Saturday, May 10, 2014

Entering the Gates of Hell

We’ve been back from Germany for a few weeks now. It has taken me this long to be prepared to reflect on our visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, now a museum and memorial, located 35 kilometres outside of Berlin. We felt it was important to bear witness to the persecution, imprisonment, torture, and murder of Jews, Romani people, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and other groups, under the Nazi regime. “Recent estimates, based on figures obtained since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, indicate some ten to eleven million civilians and prisoners of war were intentionally murdered by the Nazi regime” (Source: 

We took the train to Oranienburg and walked for about 20 minutes to the gates of Sachsenhausen.  “Sachsenhausen ("Saxon's Houses", German pronunciation: [zaksənˈhaʊzən]) or Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg was a Nazi concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany, used primarily for political prisoners from 1936 to the end of the Third Reich in May 1945. After World War II, when Oranienburg was in the Soviet Occupation Zone, the structure was used as an NKVD special camp until 1950” (source: 1936 and 1945 over 200,000 people were imprisoned in Sachsenhausen.

As we entered the gates we saw the expansive grounds and several buildings. There were barracks, a mortuary, crematory, guard towers and assorted buildings. Some were original buildings and some re-built, all housing written and visual histories of the camp and its’ prisoners. There were stories told of unimaginable terror, abuse, murder and stories of resilience and survival. The stories, photos and artifacts were overwhelming. There were stories of medical experimentation, castration of gay men, starvation, torture and murder. One artifact was the gallows where many lost their lives by hanging. The inscription read “There is nothing that injures humans feelings so deeply as being forced to watch a fellow human being executed” - Heinrich Lienau, a German political prisoner, in Sachsenhausen,1939-1945. 

I recall a story of remarkable bravery, in which a prisoner working in the woodworking shop,  falsified records so he could order in additional linseed oil which was used to oil the wood. He ordered more so that he could feed the linseed oil to other starving prisoners. Another story was of Frieda B. who snuck bread to some of the 200-300 prisoners who marched through town on their way to forced labor making aircraft parts at the Heinkel Factory in Germendorf.

In one area we came upon a large pit and my stomach immediately knotted up and my eyes brimmed with tears, which gave way to uncontrollable sobbing. The pit was used to execute groups of prisoners by shooting. Another building housed barracks, a latrine and small closet like room. As I read the inscriptions I learned that the closet was stuffed with prisoners to the point of death by suffocation and that people were drowned in the latrines on the whims of the guards. I was overcome by the feelings, the smells and the claustrophobic space and had to leave in tears. As I write this I am crying again thinking about the heaviness of this place.

Public remembrance of WWII and The Holocaust, is evident throughout Berlin in museums, monuments, and memorials. In addition to the Sachsenhausen memorial and museum, we also spent time bearing witness and learning more about this history at the Topography of Terror, and The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.”

By Martin Niemöller, a German, Anti-Nazi, Luthern Pastor, and prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 

1 comment:

Mandy said...

Thank you for sharing this.