When visiting Germany, deciding whether or not to visit a concentration camp is an emotional decision. We didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves or the kids, but felt is was a very important part of history that should not be ignored. I just really did not want to spend the entire tour with tears running down my face. It’s hard to avoid with such an emotional subject.
We decided to visit Sachsenhausen. It is the closest to Berlin and perhaps the most gentle in its presentation – if that’s actually possible.
We set off on the train and headed about an hour east of Berlin. The trees were dense and beautifully green along side the tracks. The houses we could see were cute and well taken care of. We were travelling deeper into the former East Germany. The very last stop on the train line was ours in a little village called Oranienburg. It was cute and quaint and from what we learned the residents did not really know what was happening in their midst.
Sachesnhausen camp was built in 1936 as a prototype. It was carefully designed for ultimate security and psychological stress of the prisoners. The camp was surrounded on one side by many miles of open forest and on the others by the housing built especially for the SS guards and their families. There were multiple layers of walls, electric fences and barbed wire. As we now know prisoners were starved and worked to death so their ability to escape or even think about anything other than staying alive was limited. The camp was built to house only men and imprisoned more than 200,000 people from 1936-1945. It was a labor camp but did have extermination facilities and a crematorium. Initially it held political prisoners and overflow population from Berlin prisons. When Hitler started his campaign against the Jews the camp was expanded to house an additional 6000 Jewish men.
Our tour guide was a young woman from London who had relocated to Berlin two years ago. She told us if we needed to step away from the group, take a break or avoid certain areas of the camp we could do so. She acknowledged that it was a difficult tour and understood that everyone is affected in a different way.
After WWII the camp was used by the Soviets to house political prisoners for five years. Then is was just ignored and most of the buildings fell to waste. Today the footprint of original buildings is outlined on the ground and a few have been rebuilt as examples. The most solemn spot was the location of the crematorium. Although the building was 90% gone, the brick bases of the ovens were still present as well as the original steel doors swinging on their hinges.
It was a long and exhausting day. We did take a few pictures, but not many. It certainly did not feel like a place we wanted to vividly remember, yet it is a place we can not forget.