Yesterday I intended to go on the New Berlin free walking tour, which started at 11.
Map-less and a little lost, I arrived at 11:05 and could see that separate groups had formed with different tour guides, each with a New Berlin name tag on a red lanyard around his/her neck.
I inconspicuously joined the fringes of one of the groups.
“¿Ha estado cualquiera a Berlín antes?”* The tour guide asked.
Hmm . . . not the English tour.
I sidestepped one metre and joined the neighbouring group, where the guide was also speaking in Spanish.
I debated tagging along, and then decided the tour would be wasted on me if I couldn’t understand it. I turned to head back to Alexanderplatz and saw another tour group, and the guide was speaking in English with an American accent!
I sidled up to this group, where the guide was saying that our train left at 11:25, so we still had some time if anyone wanted to grab a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. I thought it was a little strange that a walking tour would start with a train ride, but didn’t want to alert anyone to the fact that I hadn’t been there since the beginning, so stayed silent.
We caught the train, and it took us 45minutes from Berlin to Oranienburg, where the remains of Sachsenhausen concentration camp rest. It wasn’t where I’d planned to go, but is definitely worth a visit.
Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and was the administrative centre of all camps in the area. About 200,000 prisoners passed through Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945, and 30,000 of them died here. From 1945-1950 the camp went under Soviet control.
Arbeit Macht Frei
We arrived at Oranienburg train station, the same station where the prisoners would have arrived, and took the same route that they would have taken to the camp. They entered Sachsenhausen at Registrationplatz, where officers would pick out some people and beat them in front of the group to set an example for the others. The prisoners were then stripped, and shaved. From then on, prisoners were identified by numbers painted or sewn into their uniforms, and later by coloured triangles. Jews wore yellow triangles (sometimes two – one upside-down and one upright to form the Star of David), political prisoners wore red, criminals wore green, Jehovah’s witnesses wore purple, foreign forced labourers wore blue, gypsies wore brown, homosexuals wore pink, and undesirables (prostitutes, drunks, drug-addicts, etc.) wore black.
We then entered Sachsenhausen through the main gate, bearing the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei – this roughly translates as work will set you free. The original structure of Sachsenhausen was a thousand-acre triangle where barracks fanned out from the space where roll-call was held, Apelplatz. At the base of the triangle is the main gate and watch tower. This layout meant that only three guards could monitor the entire camp from the watchtower, but more watch towers were added as the camp grew.
Every morning, prisoners had 30 minutes to dress, use the toilet, wash, collect and eat their rations and report for roll-call. Well, that doesn’t sound too difficult. Okay, try it in a barrack of 150 people, which housed up to 400 people when Sachsenhausen was over-capacity.
And if you didn’t get out in time, you would be killed. Often people were trampled to death in the rush to get through the morning ritual.
Then came roll-call, when prisoners were usually made to stand for two to three hours in all weather, and this was repeated in the evenings. Sometimes the roll-call would be extended to fifteen hours, so it wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to drop dead. As the area was barricaded by an electric wire, there were prisoners who would make a suicide run, knowing that if they didn’t make it to the wire, the guards would shoot them dead, and if they did, they could electrocute themselves. Consequently, guards were ordered to shoot the prisoners in the foot or the leg – somewhere that would stop them from running, but not kill them. They would then be tortured.
After roll-call, prisoners started their work details. These included working in the infirmary, in the officers’ mess, building weapons for WWII and boot testing. Boot testing was known as the ‘death detail’ – prisoners were given a pair of soldiers’ boots (size wasn’t important) and a backpack filled with sand, and were expected to run around a track for the entire day. The average life expectancy of someone assigned to this detail was fourteen days.
Sachsenhausen was also the site of the largest counterfeiting operation in history. In two isolation barracks, prisoners were instructed to forge British and American currency, which would them be fed into the allied economies to collapse them. Both currencies were perfected, but not enough were inserted into British circulation to topple the system, and none of the currency ever reached the US.
The tour ended with Station Z and the infirmary.
Remains of Station Z
Station Z was the extermination centre of Sachsenhausen. As Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp, but one designed for slave labour, this part was added later. The first part is a trench, where prisoners were lined up and shot. Later, prisoners were taken to a building they were told was the infirmary. First they entered a waiting room. One by one, they were then taken for a ‘check-up’, where one of the staff was only really checking whether they had gold teeth. Next they walked into a small room with double walls, where a classical record is playing. The prisoners would stand against a measuring stick that had a small, neck-level gap. On the other side of the gap was a secret room, where an SS officer would be waiting. The officer would shoot each prisoner who stood to be measured. This was designed as a clean and clinical way to eliminate prisoners. A gas chamber was also built, but at a later stage. Afterwards, the dead bodies were sorted, the gold teeth were plucked and the bodies were cremated.
Sometimes the SS would contact the families of the dead (usually in the case of POWs) and inform them that their relative had died. They would then offer to conduct a small ceremony and send back their ashes for a small fee. No ceremony was conducted, and the urn was just filled with handfuls of random ashes of the dead. The other thing the SS did with the ashes was sell them so they could be used in asphalt.
The infirmary was where medical experiments were conducted on prisoners, the most common being infecting people with hepatitis B or gangrene and studying the effects. If any children were sent to a concentration camp, this is what they were used for.
In 1956 Sachsenhausen was established as a national memorial. Most of the original buildings were removed and an obelisk was built, commemorating the communist prisoners, reflecting the outlook of the East German government. Now it’s a memorial to all of those who were imprisoned there.
Paintings done by a prisoner who had paints smuggled to him by a guard
* I don’t speak Spanish – this was Googled.