Berlin Final Part: Visiting Sachsenhausen Memorial, Former Concentration Camp

Well, I decided to write a full post on what it was like for me to visit the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, described as the “nerve center of the Nazi conentration camp system”. This is written from a personal standpoint, and this post will be less about facts and the horrible acts that happened here, but more about what it was like from my individual reaction. I think it’s only right for me to write this from an emotionally triggered perspective, which is what I experienced, and to reveal some vulnerabilities of my own, given that each person here was stripped of their humanity and their belittlement and torture is now our public history.  Also because I don’t think any sane person could visit a former concentration camp, or any memorial where such horrendous things happened, without having some sort of emotional response. I’ll begin with some personal history about yours truly. If you’re more interested in pictures and less about my feelings (sniff sniff..kidding),  or if you’re already uncomfortable, feel free to scroll or exit this post entirely. Just please don’t say I didn’t warn you. This isn’t suppose to be a walk in the park. Let’s begin:

When I was younger, I started having frequent nightmares. Maybe you’ve had them too: the kind where you’re being chased but you can’t run or scream, or where you’re being chased and you can’t hide fast enough, knowing that whoever is chasing you is most definitely going to hurt you. I had the occasional falling dream, which was kind of fun in retrospect..and a lot of dreams of raptors and T-Rex’s chasing me that I still actually have to this day, although now I’m experienced enough in Dino-dreams that I’m usually aware I’m dreaming now (thanks, brain!)! These are most definitely thanks to my parents’ great idea to take me to see this movie at a drive-in theater (hello life size giant monsters) when I was around 5 and Jurassic Park was all the rage…now you know how old I am. I’ll also tell you that that movie is one of my all-time favorites…now. Let’s get even more personal.

I’m not really sure when all these started, exactly. But, towards the end of high school and into college, these nightmares starting maturing and became full of graphic violence. I used to have specific but random nightmares of genocide. Sleep became very not fun for me, as you can imagine. The most horrible ones would involve family members, specifically my mother and my younger brother, and in my dream I would be unharmed, helpless, and forced to watch it all. They got so vivid and frequent my freshman year that I had a very hard time sleeping, and would stay up painting or writing until the light came through my dorm window. This first year of college, full of new and liberating experiences, was also defined with some emotional instability and a lot of little sleep, most definitely related to each other.

One night when I was home from school, my dad had an old friend over who specialized in a particular area of alternative medicine, the name of which is escaping me at this moment. I took a chance and told him about my sleepless nights and nightmares. I explained to him that I didn’t know where they came from, and that I don’t have these thoughts when I’m awake, but as soon as I’m drifting to sleep these images play like a movie and sometimes I’m lucky to snap myself awake. He walked me through this technique in which I had to relax and repeat positive and negative phrases involving these nightmares, and he focused his hand in a movement along my head where my the dreaming/visual part of my brain is located within my skull. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but from that night forward, my nightmares became almost nonexistent. When I do have them, they are softer, less graphic (no blood, specifically), and I wake up before any real harm was done. Only recently have certain pieces of them started to come back, and occasionally I will still wake up shaking. Whatever your beliefs on these types of approaches are that I’ve described here fall on deaf ears here; the mind is a very powerful thing.

Now that you know some somewhat vulnerable history about me, let’s snap back to the present and why I thought to share this to begin with: when I walked through the gates of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and Memorial, it kind of dawned on me the parallels between my specific nightmares and when I had first learned about this time in history in elementary school. I realized that I had probably found the root of where this theme of nightmares originated.

In 6th grade, I remember being extremely disturbed by what I was exposed to, and without much warning really, from my teachers. They may have told us in advance a little of what to expect, and maybe even had our parents sign permission slips.. but I don’t remember and I don’t think I could have been realistically prepared anyway at that age.

I also don’t remember having much debriefing, which I realize may have made a huge difference in how I internalized and processed these terrible images and real-life nightmares. I remember watching documentaries and feeling like I couldn’t look away from the screen even though I felt sick, and reading books by survivors of the Holocaust, with tests and quizzes that filled me with a cold and nauseous feeling.

In 7th  or 8th grade, we were assigned WWII veterans as penpals, and through our letters we learned about first hand experiences from American soldiers still living to tell their tale. My step-grandfather agreed to be mine, and I remember my excitement as it turned to horror when I received and read his letter for the first time: he was on the front lines and liberated a concentration camp, having no idea what he was walking into. He described the smell of still burning bodies, the stacks of them like firewood. I was told much later that I was the only person to whom he relayed this living nightmare. Writing is a very powerful thing.

I’ve always been very sensitive to imagery and very sensitive to the pain and emotions of others, although as a small child I had trouble understanding my own. In my adult life, I have had an acutely challenging time not physically feeling the traumatic stories that my clients in my social work profession would share with me in confidence, especially in the beginning of my work experiences. Because of this, I make an effort to proactively understand my feelings and how I respond to situations.

