I wrote this blog post yesterday, after going to Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, at the site of the original concentration camp. These are my initial thoughts, immediate reactions, and do not necessarily encapsulate everything that I learned yesterday. I highly recommend you visit the camp for yourself and form your own views. I thank you in advance for reading this blog, as it’s not for the faint of heart or stomach.
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Today, I went to a concentration camp, and was brought to tears, that I tried to hide. I didn’t expect that.
As part of my 3-day stint in Berlin, I decided I wanted to visit Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp just outside Berlin, about 35 kilometers. The first German concentration camp, as my tour guide informed me today, was actually in Dachau, outside Munich. I only recently found out my grandfather was a defector from the Russian army and wound up at Dachau as a political prisoner during the late 30’s or early 40’s. I don’t know much about my father’s side of the family, and everyone seems to have their own truths, which change frequently. This made the concept of one of my relatives having been at one of these places all the more real to me.
When we arrived in Berlin yesterday, after a very smooth and brief flight from Oslo, we immediately went for a 4pm walking tour, which kicked off at the Starbucks by Brandenburg Gate. We saw the Gate in all its glory, the Hotel Adlon (famous as the place where Michael Jackson dangled his baby), the double bricks in the road signifying where the Berlin Wall ran, the place that is now a kindergarten playground but held 8 meters below it the barracks where Hitler hid and ultimately shot and killed himself. We saw the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, Humboldt University, and the square where the infamous book burning was.
Here is a photo of the memorial in the square where the books were burnt. If you look down, it appears as if you are looking into a mirror, with the sky and your own silhouette looking back up at you. But if you look through this, you will see many rows of empty bookshelves. There is a great quote (in German) just across the square from this memorial, from Heinrich Heine years before the book burning that was almost prophetic. “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
At the conclusion of the walking tour yesterday, we bought tickets to visit Sachsenhausen, which we chose to use today, through the same tour company. We had the same meeting point this morning, the Starbucks by Brandenburg Gate, and many people were turned away because only two guides were available to give the tour.
I ended up with an alternative fellow named Mark as the guide – he wore a blazer reminiscent of the 1980’s, rolled up to his elbows, and a button down white shirt with all buttons buttoned. He had a British accent, being from the UK, and a metrosexual haircut. He wore one red sock and one blue sock with what appeared to be unbranded Doc Martens. Mark was a history teacher at a secondary school before leaving London to specifically become a tour guide in Berlin 4 years ago, so he was very knowledgeable about the topics that we discussed. Perfect example of the alternative style I come to expect of Berlin, and provided many stories and the rich context needed for the tour.
We immediately headed to the train station at Brandenburg Gate, after much urging from the two tour guides to bring food. While waiting for it to begin, I grabbed Hank Moody and I some sandwiches at Starbucks, a fruit cup and a lovely mozzarella and tomato focaccia which they even heated for me, but alas, I had to wait to enjoy it.
The militant pace the tour guides kept proved to be a major challenge for me all day, and would have been a challenge for anyone. It didn’t help that prior to the tour, I discovered NIVEA Haus and bought a ton of skin care products, hand crème, deodorant, and shower gel for dirt-cheap. So beyond having to bring an impromptu pack lunch, I also had some heavier products in my bag, as well as a full Nalgene bottle of water and my trusty steed, my DSLR camera.
We rode the train to the very last stop, and then had a “15 minute walk” (translation: 30 minute walk crammed into a 15 minute military light jog) to the compound. Immediately, I was confronted with walls and layouts, and the German efficiency I would expect, but not necessarily from a concentration camp.
The main area we were to visit was in the shape of a triangle – originally this concentration camp was meant to be the example of how all other camps would be modeled. With the triangle shape, the watch tower was bisecting the base of the triangle, and all barracks fanned out in concentric circles from the watch tower (forming a sort of rainbow over the base tower), to allow for maximum visibility. It had to; there were originally 290 SS officers for thousands of prisoners. At one point, the camp was so full, the 3 level bunk beds held 3 people each, and that bed was narrower and shorter than a twin sized mattress. Unreal.
With each story Mark imparted, the feeling of sickness, of shock, of dread, of sadness built, like bricks in a wall, until it culminated in the two stories, which absolutely did it for me and brought me to tears.
The first was of the work details available for people in the camps. You see, there were death camps, and there were concentration camps. Sachsenhausen was where political prisoners, then ultimately Jehovah’s witnesses, Jews, criminals, communists, homosexuals, and others were brought to work before possibly dying from exhaustion or disease, or being sent on to death camps, like Auschwitz.
Some people were made to build bricks and then haul them, and those bricks were ultimately going to be used to build Germania, a reformed Berlin once Hitler led the Germans to a successful outcome in the war. To me, Germania symbolizes the new, pure Aryan race, which weeded out those marginalized groups listed above. Germania, as a gleaming, thriving capital of Germany never came to be, so I can’t tell you what happened to bricks made for this purpose but that perhaps it was in vain.
