“And I know one thing more – that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged….”
– Andrzej Szczypiorski, prisoner of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
– a signboard found on a road junction, listing the names of some concentration camps.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Oranienburg
Leaving Berlin, we thought of making a quick stop at Oranienburg to pay a visit to the infamous Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, before moving on to Ludwigslust in the north. The “quick stop” turned out to be half a day. The camp was so huge, there were so many blocks of buildings with so many interesting exhibits and endless literature to read. It was overwhelming to absorb and digest them all within the short time. It was time well spent. I think everyone who visited this place will leave it with a weird feeling, like you’ve just made a day tour of an educational visit to hell.
It was one of the coldest days we had, about -8°C, with light snowfall and very strong chilly winds it probably felt more like -15°C or -20°C. The sky was cloudy and gloomy for the whole day, as though to cultivate the appropriate mood to appreciate and respect the atrocious experience and relics left behind by the former residents of this camp. Walking through the long road that led into the main camp entrance in such freezing weather (it was probably the same route the prisoners would have taken all those years ago), it felt like walking the death march of 1945. Except that we were properly dressed for winter and not wearing those pin-striped pajama-style suits the prisoners wore, we had a full stomach and not just a piece of stale bread for the torturous 6-day-long walk, and nobody was beating on our heads.
The tall imposing wrought iron gates that marked the main entrance to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, with the infamous slogan “ARBEIT MACHT FREI“ which means : Work will free you. It was the biggest irony as the only way to be “free” after you are unfortunate enough to have set foot inside the gates, is by way of execution, or extermination. “Death shall set you free“ would be a more accurate slogan here.
A little background on the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Located just north of Berlin, this huge concentration camp was force-built by slave labourers, while the Nazis were busy hosting the 1936 Olympic Games. The intention of this camp was to hold political enemies of the Nazi regime, and to set a standard for other concentration camps at the time, both in its design and in its treatment of prisoners. Sachsenhausen was not originally intended to be an extermination camp (Yes, there are those in the east which were built just for the purpose of conducting systemic murder); however gas chambers were constructed at a later stage to facilitate such atrocities here. The camp was liberated by Soviets in 1945.
About 200,000 prisoners came through this camp between 1936 – 1945, out of which 50,000 lost their lives due to various reasons: exhaustion from slave labour, disease, maltreatment, malnutrition, or pneumonia from the freezing winter cold. Many were executed or died as a result of brutal medical experimentation. Over 10,000 were executed by being shot in the back of the neck through a hidden hole in a wall under the pretext of measuring for uniform. Their bodies were then burnt.
“There is nothing that injures human feelings so deeply as being forced to watch a fellow human being executed.” (Heinrich Lienau, German political prisoner, 1939-1945)
Left : Uniform measure. There is a slit in the middle for the murderer sitting in the next room to point his gun through a hidden hole in the wall, so when the prisoner stands still thinking that he’s being measured for uniform, the bullet would go right through the back of his neck.
Right : The gallows.
“We had to walk past the corpse, past the hanged man, with our caps off, and we had the greatest respect for these victims.” (Richard Mohaupt, German political prisoner, 1942-1945)
Left : The death carriage – Whenever there was an execution exercise, the surviving prisoner will be forced to carry the bodies of his dead fellow inmates onto this carriage, and drag them over to the Pathology Lab.
Right : The whipping table – Prisoners will first be stripped, then bend forward and strapped on this table while they get whipped.
Basically, what they did here was that they conducted experiments and committed gruesome atrocities on innocent human beings and played sadistic games for pure fun and torture, at the horrific expense of the inmates. It was also the base for the biggest counterfeiting operation where the Nazis tried to forge American and British currency as a plan to undermine the economies of the two countries at the time.