I am a full believer that our bodies internalize stress and trauma and create body memory, and that these experiences can exacerbate themselves in physical symptoms. Because of this, I am passionate about the benefits of trauma-focused therapies that focus on the relationship between the mind and body.. and if I continue with social work, I will most certainly gear my focus toward using the creative arts and holistic approaches (writing, poetry, dance, painting, photography, the outdoors, yoga, nutrition! etc etc etc) when working with clients with traumatic histories. You cannot treat the mind without the body, vice versa.  But that’s a subject for another day. *Cue the music that helps me decide my next life steps!*

To repost what I stated in my last post, which gave a brief overview of Sachsenhausen, getting a tour of this place and being surrounded by one of the actual places that all of this took place was pretty moving, to put it lightly, and shocking all over again the more indepth the tour became.

About the camp itself: Sachsenhausen was a kind of “blue print” for other concentration camps. It was also not a death camp, but a working camp. Eventually the Nazis started setting up extermination camps, whereas this was an early camp, set up to utilize slave labor to support the war efforts. However, don’t be fooled, a lot of killing and brutality happened here. If you want to learn more about the labor, just look it up.

German companies started to demand free labor, and American companies began to benefit also from this as they received these slave-labor goods (interesting stuff about IBM, for example) during the war. Everyone was pretty much in bed with the Nazi’s and didn’t seem to ask too many questions.. which isn’t much different than a lot of stuff going on today, I’m sure. An example of this..In this article, you can read about how the German company Degussa donated its originally contracted grafitti-proof paint to cover the 2,700 pillars of the memorial in Berlin for Jewish victims. This free paint gift happened after it was discovered that this company supplied the poison to concentration camps that was used in the gas chambers to kill the victims the memorial was now honoring. To remind you, this is the memorial:

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Visiting a place like this and realizing how human psychology was used in such a sadistic way brings forth a lot of feelings, one of which is a profound understanding of why so few guards could control so many prisoners. Additionally, it is both infuriating and yet understood how little the townspeople right outside the camp’s walls interfered or batted an eye, even though prisoners were marched through this town every day. Worse, I realized and understood that if I had been in a prisoner or townsperson’s position, I may not have thought to act any differently, although I am fairly confident I would not have gone out of my way to act violently towards any human being.. but who the fuck can say. (Lets be humble and assume we would have no idea how much we would change if we were to find ourselves in a situation like this without a situation like this to first learn from and vow to never repeat..you get me?) By this time, the Nazis had done such a good job of creating power and class differences and pumping the public with propaganda against the people they were taking prisoner, and had been consistent with their harsh punishments and fear-driven tactics. It wasn’t unheard of for prisoners to be blind by the time they reached the prison gates, thanks to the stones thrown by the townspeople who were told lies about who these prisoners actually were.

The guards, although outnumbered, would select people at random from the roll call to beat or kill, for no reason whatsoever, instilling a deathly fear into the prisoners to not stand out. It’s easy to imagine why everyone stayed obedient when at any moment they could be selected for no logical reason. The guards also chose prisoners who were Jehovah Witness to be the servants within their mess halls, serving food complete with knives and other cookware. They took full advantage of this group’s commitment to pacifism as a foundation of their religion, and knew the likelihood of their revolting was slim. Combine that with the way your thinking patterns don’t work when you’re malnourished and complete starved, and it’s easy again to see how possible and grotesquely brilliant it was for the guards to maintain absolute power.

During this visit, you’ll walk through the gate and be introduced to the original and especially cruel “Work Will Set You Free” saying that is there in ominous iron letters. Like I mentioned in that past post, the person who’s idea this was went on to be a head honcho at Auschwitz, and he took this slogan with him there. He was promoted after he forced prisoners at Sachsenhausen to stand in a roll call on a freezing January day for over 24 hours, the longest roll call in history. Reminder: no one was wearing appropriate clothing whatsoever for this weather, they were starved and dehydrated, and living in the conditions designed for suffering. The photo on the right shows the open space where this roll call and every other one took place.

At a certain point, the Nazis knew they were going to lose this war, and they needed to get rid of as much evidence as possible of what kind of operation they were running. They also knew to a certain extent the lasting trauma that killing lots of people would have on one guard, so they invented ways to wipe out lots of people without the guards having really think too much about what they were doing, and without the prisoners being aware of what was going on, which would cause panic. In steps the gas chambers and other methods of mass killings. The memorial next to the gas chambers and where other organized killing took place:
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The ashes of many victims are buried on the grounds, and these stone-topped memorials mark their approximate location. These stones as well as the ones you see above at the memorial have been placed there by Jewish visitors, a customary practice to honor the dead.

