In a few weeks I’ll be visiting Auschwitz, the most infamous of all the Nazi concentration camps. More than one million innocent people were slaughtered in this nightmare city in the south of Poland, and I know it will be a somber and frightening experience. I know this, because it’s not the first Nazi concentration camp I’ve visited.
A couple of years ago I visited Sachsenhausen, a truly evil place on the outskirts of Berlin. For nine years between 1936 and 1945, it was the scene of some of the worst atrocities in human history. More than 30,000 inmates – mostly Russian prisoners of war – died there from exhaustion, disease, malnutrition, pneumonia and the general bastardry of the Germans. Thousands died as the result of brutal and bizarre medical experiments, while a huge amount were simply tortured until they gave up on life. After the fall of the Nazis, the camp was taken over by the soviets, who killed a further 12,000 people on the site. It was a horrendous place and, because of that, it’s an important place for people to visit.
Sachsenhousen currently serves as a place of remembrance for the suffering that once took place there, and is definitely worth a visit. It’s a quiet and odd place that wasn’t what I expected, but somewhere I’ll never forget. The fact that it sits amongst such normalcy only serves to make this unusual site even weirder.
A short train ride north from Berlin Hbf (you can drink beers on the train – trust me, I tested it) brings you to Oranienberg station, in an unassuming residential area that suggests nothing of the horros that occured there. The camp is a simple 10 or 15 minute walk through quiet streets and past pretty houses. Many of them look as if they would’ve stood during the time of the Nazis, and I couldn’t help thinking of German families sitting down to eat their bratwurst while people were being tortured and killed a stone’s throw away.
The camp might be hidden away behind picture-perfect houses, but it doesn’t cover up what it is – there’s a massive concrete wall saying ‘Sachsenhausen’ at the entrance. After walking through the imposing cement building that serves as the gateway compound, I found a wide, largely empty compound that was at once incredibly sad, because of what had happened there, and somewhat lifeless, because of how far removed the current set-up is from what had been there.
When I visited the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it had an immense impact on me because it was largely unchanged from when the city had been liberated some 30 years earlier. Blood still stained the walls, and rusted beds used by dying prisoners lay on the ground. The evil oozed out of the walls, having nowhere else to go. I didn’t feel the same emotions at Sachsenhausen, because most of the buildings have long since been knocked down, and barren courtyards left in there place.
Some original building remain, and some have been reconstructed to show the horror of gas chambers and medical experimentation rooms. It’s enough to provide an idea of disgusting acts that happened on the grounds, and serves as an important reminder of an unbelievable past. While I wasn’t left shaken, as I was after S-21, Sachsenhausen had an impact on me.
It’s difficult to believe that a place like this could ever exist. That people could be rounded up and killed (or worse) simply because of their ethnicity, religion, or sexual choices. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that it (Ger)man is capable of such atrocities, this will happen again in the western world. And that is truly terrifying.
My unhappy mood didn’t last long, however. After leaving the concentration camp I headed back to sunny Berlin, where I got drunk on good beer, urinated in many leafy parks, got knocked back by half-a-dozen lovely German ladies and had a run-in with the local cops after poking a currywurst out of the fly of my pants and asking passers-by if they wanted a bite.
So, all in all, a good day was had by all!