Apart from history books, my earliest encounter with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi death camps was through this movie called Escape from Sobibor.
Sobibor was one of the concentration camps in Poland established with the sole motive of exterminating as many Jews as possible, as quickly as possible.
This movie had left an indelible mark when I saw it in the early nineties as a teenager. I remember being completely shaken by the savagery, leaving me sleepless that night.
One of the scenes that is still stuck in my memory is that of some inmates being forced to dig their own graves stark naked before being shot.
Nearly 20 years later, when I visited Germany, one of my first plans of venturing out of that country was to visit Sobibor and the more infamous Auschwitz camps in neighbouring Poland.
But despite all my planning somehow I couldn’t manage the trip, which remains a regret.
So in my last week of stay in Berlin, I was telling a German friend about how I regretted not being able to go to Poland.
Aware of my interest in history, she suggested that I go to the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg on the outskirts of Berlin, where Hitler had built his first “model” concentration camp — a model for such camps built later.
Andrea also agreed to be my guide at the camp, which was the administrative nerve centre of all the concentration camps in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. And this is where the Schutzstaffel or the dreaded SS officers were trained to “manage” these death camps.
So on a bright and sunny Sunday morning we arrived in Oranienburg, after a short 30-minute train ride, to this quaint little town on the outskirts.
We chose to walk our way to the camp while Andrea filled me in on bits and pieces of the town’s Nazi past. This was also her first visit to Sachsenhausen.
She narrated how the would be inmates — mostly Jews but also communists, homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped and pretty much anyone whom Hitler didn’t like — were made to march from the station through the middle of the town to the camp on the other end. The residents were encouraged to jeer, shout abuses and even hit them.
It was a sobering experience walking through the same streets and trying to imagine what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany, where Hitler’s Aryan race theory meant the “others” had no right to live.
Absorbed in her stories about the town we arrived at the camp. We bought the tickets and were given an audioguide to help us through the tour.
Our journey into the past began with a detailed layout plan of the camp installed at the courtyard to give the visitors an idea of how the camp functioned.
Sachsenhausen is one of the very few places in Berlin and indeed in the whole of Germany that has been preserved despite its obvious connection with Hitler and his Nazi regime — to remind people of the atrocities committed here so that such hatred is never perpetrated again.
Scarred by this dark chapter of their nation’s history that continues to haunt them, Germany has obliterated every place and symbol remotely associated with this Austrian-born dictator, who had brought shame on this country of progressive people.
In fact, I was surprised to see that even Hitler’s bunker in Berlin where he is said to have killed himself and his mistress Eva Braun, has been razed and is a parking lot now. A small nondescript signboard indicates what this place was.
My friend says this systematic erasing of the Nazi symbols has been done to ensure that they do not become a shrine for the miniscule number of neo-Nazis in the country. Then I was not convinced by the logic and felt that a nation’s history — dark or glorious — should be seen through the prism of objectivity.
I was convinced by her logic months later after returning to India when I read a news report. It said how a chapel in Bavaria was attracting neo-Nazi “pilgrims” because marbles and granite from the ruins of Hitler’s luxury retreat — the Berghoff — was used to build it.
But I digress too much.
Going back to Sachsenhausen, after a quick look at the layout plan we took the narrow road leading to the main entrance of the camp — the same stretch that many thousands took for the last time never to walk back again.
Looming over the entrance was this now infamous slogan, engraved in iron, “Arbeit macht frei” — work sets you free.
These words greeted the inmates entering the concentration camps all across Europe. Ironically, overwork on quarter-filled stomachs really set these inmates free of their miserable existence on earth.
As I walked through the menacing iron-grilled gates I could almost see the sunken, sickly faces of the inmates as the audioguide narrated how the guards kicked those who couldn’t shout loud enough the number assigned to them for the roll calls.
The machine gun post stood right above the main entrance dominating the entire roll call area ready to spray bullets at anyone who even missed a step.
Miss the step they did sometimes, metaphorically speaking.
The camp’s perimeter was fortified by an electric fence, even so there was an eight-feet gravel marker all around the fence that was known as the death strip. Anyone stepping on it meant they could be shot without warning.
Just as it meant death for the inmates, for the guards it meant bonus and extra leave if they could shoot inmates who dared to step on the gravel.
But none dared. So the guards often left something precious — a loaf of bread or a slice of cheese on the death strip — in the hope of some unfortunate soul falling for it. Inevitably, some famished ones did despite knowing the danger.
Such was the cruelty practiced at this “model” camp, which ironically was not meant for extermination when it was initially set up as a forced industrial labour camp to feed Hitler’s war machine.
To give you an idea of what forced labour meant, here’s a nugget.
The audioguide was narrating how those who couldn’t work because of sickness or old age were made to stand the whole day in attention, rain, cold or sunshine.
If you think that was torture, the inmates thought they were lucky because they just had to stand there. I thought the same when the audioguide pointed at a 50-metre rocky stretch where inmates were made to run wearing military boots made at the camp, to test their quality.
Testing these boots for soldiers meant running up and down on the rocky surface from morning till sundown — and by experience I can tell you that the German sun sets very late, at least in summers.
Hundreds of inmates were left crippled because sometimes they were forced to run wearing ill-fitting boots, not to mention those who died of exhaustion.
End of Part I