Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, all names permanently engraved in history... but for most people "Sachsenhausen" draws a blank. These days, the Houses of the Saxons is a sleepy suburb of Oranienburg, about one hour north of Berlin. But during World War II, the village was home to Konzentrationlager Sachsenhausen, one of the few vernichtungslager -- annihilation camps -- located on German soil.

Getting There

An uncomfortable reminder of a past that most Germans would prefer to forget about, I couldn't find a single guidebook that even noted the existence of the camp, and Berlin City Info certainly didn't know anything. I had originally been alerted to its existence by one of Philip Greenspun's excellent travel diaries, and after locating KZ-Sachsenhausen on a map of all Nazi concentration camps I could begin to track my way to the site.

Lying at the edge of tariff zone C, Oranienburg is the terminus of the S-Bahn line S1, and regional trains RE5 and RB12 also pass on their way along the Nordbahn. The nearest station to the camp is, unsurprisingly, Sachsenhausen (Nordb.), but the only train that stops there is the hourly RB12. If you do get there, to get to the camp, take a right from the station platform and turn right again onto the footpath, following backward alongside the tracks. After about a kilometer you will reach a road called Straße der Nationen, marked with a death march memorial; turn left here and walk for a few hundred meters to the camp.

The other (slightly longer) way is to walk directly from Oranienburg station. Take the left exit, turn right and follow the scattered Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen (memorial site) signs to the camp. To get from KZ Sachsenhausen to Oranienburg, you can walk back on Straße der Nationen, cross the street and keep going until you reach the tracks, then turn left and follow them until Oranienburg station.

Despite the lack of advertising, the camp itself is quite nicely presented with a number of excellent exhibits, especially the newer post-DDR sections. Some of the older exhibits, however, are only in German (and occasionally Russian!). Nearly all the buildings on the site are authentic-looking reconstructions, many old building sites are only marked by stones. The iron gate, emblazoned with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei slogan, still stands. Entrance is free, and pamphlets in a number of languages explaining most aspects of the site can be picked up for 50 pfennigs (about $0.25) at the bookshop.


The construction of KZ-Sachsenhausen started in 1936 and it was officially taken into use in 1938. Originally built with the barracks arranged in a half-circle around the central tower, several expansions had to be hastily built to accommodate the swelling population. Many inmates were forced to do slave labor at the nearby Klinkerwerk brickworks, and there were also profitable side lines of money counterfeiting and ammunition manufacturing. While originally primarily a detention and transit camp, SS policy being to perform mass executions out of view in the East, in 1942 a small gas chamber and crematorium were added to facilitate killing small groups. Overall, over 100,000 people were killed in KZ-Sachsenhausen, mostly through hunger, disease and torture.

As the Red Army approached in 1945, the prisoners were marched off towards the North Sea in a death march that claimed over 6000 lives. After the camp's capture (and inclusion in the DDR), the Soviets immediately turned the tables and interned suspected Nazi functionaries in what now became Special Camp No. 7, killing another 12000 before the camp was closed in 1950.

Neglected for several decades afterward, in the 1960s the camp was refitted by the Communists and opened as a museum commemorating Anti-Fascistic Struggle, entirely neglecting all non-Communist victims. Israel protested sufficiently loudly that a Jewish Museum was soon opened on the grounds. After the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet-era camp was rediscovered, documented and added to the exhibits. Israel's prime minister Yitchak Rabin visited in 1992; several weeks afterward the Jewish Barracks were hit in an arson attack by neo-Nazis. At time of writing, construction of a new building devoted to the Soviet camp as well as the reconstruction of the gas chamber complex and the Klinkerwerk satellite camp (about 2 km NE of Sachsenhausen) is under way.


The inmates of KZ-Sachsenhausen were a varied group. While a number of Jews were interned, mostly before 1942, the bulk of the population was political prisoners of various kinds, especially actual or suspected Communists, many rounded up in mass actions with little if any evidence against them. Other groups included "asocials" (artists, playwrights, etc), foreign nationals, homosexuals and Roma (Gypsies). In accordance with standard KZ practice, all inmates -- including children -- were tattooed with their ID numbers.


Camp inmates were detained in barracks. Unheated in the winter, stifling in the summer, inmates were squeezed 3 together into a single 70-cm bed and permitted several minutes per day for washing (two cold fountains per 400 prisoners) and using the toilets. Regulations for camp life were detailed and the tiniest violations brutally punished: SS guards were known to suffocate prisoners to death by inserting their heads into the foot washbasins or toilets. Another favourite punishment was locking large groups of prisoners into the broom closets in the summer, usually resulting in several deaths from heat exhaustion.


