Oranienburg is a small town, founded some 800 years ago in the picturesque German countryside. It is known for its wonderful forest area, a multitude of lakes and the most magnificent Baroque castle in the area. Nowadays, Oranienburg is non the less idyllic. Less than a century ago, however, this town was hiding a dark secret. A secret about the tortures and the following death of over 60 thousand people in the course of 17 years.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp was founded in 1936. It turned into a test model for the construction of a net of 20 000 camps, commissioned by the Nazi party.
At the entrance of the camp you can read the infamous slogan „Arbeit macht frei”, meaning: “Work sets you free”. It implies that the prisoners have to work until they are fully exhausted and that they will only find freedom after death. This sadistic expression is just the start of daily suffering, humiliation and cruel experiments, which every prisoner was sentenced to go through.
At the beginning Sachsenhausen was built as a prison for political criminals, for all opponents to Nazism. Nonetheless, people from 40 different nationalities became victims of this sinister place due to their political beliefs, homosexuality of race. Many of them were told they were being relocated to Oranienburg. They were carrying gold, money and all valuables. Upon arrivals, Nazis would confiscate everything, even their clothes. All captives received a uniform with a serial number and a pair of “one size fits all” wooden shoes. From this moment on prisoners would lose their identity – they were no longer people with names and lives, they were only a serial number. Many of the Nazis, who after the end of the war were sentenced for crimes against humanity, would say that in concentration camps they have never worked with people, they worked with numbers.
Photo by Dirkjan Van Ittersum on Flickr
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Since 1961 Sachsenhausen was opened to the public as a memorial and museum, which can be visited on a day trip from Berlin. It is not your typical tourist attraction, but it surely is a place worth visiting. Only 2 out of all 65 barracks that were used to house the prisoners are reconstructed. Their maximum occupancy was 140 people, but they were intentionally overcrowded with up to three times more prisoners. The working day would start at 4:15 am, regardless of when the previous one had ended. It would always begin with a roll call. All prisoners had to be aligned by their numbers by 5 am. Calling all the “names” would usually take two to three hours. During the winter of 1940, under the governance of Rudolf Höss, it often lasted for 12 hours in the freezing cold of -20°C. Mortality in the concentration camp reached record levels: seven thousand people only in January. Four months later, Höss was promoted to take charge of Auschwitz, the largest Nazi camp.
Job positions at the concentration camps would vary from starving waiter to the SS (the Nazi elite corps of combat troops) to a producer of machine components for large corporations. Jews and homosexuals were assigned the toughest job: making bricks for the construction of a “new Berlin”. The physical labour was so demanding, most prisoners would die of exhaustion within two to three weeks.
Escape attempts were plentiful, but no one has ever left alive the confines of Sachsenhausen. There was no lack of suicide attempts as nothing, not even death, is as terrible as a life in perpetual suffering. The SS severely punished anyone who thought they have right to take their own life. Those who dared to attain freedom through death were shot, immobilised and left in agony.
After the end of the World War II, the camp continued to operate under Soviet rule as it was in their occupation zone. It was finally closed in 1950.
Useful information: Sachsenhausen is located on Straße der Nationen 22 in Oranienburg, around 35 km away from Berlin. Access is free, but I strongly advise you to visit it with a tour guide. You can find more information about the opening hours and transport here.