The Sachsenhausen concentration camp is located some 35 kilometers from Berlin, in Oranienburg. You get there by taking the S1 from Berlin to Oranienburg central station, and from there taking bus line 804 directly to the place.
The history of the camp as a functional concentration camp dates as early as 1933, although then it was not Sachsenhausen, but Oranienburg Concentration Camp (and not exactly on the same location). The camp as it is now was built in 1936. And it continued to function as a prison until 1950, under the Soviets.
The Oranienburg Concentration camp was located in a vacant factory building in the town center of Oranienburg, and was the first concentration camp in the state of Prussia. It was used by the SA to imprison the opposition in the first months after the Nazis seized power. The SS took over in 1934, and closed that camp. By that time, over 3,000 people were imprisoned there.
In 1936, the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built, as a model for other camps and as the first camp built after Himmler was appointed as the head of the German police. Between 1936 and 1945, over 200,000 people were imprisoned there. At first, the prisoners were mostly political opponents of the Nazis. It later became also a prison for members of groups defined by the Nazis as racially or biologically inferior, and also citizens from countries occupied by the Nazis.
Tens of thousands died there from starvation, disease, forced labor and so on, and many were victims of systematic extermination (the place included an execution trench, a small gas chamber and crematorium).
In 1945 it was liberated by the Soviets, who found there some 3,000 sick prisoners, as the rest were taken to the “Death March”. The Soviets continued to use the place as a prison, for Nazis and “political undesirables”, until 1950. Some 60,000 people were imprisoned there during the Soviet period, and at least 12,000 died of malnutrition and disease.
In 1956, plans were made for the establishment of the Sachsenhausen National Memorial, which was inaugurated on 1961. The place was supposed to symbolize the “victory of anti-fascism over fascism”. After the fall of the Wall, it had become a part of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation.
According to the website of the foundation, the place is based on a “decentralized concept, which aims to communicate history to visitors in the very place where it happened”. We also got the benefit of going through the camp in pouring rain, something which definitely enhanced the intensity of the experience…
Among the prisoners of the camp was the reverend Martin Niemöller, whose story is also quite an interesting story. He was a loud critic of the Nazis, and spent 8 years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau as a result, and was also the author of the very famous poem, “First they came…”
As it appears, Niemöller himself started out as an anti-Semite and a supporter of Hitler, but later realized how wrong he was, and started voicing his opposition, ending up in prison. Knowing this, you realize this famous poem was not just about German intellectuals or clergy, but also a personal expression of remorse. So, as we Jews believe in repentance, and so that we’ll remember and never forget (and maybe also try to learn), I want to quote these famous words here (this is the version Niemöller said he preferred):
“In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
and by that time there was no one left to speak up”.
The “Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen” website.
Facts and photos about the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp from JewishGen website.
More information about Sachsenhausen from the