But the work detail that did it for me was what many homosexuals were sentenced to do: boot testers. There is a strip within the concentric circles of various types of rocks – tiny loose gravel, large volcanic rocks, and the like. Boot testers were given boots, guaranteed to be the wrong size, then were given 20-kilogram packs (which is like a 40-pound pack for all of you on the Imperial system rather than the metric system). Those boot testers then were forced to run laps over those various kinds of terrain for 12-15 hours per day. The German army did not have the money or resources to provide leather and rubber boots to its soldiers, so it was trying to develop alternative low-cost alternatives for boots to give its soldiers.
Homosexuals were often given this work duty because homosexuals were believed to not be contributing to the nuclear family and populating missives of the Nazi regime. They challenged gender and sexual orientation stereotypes, and it was believed at that time they could be cured, reformed, and otherwise “fixed”. So they were run into the ground quite literally as boot testers. The life expectancy of someone sentenced to boot testing work duty? 6 days.
Sweet baby Jesus and the seven dwarves. The tears came and I couldn’t stop them. After he shared this story, I walked the concentric circle, across the loose gravel and large pieces of volcanic rock in my already aching feet, my empty stomach wanting that tomato and mozzarella focaccia in my 10-kilogram backpack, and couldn’t help it. All that coursed through my head were Sue Sylvester quotes from GLEE along the lines of “You think that’s hard? Try being blanked by thirteen blanks! That’s hard!”
We also saw Station Z, a part of the camp created to handle the mass murders of prisoners at the camp. There is an area outside the station, where prisoners would know what was coming, be put up against a wall, and then be shot from meters away. Often they would scream, wiggle, run, and bullets were wasted in trying to end them.
The Nazis manufactured a more efficient way to handle the mass killings which became Station Z on the camp. It started out with a prisoner being led to a building, through a small hallway (in my picture below, the area marked 3), into a main room (room 4), under the premise they were going to be checked out by a “doctor.” Classical music even played in the main room to keep them calm and not set off any alarms as to their impending doom. The doctor would shuffle them to a room off to the left (room 2) if the person had nothing in their mouth upon inspection that would prove valuable like gold teeth or fillings. That room to the left looked like showers, but through the showerheads, gas would fill the chamber that could hold up to 35 people and they’d be gassed. However, that left bodies too far from the oven room, and those still had to be moved.
If the “doctor” noticed something of value in the mouth, they’d mark the prisoner with a blue X on their chest, and that prisoner would be shuffled off to another room (room 7). The “doctor” would them escort them to room 13, have them stand upright against a wall, under the guise of having their height measured. The wall held a narrow wooden ruler with a space between the ruler that allowed the top flap to move up and down, which measured their height. Unbeknownst to the prisoner, this was the way the Germans would then have the prisoner shot, in the back of the head/neck, as that gap in the ruler was a tiny opening to room 14, a secret room behind room 13. Once the person was aligned and upright, the guard in secret room 14 would take 1 shot, wasting no bullets, and getting the job done, without any panic from the prisoner. The room in which this happened was just next door to the main oven room (room 17) where the prisoners would have their valuable fillings and teeth extracted, by other prisoners, and then shoved into the ovens in room 18. Eventually, the prisoners caught on to what was happening in Station Z, and they used to say they could tell what type of prisoners were executed by the type of smoke emitted from the ovens. Black smoke meant there was fat on the body being burned, but white smoke indicated it was mostly just bone being burnt.
The other big takeaway for me was at the end of the tour, when Mark asked if we’d noticed how women were not mentioned at all on today’s tour. Being one, of course I noticed. He went on to explain the concept of the “Joy Division” – women brought over to Sachsenhausen from a nearby female-only concentration camp for the sole purpose of making the men on work duty at this one more “motivated.” The women were basically forced into rape. I would expect something like the SS guards taking advantage of them, but when I heard that other male prisoners were given vouchers to make them better workers with conjugal visits from these women, I nearly lost my shit. When someone is in conditions like that, how can sex be on anyone’s mind? When you are depressed, you’re being given 900 calories a day on which to function for 12-15 hours of hard labor, how could one possibly need the company of an unwilling woman???
Mark pointed out the people of Germany do a good job of owning what happened here in the past, in allocating government money to the preservation of camps like this one so that we learn from the past, so as not to repeat it. The Holocaust Memorial is in the middle of Berlin, within sight of the Parliament building. It is against the law to deny the holocaust, and they embrace and put on display for all to see the darkest part of their past. If there is a race of people who know how to embrace their dark sides, the Germans are it.
But fuuuuuuuuuuck. That is all I can say after today. And, my feet hurt.
But more importantly, fuuuuuuuuuuck.