Thursday 5th August- Final Full Day in Berlin
For our final day in Berlin, as we had one more extra day in the city than any of the others we were to visit on the trip, we felt that it was almost appropriate for us to visit a concentration camp.
Similar to the walking tour, we met at the Brandenburg Gate, and met Stephanie again, who was to be our guide for the Sachenhausen Labour Camp tour.
Personally with mixed emotions, I felt slightly nervous about the impending tour, both not knowing what to expect, how it would make me feel, and equally wanting to pay my respects.
Not that it makes the whole tragedy any less horrific, but the Sachenhausen Camp, we were informed, was a labour camp, rather than a death camp, but 53,000 people died here regardless of the camp not being used for extermination. The camp had also been used during the period 1945-1950 as a Soviet training camp, where men were equally as badly treated as the inmates during the Nazi occupation.
We were told that each prisoner was given a specifically coloured triangle which would be pinned to their striped uniforms; red for political prisoners, pink for homosexuals, and yellow for Jews. Sickeningly, the best treated group of prisoners were the ones who had been criminals before the onset of war and their confinement to the labour camp.
As we entered the camp, the last sign on hope that we saw was the painted clock on the entrance gate, of which the clock hands are painted at the time the camp was liberated. The iron gates then were opened for us to enter, and ‘arbeit macht frei’, was interwoven into the metal; ‘work will set you free.’
As we walked around the camp, I felt very strange mixture of emotions- sorrow, regret, and something which I couldn’t describe. I also felt extremely angry at one point, as I watched an Italian tourist creep behind a section of barbed wire and pretend to crawl through, as his companion took a picture of his grinning face. This confirmed my already split conscience regarding whether or not to take any pictures of the camp, and I didn’t take a single photograph.
We were shown a dilapidated green wooden shed type structure, which was called ‘The Green Monster’, and was almost a ‘green room’ for the camp guards, where they would relax, smoke, drink and gamble when they were not on duty. The prisoners of the camp would be forced to wait on the guards here whilst they indulged in their various leisure activities.
Stephanie showed us the old camp kitchens, which, whilst at ground level had been turned into a museum, below ground had been preserved as it would have been during the camp’s use. I personally couldn’t stay down there very long, feeling very cold and un-nerved in the pit of my stomach at being there. We were informed that one man who worked in the kitchen attempted to steal a teaspoon of margarine. During this attempt, he was caught by a guard, who then forced the prisoner to eat an entire tub of margarine whilst the other inmates were made to watch. The guard then made a group of prisoners stamp on the man’s stomach in order to ‘aid digestion.’
We also viewed a partially reconstructed barrack, which was very hard to be inside, as we peered into the darkened rooms of the previous wash room, toilet and sleeping quarters. The original dark paint hung suspended above us over time it had begun to peel away from the wooden boards. Another section of the barrack had again been made into a museum, and we spent several minutes looking around and reading accounts of survivors’ stories.
Further into the centre of the camp, we saw the prison blocks and punishment section, where unspeakable and indescribable acts of cruelty were inflicted upon the prisoners, away from the view of the other inmates. Here, we were told the brave story of Jimmy James, who had made a total of 12 escape attempts during the times that he had been captured. He was placed in Sachenhausen, made another escape attempt and was recaptured. His bravery inspired the famous film The Great Escape.
Dotted around the camp were a few gravestones, upon which were small piles of stones. We were informed that this was a sign of Jewish respect, similar to our own tradition of placing flowers on someone’s grave.
Sachenhausen camp was also the place in which the Germans attempted to mass produce both the Great British Pound, and the US Dollar, in their plans to eventually take over Britain and America. However, thanks to the work of one prisoner, ensuring that every note he was forced to produce had some kind of flaw, such as incorrect weight for the paper or a printing error, the money could never go into circulation.
Perhaps the hardest part of the camp to view was the murder trench, where prisoners would be lined up and shot, one by one. Allegedly, the guards began to find this too hard and too personal by looking into the eyes of the men as they shot them, and so they came up with ‘Z’ Centre, where gas chambers and ovens were installed. The prisoners would then be backed out of a truck into a small room, where they would be gassed. If they survived this ordeal, the prisoners would be led into an adjacent room, where they would be forced to stand in the dark, until a small hole in the wall at the back of their neck would have a gun pushed through, and the prisoner would then be shot in the back of the neck by a guard.The bodies would then pass through into the cremation ovens.
At this point, I really had to make a conscious effort not to cry, as the barbarity and extreme cruelty of this place finally started to take a hold of me.
Stephanie went on to tell us that families were given the option to purchase the death certificates and ashes of their loved ones who had been burned in the cremation ovens, however disgustingly, with the sheer volume of bodies passing through the ovens daily, it was ultimately certain that the families never actually received the correct ashes of their family member.
We were told that when the camp was finally liberated and excavated, a grave was discovered in which 7 tonnes of ash had been buried. Due to the Nazis not wanting to be caught, we were also told that it was possible many tonnes had already been removed and mixed with cement, and that quite probably, all around Germany to this day, buildings which had been constructed during this period may contain traces of ashes from the many prisoners of Sachenhausen.
Our final stop was at the medical building, which was tiled throughout in white, where experiments were conducted on the prisoners. We were also invited to go downstairs into the morgue, to which Hannah and I respectfully declined. I didn’t think that I could handle the atmosphere which would have greeted me once down there.
During the end of the tour, we were permitted to eat lunch inside the camp, and whilst we all obliged, I cannot help but admit feeling extremely perverse and guilty at doing so, as we sat and ate where thousands of people had died from the ache of hunger.
We sombrely made our way out of the camp, every single one of the four of us speechless, lost in our own thoughts.We got the metro back to the Brandenburg Gate, and sat quietly in Starbucks, gathering our thoughts. Kat had been excited about visiting the Picasso Museum, and so we brushed our blackened moods to the side and wandered to find it.As we made our way back to our hostel, we met an elderly couple who seemed to be a bit lost, and helped them to validate their train tickets and pointed them in the right direction for their hotel.
That night we received two new roommates- an aunt and niece from Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. We re-packed our luggage ready to move on the next day, and all spent the night feeling rather quiet and reflective.