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More stones to mark remembrance and respect in mourning, and in various places:

Here you can get a glimpse of the inside of the original barracks, with living conditions once again pretty unimaginable, and I don’t feel like specifying further. This top photo is not one you can go inside. During this time, a prisoner would be given special privileges and had the job of reporting his fellow prisoners if any stirring of revolt was heard in the ranks:

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Photos of the guard towers and the “neutral zone” with barbed wire. If a prisoner stepped onto this area, he would be shot. There is a story about one man where threw his hat into the neutral zone and told him to pick it up. He knew he would be shot if he stepped foot there, but he would be beaten to death if he disobeyed the guard. He chose to be shot. Additionally, if a prisoner was able to make it through the neutral zone, climb the wall, get past the barbed wire, the guards lived right outside these walls, and beyond this was the town, which was full of people who knew what was going on in a sense, and knew the punishments for helping a runaway in prison clothes. Escape was impossible.


A photo of part of the track that runs in a half circle in the middle of the big open space of the camp. This was used for prisoners to test out new boots for the military. They would have to run across these rocks and other textured terrain for hours, wearing fully loaded backpacks and gear, to see which boots lasted. Once again, starved, dehydrated, etc. These prisoners would literally run marathons in a day, and be beaten or shot if they fell. This job was the most physically demanding and was reserved for “homosexuals”, who were treated only slightly better than Jewish prisoners.

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These barracks were the facility for medical experimentation, and now house artifacts, salvaged records, and personal accounts. Prisoners without any medical training whatsoever would be assigned to taking care of the sick and injured and perform medical procedures. Patients who fell sick were kept alive for experimentation, oftentimes. Some experiments included documenting prisoners’ physical and mental characteristics to show how much of a certain race they were, to prove that a certain race was distinguishable in these ways. Included among these artifacts were paintings and drawings from a famous prisoner whose life was spared in order to paint for the guards.

These rocks mark where one of the barracks once stood. These photographs of men were used as propaganda to tell the public that these faces were of subhuman races and to learn to distinguish them. These in particular were Soviet prisoners of war, and were posted in Berlin as well to show the public that they were subhuman:

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Lastly, it must be mentioned that this was a men’s prison. I learned that to “boost morale”, guards actually brought in female prisoners from other camps and created brothels for the guards and prisoners’ use. A special kind of hell right there.

There are other areas, including certain areas of the camp used for punishment, with the original and barbaric structures still in place. I think the photos I’ve already shared are plenty informative for my purpose.
One very interesting and positive thing about this memorial, other than it being a very well-preserved and respectable memorial, is seeing German police officers around the grounds.
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Police officers actually complete their training within the same building and within the same rooms that former guards of this concentration camp completed theirs. This is done purposefully, and is yet again another example of how Germany confronts its horrendous past and makes an effort to remind its citizens the unspeakable violent possibilities of power and corruption. We were told by our tour guide that the officers live on site as well, sleeping in the same rooms that these guards also slept. Here’s a photo of one of these buildings, right outside the prison walls:
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Parting comments:

I recommend going on this tour with Sandeman’s New Europe Tours. For this specific tour, as well as others including the free walking tour of Berlin, click here (Sachsenhausen Memorial) . Our tour guide was knowledgeable, respectful, and receptive to questions and all of that. I don’t think it would be very easy to be a tour guide to a place like this, deliver information on this subject daily, and additionally… take a group of tourists on 2 separate trains, hop a bus, or if the bus is unavailable, walk the mile through the town to the gates and arrive with everyone accounted for.

Although the tour itself is pretty rushed, I learned more than I would have if I would have walked through on my own, but that’s also indicative of my learning style. You have the option of staying behind, because it is recognized that it’s difficult to really cover everything in the time that the tour allows. It took our tour guide 2 days to go through the entire museum and all of the information, for example. We chose to stay behind and walk the grounds on our own to process it a little slower and to read the information we’d missed.

Lastly, to sum it up..it’s an important but heavy subject, and I’m glad I went, and I’m glad that I’ve been processing it. There’s so much to learn from it, to remind you to be awake, to be compassionate, and to question authority. It’s very, very relevant. I do think it’s important for this type of visit to be on your list of things to experience, if you have the time to experience it, and if it’s not going to trigger something super personal for you.

For example, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to visit this place if you know someone who lived through this period or..if you yourself are a survivor. To quote my previous post, “I thought about my “Uncle” Lou, who is Jewish and managed to flee his home country of Austria during the Nazi invasion. His story is recorded in a book on my parents’ shelf back at home with other survivors’. I thought about how someone I loved I may not have met if the timing had been different. My thoughts spiraled down a rabbit hole of all of the lives lost and the web of interconnected-ness just completely ripped apart. It became very personal and very real to me, and it was a lot. I think it’s important to experience, but it is horrific. I left with a headache and half of my heart.”

 

As always, thank you for reading, and for being understanding of the seriousness of this subject and post.

 

 

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