As our group entered the inner compound of Sachsenhausen, the wind began blowing harshly and black clouds rolled over the sky. We stood together in a central yard. Unlike Auschwitz, which was preserved as a national memorial the day after it was liberated, there was no sentiment in defeated Germany for memorializing a concentration camp. Desperate Germans, Ingrid told us, entered the camp and dismantled many of the barracks for firewood.
What is left, therefore, are a few barracks, which were used by the Soviets from 1945-1950 as prison quarters. The pebble-filled foundations of the other barracks have been kept, as have the walls and the main watch tower. One could get a good sense of the camp's semi-circular layout from the pebbled outline of the barracks.
Ingrid told us that Sachsenhausen never achieved the notoriety of an Auschwitz because it was primarily for political prisoners, not extermination, and because it spent so many years neglected in East German territory. She pointed out how the camp was built in a triangle, so that the main watchtower, with its guards and machine gun, could keep much of the 1,000 acre site under surveillance. As she talked, torrents of rain began to fall and huge gusts of wind threatened to pull our umbrellas from our hands. It was so cold and soaking wet that Ingrid took us into a barracks to finish her talk, even though it was not our "turn" to be there. We were collectively unwilling to complain, as we knew whatever we suffered in our warm clothes and well-fed bodies could be nothing compared to what the prisoners endured.
The barracks were plain and primitive, with peeling paint on the ceilings. A central washroom/bathroom area separated the two wings of the barracks we saw. Ingrid explained to us that the camp was designed as a completely insular society, with a hierarchy of prisoners--criminals on top, followed by communists, homosexuals and Jews. (This explains how Niemoller could survive there for seven years: as an Aryan and Hitler's "special" prisoner, he was top of the heap; the guards were careful that he didn't die, fearing Hitler's wrath.) Roma, artists and Jehovah's Witnesses also found themselves interned in the camp for refusing to "fit in" the Nazi social order. While the camp was not specifically a Jewish extermination center, a number of Jews were sent there to be exterminated and those interned in the camp suffered the worst abuse of all the prisoners.
People worked in the brickworks, brutally hard and dangerous work, as well as making armaments, counterfeiting foreign currencies (a "good" use of artists' talents) or breaking in shoes, a cruel labor that involved endless jogging in stiff, ill-fitting foot ware that left prisoners exhausted and often with blisters or foot injuries that became lethal. Prisoners were subjected to random killings and tortures, especially when the SS guards got drunk and decided to have "fun." Most of the stories are sickening and probably well known. Hunger and later, as the war progressed, starvation, became common. But prisoners also formed friendships and organized networks that could be lifesaving.
I have seen many, many photographs throughout my life of concentration camps and have also seen some filmed footage, but nothing can compare to actually being in a camp. For me, the camps have always had a foggy, phantasmorgic, nightmarish quality--and of course, were always black and white. Their literal physicality had eluded me. It was difficult to picture what they were really like; I had no context. Being at Sachenshausen, however, I saw concrete geographies: Sachenshausen is a real dimensional space. It was the exact opposite of the sensation of visiting a film set, where you find out with disappointment that what seemed real was an illusion--three dimensions, for example, might be a painted backdrop. In contrast, at the camp the stuff of nightmares and seeming illusion was concretized in the space/time continuum.
At times, I considered taking pictures but the strong wind and the almost relentless rain made me reluctant to do so. But perhaps I really didn't want to reduce this place that felt, paradoxically, like a deeply holy ground because of all the suffering it held, to another consumable.
The rain died down near the end but a cold wind still blew, causing me to shiver even in July in my violet jacket. I found myself making friends with another tourist, a friendly woman from Edinburgh. Would we have made friends anyway or was there something that drew us together seeking comfort and safety in community?