Monday, 3 December 2012

Sachenhausen Concentration Camp

While visiting Berlin we discovered there was a Nazi and Communist Era concentration camp about an hour outside the city.  My husband and I visited Dachau 13 years ago.  I have to say the experience left me completely emotionally drained.  I vowed never to visit another concentration camp!  However, we felt we needed take our children and try to explain the horrors of this part of human history.  When we studied WWII last year, I only briefly touched on the subject as my children are still young and I didn't want to overwhelm them with the brutality of this part of the war.  Some people might disagree with me but I felt then that this topic was more geared for middle or even high school age children.  However the opportunity presented itself and we made the decision to take the children and see Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and try to explain what happened and why.

We took the city train out to the Oranienburg and  walked about a mile to the camp.  Along the way we saw a few signs telling the story of Camp.  We read about children who were told to throw stones at the prisoners.  Also stories of brave individuals who sneakily handed out scraps of bread to the starving prisoners.

Before the fall of Berlin the prisoners of the camp were forced to march out of the camp to other camps and many died or were killed because they couldn't keep up.

The gates to the museum.  This museum is on the East Germany side,  After the war ended the Soviets continued to use this camp to imprison former Nazi regime officials and others who they considered a "threat".  Once the wall fell it was discovered an additional 12,500 individuals had been killed and buried here.  It is believed the camp existed for an additional 5 years after the war ended.

This is the road way to the front gates of the Camp.  Here truck loads of prisoners would have travelled.  Some prisoners would have had to walk this road into the camp

Along the wall were pictures of the prisoners and the life they had to live along with their stories

The first gate entering the compound.  The prisoners would have entered a courtyard which housed the SS and camp guards.  Signs said this area housed a small zoo and pond which had swans.  The Camp Commander house was found in this area.

Next the prisoners would have had to walk thru the second gate.  All Concentration Camps gates had these  words on them and it means "Work will make you free"

Inside they would have been greeted to high security.  Here is a sample of the barb wire, electric fence and cement wall.    We heard stories of prisoners throwing themselves at the electric fence to kill themselves.  We also heard stories were guards who successfully killed prisoners before they committed suicide in this manner were given awards like extra leave, extra rations or even coupons to visit the camp brothel, where female prisoners were forced into prostitution.

Not all the building survived and the ones missing were marked out in this manner.  The building were laid out in a semi circle to the front gate, with guard towers throughout the camp

One of the barracks that housed the inmates of the camp

The wash rooms

Three tiered beds were it was said as many as six people slept in one bed.  Prisoners could not roll over unless all rolled over at the same time.  In many cases if a prisoner got up to go to the bathroom they would find their place in bed taken up by someone else.

The day room and often the only place that had any heat.  There were cabinets along the wall which I was surprised to learn were for special inmates who were allowed to keep some possessions.  

The blanket that was issued to the inmates.

Camp uniforms

The various insignias that prisoners had to wear that represented their crimes.
Pink was for homosexuals, yellow for Jews, red for Communists etc...

Within the camp was a special prison block for  those prisoners who required extra attention

One of the ways to punish people was to put them in rooms and seal off the windows so they had no light

This cell was for someone who had successfully earned favors from the guards

These posts outside the prison were for prisoners being punished.  Their arms would be tied behind them and then they would be hung from the arms from the top iron nail.  They would hang there for hours in all types of weather.

The Soviet Liberation Memorial --  The 18 red triangles represents the different countries who had prisoners at the camp

The execution trench.  Many Soviet prisoners-of-war were shot in a special room here, where they were told they were being measured for height while loud martial music was played.  When they stood up straight, a SS official hidden behind a special curtain would shoot them in the back of the neck, killing them instantly.

The hanging booths

Crematorium memorial

 Ovens--while this camp wasn't a huge extermination camp they did have a few ovens

What the ovens looked like

Room that were used as experimentation rooms, gas, shooting and torture.  Although Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, it was a camp where they tested the killing methods that would be used on an industrial scale in the extermination camps.

Prisoners were forced to burned other prisoners after they were killed

We went into one medical building.  We heard horrendous stories of people being used for medical experiments like children as young as 8 years old having moldy straw sewn into their bodies to cause gangrene and then doctors would experiment on different amputation methods to learn how to help soldiers on the battlefield.  There were other stories that were equally disturbing to listen too.

More medical building but after entering the first one we decided to skip the others.    

While exploring one of the many museum rooms my daughter on her own grabbed a piece of paper to write her thoughts on what she had seen and posted it on the wall of comments.

We spent over 5 hours touring this facility and we still didn't see everything.  There were a few buildings we skipped, the medical facilities were experiments were done on the prisoners, the building that housed the photographs of the inmates, and the Soviet buildings used after the war ended until 1950.  My oldest found this a very emotional experience, she had so many questions about what she had seen and what she heard.  Having seen another Concentration camp I was much more able to handle the stories and images I had seen so I completely understood my daughter's emotional response to it.  Before leaving the museum we stopped at the bookstore and I bought 3 books written by former children inmates who spent time in various camps before liberation.  I have finished reading the first two and am working on reading the third.  My daughter picked up one of the books and is beginning to read it.

Four Perfect Pebbles by Lila Perl
Lucky Child by Thomas Buerganthal
Run Boy Run by Uri Orlev

Later that evening while having dinner we were still discussing with the children what we had seen for the day and I partially recalled a poem "At First They Came" by Martin Niemoller, which I shared with the children.

 First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Later we researched who wrote the poem (and to find out the correct wording) and found out there are several versions written.  We also discovered this author spent time in the very concentration camp we had toured.  We had a really great conversation with the children regarding this poem and the camp we visited.


  1. Wow. What an opportunity for your children to be able to see pieces of this history for themselves. It is very difficult to wrap my mind around the horror- I can only imagine how emotional it would be for a young person. Still, it will make a lasting impact on I'm sure. I admire the way you seize opportunities to experience history and so much else with your children.

  2. Ugh! It makes me so sick to know that so many people could be so evil on such a large scale. Especially the medical experiments, how could any human have so little human compassion???? BTW, tonight I was reading a story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and it takes place in Germany and some of the characters are setting up for an Advent fair, like the one you just posted about and I which I had never heard of before your post! Weird, huh?

  3. It looks like a horrible place. We went to Dachau about 8 months ago with the family. I didn't realize there was more than one Arbeit Mach Frei gate, and at Dachau we didn't see any medical rooms. Most of the rest, unfortunately looks familiar. I will look into those books when we study the war again.

  4. Thanks for the sensitive post on a tough topic.