When visiting Berlin, a visit to the Memorial of Sachsenhausen concentration camp was on my to-do list. The memorial brings tribute to the horrors of one of the first concentration camp, the daily camp live, the ones who did not survive and the ones who did. It’s an eye-opener and a must-do when visiting Berlin.
#1 Sachsenhausen concentration camp
The concentration camp of Sachsenhausen was one of the oldest concentration camps. It was built by prisoners in 1936 as a prototype for other concentration camps. By 1945 about 200.000 prisoners passed through its sinister gates: political opponents, gay people, Russians, Jews, Roma, … in short, everyone who did not fit in Hitlers’s regime. Between 30.000 and 50.000 people did not survive the horrors of this camp. They died from hunger, exhaustion, illness, executions or medical experiments. The camp was officially closed in the spring op 1950.
#2 Our visit
We visited the memorial on a cloudy day, when sunbeams sometimes pierced trough the cloud deck. It gave our visit an even grimmer touch, taking in the horrors of the past.
When arriving at the memorial and walking up the long way to the main entrance of the park, a ‘memorial garden’ caught my attention. In the small garden at the left side of the entrance, various groups of victims payed tribute to the victims. Their are simple stones, sculptures carved in wood, steel constructions and touching words. A place to stand still before entering the main gate.
At the main gate, Tower A, the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets Free) – the same as later used in Auschwitz – inevitably drew my attention. How cynical can they be. The tower houses a small museum, the first of a series throughout the memorial, leading you into the shocking brutalities of the SS towards the victims, illustrated by case studies, also the first in a row throughout the visit.
The campgrounds are vast, the structures spread around. The area is fenced, with several watchtowers around it. The area is divided in various ‘zones’, each with its own small museum and exhibits. The places of former, destroyed, barracks are indicated by stones in wooden frame, indicating the grondplan of the barracks. As such, you get a good understanding of their implantation.
From Tower A, we head towards Barrack 38 and 39, two restored barracks illustrating the horrendous daily living conditions of the prisoners. Bunkbeds, washrooms, toilets, …. The barracks were overcrowded. There were too many inmates in one building so they had to sleep crammed closely together on bare wooden boards. The hygienic conditions were catastrophic, there was a lack of food and medicines, clothing and heating fuel led to illness, epidemics and a high rate of mortality.
When listening to the explanation of the audioguide standing in the barrack, it’s like you are in the middle of it. In barrack 38, an exhibit on Jewish inmates in the camp is showcased. Here too, personal stories, letters, clothing and the famous poem of the anti-Nazi minister Niemöller ‘First they came …’.
After this impressive visit, we walk to the camps prison and head towards the center of the camp, the Prisoner’s kitchen, explaining the key events in the camp’s history. We also looked at the compelling movie on this topic. Moving is the art work of inmates scratched into the wall by inmates. In the center of the camp too is a memorial.
From the memorial, we walk to the most sickening displays of the whole camp, ‘Station Z’, which was separated from the rest of the camp grounds for a reason. Station Z hosted a firing-squad site, four cremation ovens and a gas chamber. The remains of the site and the cremation ovens are still visible, the exhibit explains the details. Station Z hosts a special memorial sculpture to pay tribute to the mass executions taking place here, a.o. 13 000 soviet prisoners in 4 weeks in the autumn of 1941. The grass yard outside is a shrine for these victims and all others of the camp.
We end our visit at the Infirmary baracks, illustrating the camp’s poor medical care and the horrific medical experiments performed on prisoners. Here too, a moving exhibit details the practices – leading from obligated castration of homosexuals to sterilization – by individual cases. Victims get a name …
#3 My impressions
The memorial gives a thorough insight in the daily life and horrors of the inmates of the concentration camp. We took the tour by means of an excellent audioguide, which provided detailed information and at the same time left room to walk around at your own pace.
The visit takes quite some time. It took us several hours to walk around, take in the exhibits and digest. It is shocking and confronting. But as I mentioned earlier, for me a it’s one of the must-visits in Berlin, a place to remember thoroughly what happened during World War II and, more importantly, to make sure that history does not repeat!
#4 How to get there and prices
We drove by car to the Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen, the current name of the exhibit. It’s located in Oranienburg, about a 40 minutes drive from Berlin. The Gedenkstätte has a free parking. You can also reach the monument by public transport.
Entrance to the Gedenkstätte is free. I recommend however you do the tour with the excellent audioguide, which costs 3 euro per person.
Just make sure you opening times upfront. In winter, some of the exhibitions are closed.
In for some other things to do in Berlin? Then read my other blogs ‘Berlin-5 fantastic things to do’ and ‘Berlin – awesome street art‘.