As if merely being in a concentration camp weren't enough, for difficult cases the camp included a special prison barracks with isolation cells and interrogation (read: torture) facitilies. It was not unusual for prisoners to spend months alone and blind shackled in tiny cells. One of the prison's inmates was pastor Martin Niemöller, the man behind the famous remark about not saying anything while they took away his neighbors and nobody being left to say something when they came for him. (Niemöller was later transferred to Dachau, where he died.)

Prison regulations extensively detailed permissible methods of torture; quite a few of the exhibit texts seem to be more annoyed by the fact that the guards occasionally exceeded the rules than by the fact that they were using torture in the first place. Official favorites included suspension from poles (resulting in bone dislocation and a slow, painful death), beating with iron truncheons and whipping (not allowed on bare buttocks until the regulations were amended in 1942).


The other special barracks was the infirmary for the dead and dying. Medical experiments, including vivisection (dissection of live victims), were carried out in the operating room. Downstairs were facilities for storing corpses.

Station Z

In 1942, the additional section known only as Station Z was constructed. Designed for murdering people clinically and quickly, Station Z consisted of a gas chamber, a firing range and a crematorium. While small in comparison with the death factories of places like Auschwitz, on several occasions up to 5000 people in several days were executed here.

At time of writing, only the ruins of Station Z are left, and since the ground underneath them is subsiding the area is roped off. A reconstruction of the area is in the works.

Mass Graves

The exact number of the Nazis' victims will never be known, as the bodies were cremated and, on the approach of the Red Army, some 8 or 9 tons of human ashes were dumped into a nearby canal. The victims of the death march, immediately before the liberation of the camp, are better commemorated with memorial stones set up along the route. The Soviets were less careful and left several mass graves in the vicinity of the camp, which have been duly (and perhaps even slightly disporportionately) marked.


Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen,
A pack of the museum's brochures
A day spent walking around and photographing the place

I was visiting Berlin on a five-day school trip. On perhaps our third day there, we took a coach out to Sachsenhausen. The others were loud, but they soon quietened down once we'd driven into the car-park and it hit us, really slapped us in the face, exactly where we were.

We split up into groups. I don't remember who I was with; I suspect I spent most of it alone. I certainly remember wandering around the concentration camp in a sort of sick trance. It was the sunlight that got to me the most. It didn't seem right. It was October, and the light was that sort of honey-soakedglaze that one often sees in Europe in the autumn. I couldn't tell you, now, any of the facts I learnt while I was there; I couldn't describe any of the photos of exhibits I saw. It's not something I've thought about a lot. What I can tell you about is the sunlight, and the dank smell of the chambers where they shot human beings, and, finally, the one sight that made me want to vomit and scream and cry, one broken quivering human mass in the middle of the camp.

It was huge. Like the grounds of some stately home, there were miles between buildings, and around every corner there was some new sight. I think what I remember best are the ovens. They were in a sort of low, new-looking building, which served to cover over the remains of the cremation ovens. They were foul. No smell, of course, or no more than a damp odour that was in any case perfectly natural; but you could feel it in the air, and in the way people were silent and refused to meet each other's eyes. This, this is where the bodies were burnt, and we knew it. Oh, we knew it. There were other sights, too. The pit where people were shot, flowers and ribbons pinned up on the wooden slats that served for walls. The gas chamber. Disguised as a shower room. Tiny. Monstrous.

But I am a resiliant person, and while these took the wind out of my sails for a time, it was the final experience at Sachsenhausen that made me feel sick for a long time afterwards- and even now, writing about it more than a year on, I am still shocked. I shouldn't be. It was to be expected. It was a natural reaction, to all that dulled horror: a natural reaction, to try and expunge the ghosts of the all-too-present past.

I came out of one of the guard towers and crossed the pristine lawns to the centre, where a memorial rises from the ground, a huge, curved wooden block with red triangles dripping down from the pinnacle. In honour of the political prisoners who resided there. In front of this was a sort of- three-sided wall, I suppose, is the best way of describing it. My classmates thronged the walls. They were talking. Laughing. Singing.

Now that I come to write it, it doesn't disgust me quite so much. Perhaps it is better that the dead should be remembered with all the vibrancy of life, and not the quiet reverance displayed by so many. But with these girls, I didn't quite get the impression that they were in any way honouring the dead. Poetry, hymns, a show of sombre beauty lighting up the air with emotion- yes! a thousand times yes; pop songs, little dizzy tunes about lust and breaking up and matters that seemed trivial in the face of Sachsenhausen- no. No, never. I couldn't stand it. I sat among them and said nothing for a time. I spoke up, eventually, a gentle reminder of where we were, and they stopped- but the damage was done. Their thin songs and the endless, endless sunlight had affected something deep inside of me, so that even now, a year on, I remember the image with clarity and resentment.

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