Left : This message in a bottle was discovered in April 2003 by a construction worker after he had demolished a partition wall. The message reads: “I want to return home again. Since 9 March 1937 in K.Z.S. (Concentration Camps Sachsenhausen). Today is 19 April 1944. When will i see my love in Frechen, Cologne, once more? But my spirit is unbroken. Things must get better soon. Anton Engermann, born 6.10.02”
Right : Sachsenhausen Song Book with 134 camp songs, by Mikhail Orlov et al, 1943. After his death in 1943, his fellow prisoners continued the book. The Sachsenhausen Camp Song had been composed by political prisoners on the orders of the SS Camp Leader. Because it intimated hope of freedom it was soon banned by the camp authorities and could only be sung in secret.
The site layout of the thousand-acre camp itself took the form of a triangle, just like the badges worn by every inmate, a cloth triangle sewn onto their left breast side pocket and right trouser leg, with different colors and designs to identify not their names but their status in the Nazi’s decreed “hierarchy“ for prisoners. At the top are criminals – rapists, murderers (green triangles), then Communists & political prisoners (red triangles), antisocial elements (black triangles), Gypsies (at first brown, later also black), Jehovah’s Witnesses (violet), homosexuals (pink triangles), and at the very bottom are the Jews, who will have to wear a yellow triangle under the triangle with the color of their prisoner category so that a hexagonal Star of David resulted. By these triangle marks, the racist contrast and the hierarchy of “Herrenmensch” (member of the master race) and “Untermensch” (subhuman creature) was to be expressed.
The areas in the camp consist of the Appellplatz parade ground (roll call area), the Jewish Barrack, punishment cells, execution grounds and crematorium, Station Z, the Pathology Laboratory and camp hospital (later used to conduct gruesome experiments on prisoners).
Pathology Lab & Infirmary (experiment centre). This was the storage where they kept all the dead bodies before being sent to the crematorium. There was also an autopsy room here where the medical examiners were supposed to conduct post mortem investigations of each case, which was almost always being reported as “Death from natural causes”.
Bathroom and toilets; bunker (1 single bunk sleeps 3 prisoners); prison block.
Boot testing track – Prisoners, especially the Pink Triangles (homosexuals) were forced to march up to 40km daily in these grounds, over a variety of surfaces, just to test military footwear.
Station Z and the Execution Trench – facilities for carrying out organized murder.
“Patriots from all European countries were murdered at this point.”
Left to right : Between 1940-1945 over 100 Dutch resistance fighters were shot here; burial ground with ashes of victims; a prison cell.
Here, in 1941, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in a “neck-shot facility” within the space of 10 weeks.
“I wanted only to get away, because of the smell of human flesh, of burning, it upset me so much that i always thought, this is horrific! The worst thing of all was the crows afterwards. There was a smell – so the birds, the vultures i would call them – it drove me insane! And everyday the dead.” (Walter Schwarze, German homosexual, 1940-41)
Wöbbelin Concentration Camp
Just outside of Ludwigslust lies a memorial of where the foundation of the Wöbbelin Concentration Camp used to be. Originally a subcamp to the Neuengamme Concentration Camp, stone huts were built by prisoners to house other prisoners of war toward the end of WW2. Later, it became the destination of “death marches” from several concentration camps. Within a few weeks of construction, more than 5,000 utterly exhausted prisoners were occupying this camp. Food was scarce; within 3 weeks, more than 1000 prisoners starved to death. Some even resorted to cannibalism. Prisoners vegetated here in the Wöbbelin camp, being crammed on an extremely narrow space in an inhuman way.
The accommodation for the prisoners were red brick buildings. The ground was teeming with insects, the roofs were not tight, there were no doors and glass were missing from windows. Some prisoners built themselves sleeping racks from raw wooden poles and logs, most of them however, spent the nights on the ground.
“The nights were very cold. He who still had a blanket, but no longer had the strength to defend it, didn’t find it the next morning, others had stolen it from him. This was the right of the stronger.” – (Paul Kern, former prisoner from France)
Since there was no water in the hut, which was meant to be the washroom, it was converted into a mortuary later. From there, the prisoners took the dead bodies to the mass graves. However, in the last days of the camp the deaths were no longer buried, but only stacked in the washroom, as there were just too many of them.
