“When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.”
I went to Berlin with the intention to challenge the tourist paradigm. I was not going to stay in a charming flat in Mitte, visit the Pergamon Museum, or take a river cruise on the Spree. Instead I stayed in the Jetpak Alternative Hostel in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood where kaleidoscopic graffiti adorns every surface, Soviet buildings hunker, punks bang buckets, and clubs thump and howl with electro music until the wee hours. Mitte will still be Mitte if I come back to Berlin in 20 years, but already encroaching bands of yuppies are opening quinoa and fair trade cafés in the early skirmishes of the Battle to Gentrify Kreuzberg. I had to see the “real” Berlin before it becomes anodyne, and besides, it was cheap.
But I’m not really talking about Berlin here. I want to talk about a little town 22 miles north of Berlin called Oranienburg. I want to talk about Sachsenhausen.
Sachsenhausen is a camp in Oranienburg that began as a concentration camp for undesirables, became an extermination camp in 1943, and after the end of WWII became Soviet Special Camp No. 7 for internment of political prisoners. It was intended to be a model camp where new techniques of administration and extermination could be tested before being scaled up to all the Nazi concentration sites. Sachsenhausen prisoners were among the first to wear colored triangles to denote their religious affiliation, the camp was built in a semi-circle layout that was applied to many other camps, bunkhouses were constructed with central washrooms and uninsulated sleeping wings that became standard elsewhere, and it housed a training barracks for Shutzstaffel officers who subsequently were deployed to oversee other camps. The maxim “Arbeit macht frei” is typically associated with Auschwitz’ imposing gates, but it was first displayed at Sachsenhausen before being deemed suitable for other locations. New lethal gases were tested on prisoners there, as well as chemical combinations of methamphetamine and oxycodone intended to make German soldiers tireless and insensible to pain. Sachsenhausen included a circular track consisting of stretches of sand, cobblestones, rubble and gravel where prisoners were forced to march 40 kilometers a day to test boot soles being developed by the Third Reich military. It was by no means the largest or deadliest of the extermination camp system, but it was the most meticulously planned. Every aspect of the camp was iteratively tested and adapted to ensure ultimate control and humiliation of prisoners.
I went to Oranienburg with two friends on a train that pulled us out of the grimy suburbs of Berlin into pastoral fields and quaint villages clustered around modest stone churches. It was a gorgeous sunny day with fat cumulus clouds skidding across the sky. We walked through Oranienburg for over a mile to get to the gates of the camp and along the way we heard the wooooop wooooop of an air raid siren reverberating around the town. We exchanged a few jokes about the Brits coming back to finish what they started and walked on. When we got into the camp we asked about the siren, and the man behind the reception desk at the museum explained cheerfully that it was a common thing to hear in Oranienburg and the surrounding villages. The Allies had dropped thousands of bombs in the area during the war, and many of them had lodged two meters deep in the loamy soil in the area and failed to detonate. These days whenever unexploded ordnance is found tactical bomb defusion teams would clear the area, deactivate the bomb, and then sound the all-clear siren to let people know that everything was safe. They’ve found over 410 explosives in the last 50 years. It seemed prescient to think that on a day that we came to tour a concentration camp Germans were still taking covered from Allied bombs, and we walked into the camp in an appropriately thoughtful mood.
I think we hardly said ten words to each other for the next two and a half hours. There’s not really anything to say as you walk through a place like this. In Rwanda I walked through fields and churches where thousands of people had been slaughtered with machetes, and they had this same heavy ominous feeling over them where you felt as if you had been cast back in time to when the atrocities were still taking place. This camp was different from Rwanda due to the precise and scientific way that atrocities were committed there. At the original camp commandants house the museum had preserved a letter from one director who boasted about how clean and orderly the camp was, without a blade of grass inside the prisoners compound and the bunkhouses spaced perfectly evenly and extensive record keeping that noted to the kilometer how many punishment laps each prisoner had been forced to walk. The letter betrayed no sense of shame about the activities of the camp or attempts to minimize the brutality of conditions there. The brutality was presented objectively. His interest was in how consistently and efficiently he could run a brutal operation.
The voices of the prisoners themselves aren’t lost in the museum and preserved site. Many inmates at Sachsenhausen were educated, middle-class people from the Berlin area who expressed shock and consternation at being uprooted from their lives and herded into unimaginable conditions. Martin Niemöller is one of the most well-known voices of Holocaust remembrance, and he was held in a prison cell in the center of the camp. Artifacts like prisoners’ shoes and toothbrushes and letters (all written in German by camp decree) are displayed. The most devastating thing I saw was a small mirror in a hand carved wooden case that an internee had made. It was mindboggling to think of someone counting such a superfluous and impractical object among their meager possessions, and also taking the time to carve it and make it beautiful.
Look, the whole thing was horrible. It was also remarkably well preserved. I believe that the modern German nation has made commendable efforts towards denazification and education. It’s impressive to see groups of German school children being led through a site where their grandparents may have been guards or prisoners. The German Finance Ministry has a program in place to pay for in-home hospice care for Holocaust survivors around the world, which was covered in a New York Times article yesterday. Nevertheless, a sin as great as Sachsenhausen is not quickly forgiven or forgotten. When I walked out of the camp I was surprised to find that the backyards of tidy little houses abutted the walls of the concentration camp itself, and shrieking kids ride bikes and kick soccer balls in the shadow of the guard tower. Does growing up next to a place like that instill you with a sense of fear and shame, or does it all become banal over time?
As I walked back to the train station through town I stopped looking at the kids and began to focus more on old people: drinking beer in front of cafes, riding the bus, chatting with each other as they tended their gardens. I wondered how many of them had stood along the boulevard that ran to the train station and thrown rocks at Jews and socialists and gays as the prisoners were paraded to the camp in 1942. It took years to try the top Nazi command at Nuremburg, and rank and file soldiers were hardly punished after the war, so people who only hurled stones and jeers are unlikely to sleep poorly at night worrying that a Truth and Reconciliation Committee will come for them some day and demand reparations. The greatest consequence for their actions that these former Nazi sympathizers will face is that 71 years after the end of the war Sachsenhausen still stands, looming over their houses, and every day Germans and foreigners finish touring the camp, walk through their town quietly, look at them, and wonder.