Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp – in simple terms a place for the Nazi regime to “concentrate” all of the people that they saw as undesirable. The aim was to then use the inmates for work details or as time went on, relocate them. In the most part the concentration camps were poorly administered by often sadistic Nazi’s on frightening power trips. Sadly, the result was starvation, disease and exhaustion that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Europeans, inmates due to their political, religious or cultural beliefs. There were also thousands of Russian prisoners of war who were treated by the Nazi regime as being less than human.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was an Extermination camp. People were brought from all over Europe to the South of Poland, where they were divided into those who could work and those who would die, the majority fell into the latter category.
As the girls had read about Anne Frank so recently, Bergen-Belsin seemed an appropriate concentration camp to visit. The German couple we had met in Sonderburg suggested that as we were going towards Berlin, we would find it easier to visit the camp at Sachsenhausen.
So getting away late again, this time due to the incredible breakfast – honest, we headed towards Berlin. The motorways were less crowded and given our late start, we were happy to arrive at Sachsenhausen by 3.30pm. We quickly realised this was a good choice in regard to visiting a concentration camp (if there can be any “good” relating to that phrase?). It was incredibly educational for us.
Sachsenhausen wasn’t the first concentration camp established but it was considered the “model” camp on which subsequent camps were designed. It was next door to the Headquarters of the Camp Agency, from where all German Concentration and Extermination camps were managed.
Built in 1936 whilst the Olympic Games were being held just down the road in Berlin, the labour came from early concentration camp inmates, mostly political opponents of the Nazi Regime, as well as homosexuals and other citizens deemed undesirable by the regime. Sachsenhausen was a frightening look at the Western world of not long ago.
Sachsenhausen has the dubious honour of being the camp that developed the most efficient form of execution for the murder of Russian prisoners of war, although this was eventually superceded by the horrors of the gas chambers.
Whilst it was over two weeks since we visited Sachsenhausen, arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau it was difficult to not think about paying our respects at the front gate and continuing on – the enormity of the horrors carried out in these camps is overwhelming. However we had teamed up with Julia’s sister Tracy and her boyfriend Troy to have a weekend in Poland so a visit to Auschwitz seemed essential. It had been one of our “want to visit” places from before we left Australia.
It is a very different camp to Sachsenhausen. Indeed it is 3 main camps with tens of satellite camps, each with different purposes. There was a large labour force housed between the camps to work in the local factories producing munitions and accessories for the German war effort.
Sadly, the notoriety achieved by Auschwitz was due to the gas chambers. It is estimated that between 1 and 1.3 million people were put to death (murdered) at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau. The calculating, measured and meticulous efforts taken by the Nazi’s to achieve this is staggering. The rail lines here at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau have a truly sinister air. The conditions on the trains were terrible, but the prospects for those who got off at Auschwitz were much worse.
Unlike Sachsenhausen, some of the gas chambers and crematoriums remain as they were in 1945. The engineering and logistics that went into the wanton disposal of human life is frightening.
We found both sites to be incredibly educational, very thought provoking and respectful memorials. Sadly there cannot be a fitting memorial for so much loss of life though the complete loss of humanity.