WARNING: This post has very heavy content. I wrote about everything I could remember from the tour, so please read this with the appropriate mindset. I’m going to format this post a bit differently, especially since the subject matter and tone will be vastly different from my other posts.
Standing in a concentration camp was unlike any experience I have had in the past. No visit to a memorial or museum could have possibly prepared me for what we would see and hear. Luckily, we got an exceptional tour guide, Beth; I can’t really imagine how the day would have gone without her. She was the perfect balance of incredibly informational and appropriately empathetic, and our group matched her tone and pace for the day, asking thought-provoking questions and talking through these heavy subjects as we stopped at each place within the camp.
Instead of posting all the pictures at the end, I’m going to embed them within the post so I can explain what I learned as we visited each area:
This was not only the HQ building for the Sachsenhausen concentration camp but for all the concentration camps in Europe. In this building, officials operated the movement of prisoners from one concentration camp to another, as well as keeping track of numbers that died each day.
We entered the camp through the back. Beth said this was to show us how they entered—not through the gated entrance that now deems the site a memorial. We also followed a non-direct route to reach the concentration camp itself; Beth said this was to show us the exact route the prisoners had taken. She also wanted to demonstrate how out-in-the-open the concentration camp was; there were no measures taken to hide the camp. However, what was hidden was the brutality the prisoners faced. People were told that the prisoners in the camp were “bad” who, if not locked up, would otherwise harm them; however, people were not told the degree to which these people were tortured. It’s not like this makes the situation better, but it is still important to understand.
This is a picture of how the camp generally looked. It was grey and dreary, and that felt fitting, given its history. Seeing it in person gave the Holocaust a new meaning for me. To think that people stood here getting whipped naked in the freezing cold—while I was buried under a warm jacket and several layers—is almost hard to imagine. The wind was whipping. And, the guards apparently used the weather to their advantage, they used it as another way to torture the prisoners. If it was cold, the guards did not turn on the fire. When it was boiling hot in the summer, the guards would light fires and force the prisoners to stand alongside them.
Beth explained that the section of pebbles we saw was strictly forbidden for the prisoners to cross, as they were right next to the barbed wire wall. If someone was trying to escape, they’d have to cross the rocks as the first step, so SS officers had been situated at all the towers that surrounded the camp. If a prisoner even touched the pebbles with a pinky toe, there would be gunshots fired from every direction, killing or wounding the person instantly. Beth explained that to teach the prisoners about this “rule,” an officer ordered one man to fetch his fallen cap from the rocks, and when the prisoner complied with this instruction, he was killed in front of all the others. “The Nazis inflicted torture however they could with every chance they had,” Beth said. “They tried to make one thing more insufferable than the next.”
Because the officers’ goal was to inflict as much torture as possible on the prisoners, they used these “hospitals” as areas to experiment with different things. To understand the hepatitis disease more, for example, they injected it into prisoners, cooped them up in these buildings, and studied how quickly it could spread.
This was a spot where SS officers first discovered a quicker and simpler way to execute more people more efficiently. Prisoners were forced to sign up for “doctor’s visits,” and when they were called to the front of the line, they were thrown into the ditch alongside other prisoners with the same time slot. As they waited for the so-called doctors to arrive, they were massaged on the backs of their necks, and just as they began to question why a treatment felt anything short of miserable, they were promptly shot in the head without any warning. This was sure to kill them. The people waiting for doctor’s visits had no idea what was in store. The pictures of these people were the first round of prisoners to be subject to this method.
This ditch was used to hang people and later used as storage for dead bodies.
Remains of glass ovens where people were killed.
This is a memorial tower that was installed shortly after the concentration was permanently closed. It’s hard to see in the picture, but the triangles are red. This symbolizes the conflict between fascist and communist ideologies, but the monument has faced some resistance. This is because some people feel the political issues were raised above other matters such as the antisemitic parts of the Holocaust. To make matters worse for the prisoners, there was a “hierarchy” amongst the prisoners themselves, making nearly everyone hate one another. For example, convicts were below Jews, who were below people of other religions. People who existed within different hierarchies wore different colored stars on their shirts to appropriately separate them.
A view of the entrance building to the camp
Our last stop on the tour was the torture square. Beth explained that all the prisoners knew how bad it could be: if a SS official ordered you to enter the square, you weren’t coming out of it alive. The torture square was reserved for prisoners lower than the bottom rung of the prisoner hierarchy. It was for prisoners who broke rules deliberately, started fights with other prisoners, or those who had been rumored to be especially dangerous—even if they were as innocent as everyone else. While no one knew what occurred in the square unless they themselves were unfortunate enough to enter it, Beth explained that this was the ultimate form of torture. Instead of killing people by hanging them from their necks, they hung them by their wrists, which would eventually grow so tired and achy that they’d fall off after days, or the prisoners would first die by hunger or thirst. The Nazis would whip the prisoners there till they bled pools of blood on the ground, and the victims’ friends and family would be commanded to watch their loved ones face this torture—or else they too would face the whipping.
Beth briefly explained the roll call procession that took place each morning. The prisoners were woken at 4:30 and expected to be on the grounds in line at 5:15. Obviously, there were punishments for tardiness. There were only two bathrooms in each cabin. The cabins held 150 people if it was stuffed to capacity, and the SS officials forced 400 prisoners into these barracks each night. If they wanted to sleep, it was their only option. Not many people were able to use the bathrooms each morning, and oftentimes, fights broke out among the prisoners over this issue. The officials would come around to drown the occasional prisoner in the washing water basins. Then, they would head outside for roll call, where everyone—even all the prisoners who had died—were expected to be present. The Nazis would drag the dead bodies in front of their prisoners who still lived, symbolizing that nothing and no one was safe. “This could happen to you, too,” the Nazis wanted everyone to know.
After seven hours on the grounds of this camp, it’s safe to say I was both mentally and physically drained. It’s a strange concept to say I’m glad I went there, but I am glad to have learned so much as a result of this experience, and it was good to share it with one of my best friends. It is also a satisfying feeling to reflect on this day with writing, as I’ll want to look back on it. May we never forget the tragic, tragic Holocaust and all the people who suffered in this camp and many others.
One thought on “Sachsenhausen memorial tour”
Hey A. Thank you for rendering your experience so vividly. Your call-out on idea of creating fear among the general populace – labeling prisoners as “bad” people to be feared and using that as an excuse for barbarism- shows that some lessons haven’t been adequately learned.