This past week, I paid a visit to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, one of the concentration camps from the Third Reich, in Germany. Located in the Brandenburg town of Oranienburg, it’s a mere 35 kilometers North of Berlin. During the war, it was mostly home to political prisoners, which means that prisoners from all over Europe (and not just the surrounding area) were brought there.
My first experience with concentration camps was my visit to Dachau in June of 2010, which, for the most part, I did not enjoy. Certainly I have always been intrigued by historical events, and it was definitely interesting to see firsthand a place that I have read about so many times. However, being in the actual camp was not something I was prepared for. Due to a combination of many things – the heavy visitor traffic, the hot weather, the emotional reality of it all – my reaction was visceral.
This time around, I decided to go because of a desire to increase my understanding, both of this country I have adopted as home and its people, as well as of the greater area in which I live. After all, Berlin is a bit like a pal of mine described it earlier today, a giant playground, but there is much much more to it that I have yet to discover, and I feel that it is my obligation, particularly if I want to function in this society. And now that I live here and have been a member of German society for a year, the German mentality is something I am just beginning to understand on a more complex level.
In some ways, it makes sense how a society ordered in this way could give rise to something like the Third Reich, but it’s a complicated and tricky kind of reality. That’s not to say Germans are bad people, but more to make the point that they are organized, efficient, and follow the rules. This makes things run smoothly, most of the time, but I can see how dissent during the early-to-mid 1900s was not something the government responded well to. I am simplifying things here, but these are just some general, surface-level observations I have made.
I have also seen how Germans wrestle with and confront their feelings about what occurred leading up to and during World War II in general, and about the Holocaust specifically. This takes the form of everything ranging from guilt, to a sense of responsibility and obligation to recognize and remain aware of what happened, to a backlash toward anything being regarded as remotely nationalistic, and more.
My overall impressions of Sachsenhausen were quite different than those of Dachau. Again, the external circumstances played a huge role; it was a beautiful day and there were not many visitors when we arrived (mid-afternoon). This allowed us to take our time and truly absorb the things we were interested in.
There were many things I learned on my visit that maybe seem like common sense or were never factually apparent to me, but also either had never occurred to me before or I hadn’t known about. The many exhibits here were also pretty thorough and intense. It gives an in-depth look at the lives of the prisoners, which I appreciated, as it showcased their lives before the war, as well as the things that survivors went on to do.
I particularly was surprised by the Charlotte Salomon paintings I came across. They looked familiar almost immediately but it took me a moment to place them; I had seen the “Leben? Oder Theater?” exhibit at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in early 2011.
All in all, we spent three full hours exploring the grounds, but that was hardly enough time to cover even half of what was there. This is more like a full-day experience.
And would I recommend it? Well, yes. One has to be in the proper mindset and have plenty of time to go. It’s free, and although there is the possibility of guided tours for a small price, I prefer having the freedom to pick and choose what I want to see and explore things more than surface level. So how one tailors a visit is up to the individual.
One of the many memorials in the wooded area in front of the main gate.
The “neutrale zone.”
A former prisoner’s reconstruction of the different identification each of the prisoners had to wear.
Flowers and notes left in jail cells in the solitary confinement block.
A statue bearing the names of all the countries that the various prisoners came from.
The Soviet Liberation Memorial, in the form of a tower reaching to the sky.
The execution trench, where thousands were killed.
Photos of prisoners taken just before they were killed; the photographer smuggled out the negatives to release them to the public.