Monday, June 17, 2013


Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.


After seeing Auschwitz, I went to two camps outside Berlin, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück. These were not extermination camps, which were all located in Poland, but concentration camps designed primarily for detention and slave labor. They held political prisoners, Soviet POW’s, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jews and other enemies of the Reich deported from across Europe. Ravensbrück was primarily a women’s camp, and I’ll describe it in my next post.  During my visits, the museum sites had far fewer visitors than Auschwitz, in the dozens rather than thousands, and both allowed self-guided tours. I was alone for these visits and had time to wander, take in the surroundings at my own pace, and think about the war crimes that had taken place at each camp.

The main entrance and watch tower
Sachsenhausen lies on the outskirts of Oranienburg, a town about twenty miles northwest of Berlin.  It’s an easy day trip from the German capital, but it’s worth devoting an entire day to the visit, considering travel time and taking a few hours to view the extensive displays.  From the Oranienburg train station, visitors follow signs through a very normal-looking central town—potted flowers on public squares, a small post office, small businesses lining the main street. But this is no ordinary town.  After walking about 20 minutes, you arrive at the Sachsenhausen visitor center outside the camp grounds, which is lined with a 10-foot stone wall. You pick up a map and audio guide, walk along the wall to the entrance of the camp, and feel like you’re beginning an average historic tour. (I was thinking, “…how much time do I have? Where will I have dinner back in Berlin, maybe try that little restaurant near the hotel….”) You pass through an arch under the camp’s main watch tower and…BAM. The 1,000-acre camp opens up before you, the stone wall perimeter marked with watch towers every 50 yards or so. 

Several dozen gravel filled rectangles show where barracks stood.
The grounds were designed in one large, equilateral triangle, with a semi-circle roll call area in front of the main watch tower, located in the middle of the triangle’s base.  Behind the roll call area, the barracks fanned out in a semi-circle. The barracks are no longer there, but their location is marked in gravel. (See museum guide with map, I imagined the prisoners passing through that entrance, and suddenly realizing the hell they had entered.

About 200,000 prisoners were held at Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945. Initially, the camp held political prisoners but during the war increasingly held Jews, Soviet POW’s and others deemed threatening or racially inferior by the SS. It’s still difficult to know how many people were killed there, but the museum cites Soviet estimates of several tens of thousands. ( They were victims of disease, starvation, forced labor and execution. The SS installed crematoria and a gas chamber in 1943.  Thousands of prisoners died during death marches when the camp was evacuated in April 1945 as Soviet troops advanced.

Sachsenhausen was designed with chilling precision. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, wanted to make it the ultimate prison camp and a model for other camps. The triangular design was meant to allow the main watch tower to provide surveillance of the entire camp.  The single tower did not suffice, however, and the SS added the additional towers along the perimeter. The layout feels modern—rational and geometrical. If it were a garden or park, it might even be beautiful; surely the Nazis viewed it this way. But this site, even more than Auschwitz-Birkenau, made me think it was 20th-century modernity and ingenuity pushed to a horrifying extreme, used by the SS to control and eliminate people who threatened their ideal of the Aryan Reich.  Sachsenhausen also was a training center for SS camp guards and housed the centralized Nazi camp administration.

"Death strip" along the camp perimeter with electric fence.
The museum has an excellent audio guide and a refurbished watch tower at the tip of the triangle houses audio-visual displays on interactions between the SS and townspeople of Oranienburg. The camp expanded as far as possible into the town and the Nazis couldn’t entirely keep secret the war crimes being committed behind the walls. Before the stone wall perimeter had been completed, townspeople saw from the bordering road the desperate situation of the prisoners, despite the Nazi ban on loitering along the camp boundaries.  Residents next to the camp could see the grounds and roll call area from their second-floor windows.  There wasn’t room on the camp for the SS camp guards, so some were lodged in town and interacted regularly with local residents.

The townspeople later described those interactions in a chilling kind of cliché, that the SS seemed friendly and “normal.” Their kids attended schools in Oranienburg.  I listened to an oral history recounted by a local woman who met, fell in love with and married an SS officer of Sachsenhausen.  Prior to the wedding, she needed to prove her Aryan descent and affirm her National Socialist convictions to qualify for the marriage license.  Her husband was later captured by the Soviets and died in prison. Another woman recounted a story about Gustav Sorge, a particularly cruel SS guard who helped carry out the murder of thousands of Soviet POW’s at Sachsenhausen. He eventually was convicted of war crimes and died in a West German prison serving a life sentence. Yet while at Sachsenhausen, he asked a local woman to kill a rabbit for him; he couldn’t bear to do it himself. For me, these stories about interactions between the SS and townspeople were perhaps the most interesting displays in the museum.

Between the main gate and the tip of the triangle stands a colossal monument from the Communist era—a 120-foot obelisk and iron figures, depicting liberated prisoners standing with Red Army soldiers. The monument was created in 1961 under the German Democratic Republic to commemorate the Communist struggle against fascism. After the Soviets liberated Sachsenhausen they also used it as a prison camp, detaining around 60,000 people between 1945 and 1950. Around 12,000 prisoners died from disease and starvation in the Soviet period. 

The execution trench.
On the west side of the camp there is an execution trench, where thousands of opponents of the Reich were killed. Seventy-one Dutch resisters were shot here, and when I visited, a small memorial to them was covered with flowers. Nearby, one can see the foundations of the crematoria and gas chambers. These were used on a smaller scale than at Birkenau, but this area is close to the perimeter, just yards from the townspeople, who witnessed the smoke and stench emitted from the crematoria.  Also along the western side of the camp, infirmary barracks house displays on exceptionally cruel medical experiments carried out on victims, including Jewish children, testing sterilization methods, castration and response to the injection of diseases such as hepatitis. Those who survived were left with lifelong deformities and disabilities.

The Soviet chapter in the camp’s postwar history is explained in an exhibition created in 2001. It is housed partly in original barracks, beyond the tip of the triangle. It’s now a high-tech and slick modern space, set underground to avoid obstructing the view of other buildings. After entering through doors that automatically whisk open, visitors descend a few stairs or a ramp to access the displays.  It was late in the day when I was in this part of the camp, not another soul around, not even a museum guard. The exhibition has a variety of documents, audio-visual displays, newsreels projected in a continual loop on the back wall, creating a noisy backdrop. Display cases exhibit propaganda posters, letters with translations, and a glass-walled room houses a row of computers available for visitors’ research. It’s all impressive but while I was there, unused. It was like entering an abandoned space ship. I lingered over some propaganda posters, taking pictures I might use in my classes.

The displays were a reminder of the war crimes that continued after the Soviet liberation of Sachsenhausen, and the tragic fate of millions of East Europeans who were caught between the power struggles of Hitler and Stalin. Clearly someone—governments, foundations, individuals?—had invested heavily in this exhibition space.  I found myself hoping that many of the camp’s visitors would use it.

As I was contemplating the museum's resources, I suddenly realized it was closing time. I was alone, on the far end of the camp with my driver’s license at the visitor’s center as collateral for my audio-guide. I quickly walked back through the grounds, reviewing all the tragic history I had just absorbed. In a word, chilling. Though I later learned that the grounds remain open in the evening, at the time I was fixated on making sure I did not get stuck alone in Sachsenhausen.

Next…Ravensbrück, primarily a women’s camp

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