A chilling experience
During our visit to Berlin in 2017 we visited the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen. Being interested in this part of history we already went to some other former camps as well. Knowing the stories of Sachsenhausen, made it one of the most loaded experiences we ever had. It’s an intense place and we immediately felt the connection with it’s gruesome past. But it’s also part of history that can’t be forgotten or denied.
Sachsenhausen was a labor camp outfitted with several subcamps, a gas chamber, and a medical experimentation area. Prisoners were treated harshly, fed sparingly, and killed openly. Those held captive in Sachsenhausen were the men and women which the Third Reich wanted dead, not just because of their religion, but because of their political beliefs and their power over those who listened to them.
The camp was established in 1936. It was located 35 kilometres (22 miles) north of Berlin, which gave it a primary position among the German concentration camps: the administrative centre of all concentration camps was located in Oranienburg, and Sachsenhausen became a training centre for Schutzstaffel (SS) officers (who would often be sent to oversee other camps afterwards). Initially, the camp was used to perfect the most efficient and effective execution method for use in the death camps. Given this, executions obviously took place at Sachsenhausen, especially of Soviet prisoners of war. During the earlier stages of the camp’s existence the executions were done by placing the prisoner in a small room, often even with music playing, called the Genickschussbaracke and told they were to have their height and weight measured but were instead shot in the back of the neck through a sliding door located behind the neck. This was found to be far too time-consuming so they then trialled a trench, killing either by shooting or by hanging. While this more easily enabled group executions, it created too much initial panic among the prisoners, making them harder to control. So, still not happy, they then started doing small scale trials of what would go on to become the large scale, infamous, death camp gas chambers. These trials were successful and showed them that this method was “the one” as it facilitated the means to kill the largest number of prisoners, without “excessive” initial panic. So by September 1941, when they were conducting the first trials of this method at Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen had already been the scene of “some gassings in conjunction with the development of gas vans”.
The prisoners were also used as a workforce, with a large task force of prisoners from the camp sent to work in the nearby brickworks to meet Albert Speer’s vision of rebuilding Berlin.