It’s one thing to read about the holocaust or watch its horrors on screen — most of us have seen Schindler’s List — but to actually walk around a place where so much hatred, humiliation and torture was heaped on a people is an experience hard to capture in words.
Like I wrote in my earlier post, Sachsenhausen was the “model concentration camp” which was supposed to set standard for other camps scattered across Nazi-occupied Europe.
And it did set the standards — for cruelty and devising innovative methods to brutalise and extinguish the human spirit of the inmates before killing them off.
The Jewish barracks
As we moved away from the roll call area to the right of the main entrance there lay two cottage-type structures — that we would have probably missed if the audioguide didn’t mention that these two were the last remaining Jewish quarters preserved nearly in the same condition as it was before the war ended.
At the entrance I felt a strange sensation as if stepping into a bloodied chapter of history. Prodded by the audioguide’s narration of the day-to-day life of a Jewish prisoner I was feeling suffocated trying to imagine the scenes that played out where we stood.
My friend Andrea looked as miserable, in fact, I think most visitors were going through a similar surge of emotions that was evident in their sombre expressions.
A small exhibition area inside the barracks put faces to the victims through photographs — some of them too young to be in a prison– and antisemitic posters, pamphlets, newspaper cuttings showing the reality of those dark days.
The Jewish barracks were wooden quarters designed to take away even the last vestiges of human dignity from the prisoners — it afforded no privacy whatsoever to an inmate. The idea was to make them feel that they were no better than animals, who needed no privacy.
One look at the toilet area made my stomach churn, not because it was dirty, but because of the layout — nearly a dozen toilet bowls placed side by side in a row with no partition and very little space between them.
Every miserable day for a Jewish inmate began at these crowded toilets where one had to wait in queue while some one else was using it. The audioguide narrated how the inmates even had their breakfast — perhaps a slice of stone hard bread — while waiting to use the toilet before the roll call siren blared.
To complete the animal-like treatment there were no showers (the shower room near the infirmary was a gas chamber in disguise) only a washing area with large bowls of water that an inmate could use to wash his face and hands. Even that became unusable within minutes because so many of them used it at the same time. Each barrack was designed to cramp in about 400 people, but it held many more than that.
Shorn of their dignity as humans, these miserable inmates then stepped out, rather herded like cattle by the siren and the guards, to the roll call area for more humiliation.
The roll call was a torturous affair in which the barely fed inmates in their striped cotton uniforms had to stand for hours on end — even in the harsh German winters — till every head was counted. Every one had to be accounted for, even the dead.
At any given point the camp had between 30 and 40 thousand, including PoWs and political prisoners. But the worst was always reserved for the Jews.
Harsh is a mild word to describe the punishments meted out to these miserable souls who were already fighting diseases borne out of unhygienic conditions, starvation and cold.
The Sachsenhausen Salute
One of the milder forms of punishment was nicknamed the “Sachsenhausen Salute”. It meant squatting with arms stretched in front — for how long depended on the guard.
Serious crimes such as stealing food meant getting suspended from a wooden post with wrists tied to the pole in an awkward position.
Or as in this particular case of a prisoner who stole a piece of leather from a saddle, he was awarded 50 lashings.The man was dead half way through the lashings but it continued till the count was over. One wonders if he felt the stings even in the other world.
But an unpardonable crime like trying to escape or even planning one meant being hanged in public or facing the firing squad at the aptly named Station Z, a trench where inmates were shot or hanged.
Pity was banished from the hearts of the camp guards by order from Hitler. “We want to select a layer of masters, who should not yield to pity,” Hitler had reportedly said referring to his Totenkopf (death’s head) unit of SS guards, whose job was to kill without pity.
From the Jewish barracks, we moved to the T-shaped prison barrack where solitary cells housed political prisoners. Many of these cramped cells had photographs of the prisoners who occupied them put up by their families.
The killer height stand
Another set of prisoners at Sachsenhausen were the Soviet prisoners of war. More than 10,000 of them were killed in the early 40s.
If you’re wondering about the Geneva Convention — guidelines for fair treatment of PoWs — Hitler used a loophole in the treaty to justify the killings. However, American PoWs are not known to have been slaughtered like the Soviet prisoners.
An innovative method to kill them was put in place by then camp commandant Anton Kaindl by his own admission during his war crimes trial after the war. (Extract from the trial of Anton Kaindl)
A contraption was installed at the infirmary disguised as a height measuring stand. A Nazi guard pretending to be a doctor would ask the Soviet PoWs to stand at the contraption for measurement and through a hole in the stand another guard fired in the back of the head instantly killing the prisoner. Loud music was played in the next room where other PoWs waited, to mask the sound of the gunshot. More than 10,000 soldiers were killed this way.
Our next stop was the infamous Station Z, the firing trench. I walked down the slope to the end of the dug out where a prisoner stood before facing a volley of bullets from the firing squad. I stood with my back to the wall wondering if the inmates felt relieved knowing that in a few minutes a hail of bullets would put an end to their misery.
The harsh life they spent working at the brick-kiln or labouring on the boot-testing tracks and the constant scare of the lashings and the numerous methods of torture forced many inmates to voluntarily embrace death. They deliberately stepped on the “death strip” to end their lives.
But when a number inmates committed suicide that way, the guards changed tack. They still shot them but not fatally, leaving them to die a slow and painful death with no medical care. The inmates couldn’t even chose to die of their own volition.
Our last stop was the crematorium where everyday hundreds of bodies were burnt into ashes. There were at least five incinerators that worked overtime to obliterate all signs of those who died of starvation, disease, torture and plain cold-blooded murder.
By the time the Soviet Red Army troops liberated the camp on April 27, 1945 after the fall of Berlin, only 3000 prisoners were left. They were too weak and ill to even stand to welcome their liberators.
If only the troops had arrived a week earlier they could have saved thousands more. Hitler had personally ordered the evacuation of the camp. This evacuation later named the “death march” had thousands of prisoners walking on foot for 20-30 km a day without food for several days towards the Baltic Sea. The Nazi guards shot anyone who fell behind. By an estimate more than 7,000 died during this march of starvation and bullets.
Sachsenhausen in its nearly 1o-year existence saw more than 45,000 people exterminated — shot, gassed and starved.
We left the camp in the evening, walking quietly back to Oranienberg station as if in a trance — the whole experience was so overwhelming. Our reverie was broken only when we entered the town and Andrea suggested we grab a bite and perhaps have a beer to cheer ourselves up again!
Berlin is a beautiful city with many beautiful sights, but if you are visiting this city do take some time out to see this “unbeautiful” slice of history.