Nom de Plumage

June 23, 2013

Sachsenhaussen Concentration Camp in Berlin

Filed under: Diary,Solo Travelling,Travel Journal — nomdeplumage @ 4:04 pm
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Many years ago when I was living in both Stuttgart and Munich, the thought had come to my mind many times about whether I would like to visit a concentration camp. The infamous Dachau camp was not very far from Stuttgart and I asked my friends and work colleagues about it. The look on their faces was enough deterrent as I knew that emotionally I was not ready to see the horrors by myself. Fast forward many years and my attitude has changed.

When I arrived in Berlin, I had not even heard about the Sachsenhaussen Camp and had no inclination to visit one. That is until I spoke to my two American roommates who had just visited the day before and they convinced me that the time was now or never. What I did know, is that it is not a place I want to visit on my own and so I booked a tour. So why now? Honestly, not because it fascinates me or that I wish to see the horrors, but because the need to try to comprehend human nature and the brutality of war compels me to bury my ignorance and face emotions and grasp a time in history that will never be forgotten.

The weather perfectly suited my thoughts and emotions for what I was about to see; cold, grey and miserable. I had to run to the S-Bahn station and I was almost there when the train pulls into the station. A man overtakes me and runs in the vain hope of getting on board before the doors close. The conductor was nice and opened the doors. The man boards the train and holds open the door and gestures me to get in. Very thankful. I arrived at the tour’s meeting point with time to spare and met some nice people. We were standing out in the open when it started to rain, then the rain froze and ice fell and finally it started to snow. I just knew that this will be a long day.

At the Bombardier train station we meet with our group leader Jakob. A young man originally from Czech but now living in Berlin, speaks perfect English. Due to the severity of the weather, many trains are either cancelled or delayed and for some time we had no idea if a train would come. Thankfully one did and we board the RE for Oranienburg. We arrive more than thirty minutes later and Jakob recommends that we have some lunch first from the local bakery because there is no food at  the camp. We all opt for a sandwich, a sweet pastry and coffee and are very satisfied except for a young American couple who ask where there nearest McDonald’s is. We all shake our heads.

Our fifteen minute walk to the camp is the same journey that the prisoner’s walked on their way to uncertainty. When we turn the last corner, the camp comes into sight and something profound and even pathetic hits me. The street is lined with houses that end at the very barricade that circumnavigates the camp. These houses were built before the war and housed the families of the SS officers. The children and wives would have seen the prisoners, heard the gunshots and smelt the thick unnatural smell of bodies being cremated. It begs the question; did they know what was happening?

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The entrance is before me and the black steel gate with the immortalised words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Life is not Free) brings a shiver down my spine. Reality could never have prepared me for what I have seen many times on TV or in books and no amount of anticipation can ever displace the fear of seeing those words before me. Through the gate and the triangle courtyard awaits. The bitter cold vastness of the inner courtyard is a powerful reminder that here the prisoners stood barely clothed and starving for a roll call every morning.  Sachsenhaussen was the first camp built and the model for all other camps to follow. Barely anything exists of its former days because once the war was over, people destroyed what valuable material they could to rebuild their homes. The high stone fences, barbed-wire fences and guard towers still are the original. A house that once was the local socialising and drinking venue for the officers after a hard days work (?) still stands, albeit bordered up. Two dormitories that housed the prisoners has been rebuilt.

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There are two museums on the premises. The first one beautifully recreates the lives of some of the men, women and children who were prisoners here. There are no graphic photos, but the stories are poignant reminders of the hardship and probable deaths faced every day by the thousands who are incarcerated here. The other museum is more in-your-face because it shows the actual weapons or equipment used to kill the prisoners. The chipped wooden frame used for hanging stands in the centre of the room. It permeated a foul smell that can only be associated with death. The other sinister wooden structure, looked almost unimportant until our tour guide explained how it was used. But of the brutality, some hope could be found downstairs in the cold rooms were the food was stored and prepared by the prisoners. On the concrete pillars are comical pictures painted by some prisoners who had possibly some humour and hope even in those terrifying times.

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We arrive at our final destination within the camp and are a sign that reads, “the only way to freedom is through the Z station”, is before us. What is the Z station? A simplified explanation; the place of execution (freedom). Freedom came in the expensive form of a bullet and then cremation. The early days before mass extermination was invented. The place still stands were prisoners were shot and as you walk further to an enclosed area, the dilapidated ovens come into view and a sick an overwhelming feeling strikes hard. Of all the places, this was the hardest to visit because all hope ended and everything became so brutally final. Our tour guide mentioned that at one stage there was so many bodies to be cremated that a thick black plume of smoke covered the surrounding town for days. The suffocating stench of burning human flesh and the stifling smoke must have been unbearable and yet I ask the question: were the people who lived nearby aware of what was happening?

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We departed from the camp bewildered and in silence for what we had all just seen. It is one thing to read about it and watch it in movies or on TV, but something wholly different in reality. I cannot write that I feel better for coming or that I may even except what happened during the war, but I can certainly write that it has changed me.

When we arrived at the train station, there was confusion about which platform we should wait on for our train and in the ensuing drama, the group separated and some got on another train. The other half of the group which I was apart of, got the next train but it did not take us directly back to the city. We had to change at a station called Lichtenberg. Thankfully, I was in a group because this station made me feel very uncomfortable. Drunk youths were singing racists songs and the feeling of tension and hate was in the air. The war maybe over, but for some, denial and hate are still ever-present.

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