“They didn’t keep up to bury them all. They were stacked in the washrooms, which were located in the middle of the yard. The day the allies arrived, they found 300-400 corpses.” – (Paul Kern, former prisoner from France)
Those who did not starve to death and still managed to survive, were liberated by members of the 82 US-Airborne Division on May 1945. 200 of the dead victims were given a decent burial near the Ludwigslust castle as a symbol to the everlasting value and dignity of every human life.
The Death March
As the Soviet forces drew nearer, the SS began preparing to evacuate Sachsenhausen. Large groups of prisoners were transferred from subsidiary camps to the main camp, adding to the overcrowding. The camp SS systemically murdered thousands of them. On the eve of 21 April 1945, the first column of over 33,000 set off toward the Baltic Sea. The prisoners were forced to march 20-40km daily. Those who could not keep up were shot at the roadside by their SS guards. Many thousands of prisoners failed to survive what became known as the “death march”.
The satellite camps are cleared: The “Death March” of prisoners from the Lieberose satellite camp in Feb 1945
“On 2nd February, the day the camp was liquidated, we were marched off to Sachsenhausen. For the 5-day forced march about 1600 prisoners were each issued with a horse blanket, some tinned food and a piece of bread. It was snowing and the weather was cold and damp….. The SS guards beat us across the head with truncheons. Whenever they beat someone to death, we would bury them the next morning and strike their name from the list. The same thing happened with those who were too exhausted to march any further. They were executed with a shot to the head, put on a cart and buried during the night.” (Wojciech Cieslik, Poland)
35,000 prisoners are driven on the “Death March”, 21 Apr – 9 May 1945
“Even in our worst nightmares we could not have imagined the horror that awaited us. Soon, that first night, we heard shots not far from us, individual shots. We began having to step over the bodies of prisoners. We realised that anyone who couldn’t go on any further was being shot, right there on the spot. It went on like this for days, it really was a “death march“. Imagine, they didn’t pick up the bodies, we had to step over our dead comrades and walk on it was a horrific march….. it must have lasted 6 days.” (Mark Tilevitch, Russia)
Liberation on the “death march”, April / May 1945
“28 April – Rain and more rain. Prisoners crouch in their soaked clothes, half starved, around the fire. But around midday the whole Below Forest resounds with mighty yelling. A dozen or so International Red Cross trucks have drawn up, and are greeted with wild jubilation. It was salvation in the most desperate moment, but for many it came too late.”
“1 May – Suddenly about 4km east of Schwerin, on a dead straight road, we caught sight of the first American tank. The SS bulied us off the road…shots rang out over our heads… only moments before our long awaited liberation there were more dead and wounded. Then our tormentors disappeared…” (Aloyse Ehleringer, Luxembourg)
The main camp: the first days after liberation, April / May 1945
“They look frightful. Deathly pale, anaemic, with transparent faces, nothing but skin and bones….. People covered with ulcers and wounds…. cried for joy at the sight of our soldiers.” (2nd Warsaw Infantry Division, 23 Apr 1945)
A Soviet commission investigates crimes in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, May 1945
“… and there i saw this horrible misery. I saw the barracks, saw the people starved into skeletons – almost naked. That was in May….. Then we were led on. I saw the piles of hair, the piles of spectacles and shoes, and i was so devastated, that i thought – and still think today – what an unbelievable crime happened there….” (Helga Heinrich, Oranienburg)
On the way home, early summer 1945
“By the end of June the Russians had started sending small groups of prisoners, who were healthy again, to Berlin where they would be repatriated. …. We soon heard about a British transit camp in Grunewald and we made our way there on 17 or 18 July. This camp was just as full, but there were still places to sleep. We met up there with many people from Sachsenhausen. On 19 July we were loaded in a truck belonging to the British forces and off we went, in the direction of the Netherlands, where we crossed the border that evening at Enschede. We were home.” (Arnold Blitz, Netherlands)
Free at last!
“And so i was free, so spontaneously, i was suddenly free…. I still thought like a prisoner, though. It is impossible to grasp that you are suddenly free. After 6 years as a prisoner. You just don’t know what to do with your freedom.” (Zvi Steinitz, Israel)
More about Holocaust in : Holocaust & the Horrors of Concentration Camps – PART 1