European DeSpair, Day Four, Part Two: Nineteen Thirty-Sick!

July 1, 2014

After we finished our tour of Berlin's 1936 Olympic Village, site of Hitler's greatest triumph, we drove for about an hour to the town of Orienienburg, site of one of Hitler's most infamous crimes, the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.  Ironically, Sachsenhausen was also founded in 1936, and was the first camp to be built after Heinrich Himmler took over as Chief of the German Police.  Its triangular design was conceived by SS architects as the perfect concentration camp layout and it was used as a model for subsequent camps. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen during its Nazi lifespan (from 1936-1945).  Unlike some of the other more famous concentration camps (such as Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz), Sachsenhausen began its life as primarily a camp for political prisoners rather than ethnic or social minorities (although eventually many thousands of "biologically inferior" individuals were imprisoned here as well).  Many people were also brought here from occupied European countries such as Poland.  Tens of thousands died here from disease, starvation, abuse, or extermination; thousands more died during the death march of April 1945, when sick and weakened prisoners were evacuated from the camp. After the war, this part of Germany became Soviet terrain, and as with other Nazi War Machine structures (such as the 1936 Olympic Village which went from being a Nazi military hospital to a Soviet military hospital), it was conveniently turned into a Soviet Concentration Camp ("Soviet Special Camp #7").  From 1945-1950, approximately 60,000 people, including Nazi functionaries, political prisoners and other "undesirables," were imprisoned by the Soviets here, and about 12,000 died of malnutrition and disease. I didn't know much (okay, anything) about Sachsenhausen before arriving here at around 2 p.m. and I had naively assumed we'd have plenty of time to tour the camp. I also didn't know if my friends would be that interested in it (not being Morbid Sightseers), so I didn't want to subject them to a long day at the camp.  As it turned out, they were every bit as fascinated as I was, and we all left feeling sad that we didn't allocate more time for the trip because three hours wasn't nearly long enough. The stench of disease, filth, and death are long gone now, but those entrusted in the preservation of the camp and the memories of its victims have done a great job over the years at renovating it to approximate its original Nazi-era appearance, with some original structures and some replicas.  The camp is very large, requires a great deal of walking (and I had terrible blisters on my feet so that wasn't very fun), and has so many exhibits of memorabilia accompanied by first person accounts that it would take you a full day (maybe even longer) to appropriately see and read everything.  In addition, they supply you with a headset to hear first-person accounts of the horrors of life and death in the camp.  I started out listening to all of the accounts but realized I would never have time to get through the entire camp that way, and put the headset down at a certain point.  However, when I go back (and yes, I will return someday), I will be sure to allocate an entire day so I can have a more thorough experience. Nevertheless, even my short visit was absolutely compelling, and I left feeling numb and emotionally drained... if a little disappointed that we returned after the gift shop was already closed.  (Yes, yes, I will return!) Here, then, is a photo tour of Sachsenhausen through my eyes.

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