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The Sachsenhausen concentration camp was first built to imprison political opponents, however, other kinds of prisoners were kept there too, many of whom the Nazis affirmed being “racial and biological inferior”.
As I said, the objective of this camp was to maintain prisoners, but later on, they began to exterminate inmates after high SS officials created the “final solution”, in other words, the extermination of Jews. We made a tour in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and even though it is a sorrowful place, as you have noticed by now, we didn’t regret going there at all.
This concentration camp is located 35 km to the North of Berlin, easily reachable by train. We had an amazing guide who explained a lot about this place and its history. The visit wouldn’t be the same without all his knowledge about World War II and passionate explanation about how the war developed over the years.
This tour was intense, but it is undeniably a must-do in Berlin because the world needs to see what those people went through. I’ve written a bit of what I learned at the tour, read further to understand a little more of what life was like in a concentration camp in Germany.
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Sachsenhausen was built to be the ideal concentration camp: according to Himmler, SS leader, this was a model of a “modern, up-to-date, ideal and easily expandable concentration camp”. The architecture of the camp has a symbolic representation, it’s a triangle of hierarchy where the SS administration is located at the center and the prisoners would be symbolically subjugated to their power.
In total, around 200.000 people were held prisoners in Sachsenhausen. At some point, about 950 men were sleeping in one barrack. Sanitary conditions were very basic, and diseases would spread easily. Each barrack has a central washing area for all the prisoners, only with cold water, of course.
Winters in Germany can be severe and given the fact that they didn’t have much fat on their bodies or even warm clothes (many didn’t even have shoes), surviving was really a matter of being lucky and wanting to live! Because, to keep living in those conditions, you need to hold on to something. Maybe for a better future where all this suffering doesn’t exist, otherwise you let your body succumb.
The daily menu was a small cup of broth, in which rotten vegetables were very often used, and a piece of old bread.
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Ps: It was 0 degrees Celsius when we were there, I had a few layers of warm clothes and had had a decent warm meal, but I was still freezing. The barracks had no isolation and the washing area was in front of the door. I can’t imagine the pain of those people…
Cigarettes are nowadays considered a mean of payment in prisons. It wasn’t different in Sachsenhausen. Inmates would use contraband cigarettes in exchange for a little more food ration. They didn’t really smoke them, because if that would mean food, then they should trade for it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t make until the next day. However, if someone was seen smoking, it was a clear sign this person had given up and it was a matter of days before he would die…
Pleasure in Cruelty
Arbeit Macht Frei – work makes you free. This slogan is written in the gate of Sachsenhausen and that’s what many prisoners thought at first: they would work for the Nazis so they could pay for their debts (of being Jewish) and then they would go back home. Soon enough they realized they have been lied to. Prisoners were made slaves and were even treated like an object to be rented. The Nazi party would rent out many inmates to companies in the area as they were cheap labor.
A famous way to earn some money on the cost of the prisoners was to execute boot testing for shoe companies. They would select more than 100 prisoners who had to use new shoes and run 40 km a day over tracks made of sand, cement, broken stones, cinders, and gravels.
Later on, this was used as torture, but then they made a few adaptations: the inmates would use shoes 1 or 2 sizes smaller and had to run holding sacks filled with 20 kg of sand. The prisoners chosen for this torment would run every day until their bodies wouldn’t be able to keep going. One thing was for sure: if you were chosen, you knew you were going to die. Again, remember they didn’t have proper food.
Medical experiments were also performed at the camp, in an attempt to show that Jews and Gypsies had different blood from Germans.
In 1941, the SS doctors would select prisoners to what they called euthanasia program, a clandestine murder plan. This procedure was executed to give continuation to the process of cleaning Germany of the “unworthy of life”. The people who had a physical or mental disability would be killed, inside and outside the camp.
It all started with children, they encouraged parents to take their kids with disabilities to pediatric clinics, in reality, they would murder those children by lethal doses of medication or starvation. It’s estimated that around 5.000 children lost their lives to the euthanasia program.
Back to the Sachsenhausen, there were execution trenches where prisoners would be shot dead. Next to these trenches lie the gas chamber and the crematorium. They died of exhaustion, hunger, illness, abuse, the cold, medical experiments, public executions or in mass murders. At some point, around 10.000 people would die every month. Some of the survivors say many of those who were brought to the crematorium were still alive…
To read everything and visit all places in the camp, reserve 4-6 hours to it. We did a very informative tour and it took 3 hours, we skipped a few exhibitions, but it was “enough”. We didn’t want to spend a day there, as you can imagine the place has a heavy energy by all the things that happened there.
Take water and snacks with you for during the tour. There is a cafe at the entrance, but it’s not like you’ll cross the camp to get something to eat and then go back to your tour.
We booked the Sachsenhausen tour in English, they also offer it in Spanish. Our guide, Rob Shaw, was fantastic and told us passionately about this concentration camp’s history.
How to get there?
We went there by train with the guide, departing from the Brandenburg Gate, S-Bahn S1 line to Oranienburg station (around 50 minutes). From there we walked 20 minutes to the camp (there are buses available, but we didn’t want to wait for them: line 804 to Malz and line 821 to Tiergarten).
March 15th until October 14th: daily between 8:30 – 18:00
October 15th until March 14th: daily between 8:30 – 16:30
During the winter season, the museums are closed on Mondays. The Visitor Information Centre, the open-air exhibition, “Murder and Mass Murder in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp” and the site of commemoration “Station Z”, are open to the public every day.
Entrance is free, they charge €3 for an audio guide (German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese) if you’re going on your own, but I highly recommend taking the tour, because only a person can explain in detail the shocking events and answer your questions. You won’t regret it! When you do, come back here and tell me how your tour was! I’m curious about your impressions.
Have you ever been to a concentration camp in Europe or visited any war sites? Drop a comment below and tell me how it was!
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