to Oranienburg, a small town about 30 minutes out of Berlin and the home of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. You may be aware that there were numerous types of camps, including forced labor camps, transit camps, and extermination camps. The extermination camps, camps designed purely, or primarily, to murder people were built outside Germany, in occupied Poland. If you’re interested in learning more about the types of camps, the Wikipedia article is very helpful. Now, you shouldn’t be confused about the nature of concentration camps; almost all of them had facilities to kill and dispose of bodies, but the extermination camps were designed primarily to accomplish Hitler’s Final Solution, the complete annihilation of the Jewish People.
Sachsenhausen was located in the same town, Oranienburg, as the headquarters of the Nazi concentration camps and was also used to train SS officers for service in other camps. There were many famous prisoners housed at Sachsenhausen, including Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi theologian who is best known for his work “First they came…”
It seemed fitting that the morning was overcast and a bit rainy as we made our way from the train station to the entrance of the concentration camp. Leaving the train station, you should head towards Bernauer Strasse. Turn right on Bernauer Strasse and walk less than half of a mile to turn left on Strasse der Einheit. This is a neighborhood street, which makes the presence of the concentration camp even more surreal. You’ll walk a bit more than a quarter of a mile before turning right on Strasse der Nationen. The road will wind around to the left, maybe a quarter of a mile down, and before the turn, you’ll see the entrance to Sachsenhausen.
If you want to plan your tour of the camp, you can go to the Sachsenhausen website and select the maps option at the top left. I’d give you a direct link, but the site doesn’t provide direct URLs.
As you’ll find at every concentration and extermination camp, the propaganda slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes you free) is prominent on some of the gates around the camp.
The camp had been partially destroyed towards the end of the war, but the camp was later used by Soviets as a special camp for political prisoners during the occupation of post-war Germany. Many of the original structures remain, however, including the barracks seen here that were part of the Sonderlager, a special camp for trouble prisoners or prisoners who attempted to escape from here or other camps.
The barracks for prisoners were made of wood and were less protective from the elements. Inside one of the open prisoner barracks, we discovered Martin Niemöller’s cell:
Continuing to wander around the grounds without a guide, we found a watchtower used to supervise the prisoners:
As we continued our tour, I was unnerved by the lack of evidence of the horrors of the camp. Coming through the gate and wandering around, it was clear this was a prison camp, but the true horrors of the camp were not immediately visible. However, as we continued away from the entrance, we soon discovered the darker history of the camp.
Sachsenhausen was not, as I mentioned earlier, a death camp. However, the camp was used for killing prisoners, first in an execution trench where prisoners were shot or hanged. It is estimated that over 30,000 prisoners were murdered here, including 100 Dutch resistance fighters.
Leaving the execution trench and walking back towards the entrance of the camp, we discovered the remains of the crematory and gas chambers. Originally installed in 1943, the chambers and crematory is largely gone, but enough of the structures remain to understand the horrible nature of this camp.
As we prepared to leave to catch our train back to Berlin and on to Nuremberg, we passed a moving tribute to the murdered prisoners.