I’ve been putting off this trip. In fact, if Matt hadn’t come to visit, I probably would have avoided it all together. Having chosen to live briefly in Germany and explore their history, I did feel an obligation to visit a concentration camp but I just never wake up and think “this feels like a good day to explore death, torture and cruelty all day.” It’s an easy thing to put off, is what I’m saying.
However, Matt really wanted to go and yesterday was our one chance so we went to Sachsenhausen, the first concentration camp built by Heinrich Himmler in 1936 and the architectural model for all future camps. This memorial and museum site lives about an hour north of Berlin in Oranienburg where a little town thrives on the outskirts of this former death camp. I’m not sure how people can live that close to something this grim but I guess humans can become indifferent and detached to just about anything given enough time.
The gates are chilling. Arbeite mach frei means “works sets you free,” a particularly cruel joke for a work camp. Himmler initially designated this camp as a “work camp” because unlike Auschwitz, for instance, where people were sent primarily to be exterminated, this camp was intended for making bricks to rebuild Berlin and counterfeiting massive amounts of British and American currency to try to crash our respective economies and help Hitler win faster. The crematoriums, execution chambers and morgues came later when the medical experimentation started and the overcrowded conditions led to more and more deaths.
I walked through this site and saw things like these wash basins
And these prison cells
And this “neutral zone” by the fence where prisoners were summarily shot if they stepped foot, until of course too many prisoners decided to commit suicide by guard and then the guards stopped killing them and started just maiming them.
And I can’t get it. I literally can’t wrap my mind around the idea that an entire first world country devolved into evil this deep and dark. Of course Hitler was the tip of that spear but thousands, possibly millions, of men and women worked for him, carried out these atrocities and allowed themselves to be dragged (or willingly jumped) into this swamp of corruption.
I see this vast empty landscape where once there were barracks and prisoners and torture and blood and bodies and I wonder how the guards rationalized it.
In my mind mass murder is one thing and torture is another. It’s one thing to believe that an entire chunk of people need to be eliminated. It’s another to imprison those people and torture them, perform medical experiments and keep them alive to perpetuate the pain. There certainly was no point at which the Nazis treated their prisoners as POWs who might one day attain their freedom. The Nazis always expected to wipe them them out so these camps simply prolonged the misery to very little actual gain. That means that for 10 years these SS guards got out of bed every day and spent a solid 12 hours doing their best to drive these people to the brink of death while still wringing some capable labor out of them. It’s unimaginable. Even standing in the middle of that field, I can’t get there.
The Soviet army liberated this camp in 1945, making them for one brief moment “the good guys” in Eastern Germany. The clock on the tower is frozen at 11:07, the moment of liberation.
I was so emotionally moved by this visit but not in the ways I expected. I came away wondering how many guards in this camp hated their lives. How many woke up every day wishing they could quit or leave without abandoning their families or ending up a prisoner. And how many others loved every moment.
Everything this big gets starts small. An insidious trickle of evil assisted by men, like this bookkeeper of Auschwitz, who go along with it despite what they believe to be their best efforts and then become a cog in a huge overwhelming killing machine. There were so many points were people could have said No but they didn’t.
May we always remember this horror so we never get here again