I didn’t think it would be right to leave Germany without visiting a concentration camp. On my last day in Berlin, I boarded an hour-long train ride to go to Sachsenhausen. It is probably the most accessible concentration camp from Berlin and very easy to do on your own. You can take the S1 from Friedrichstrasse to Oranienburg, and from there, it is a 20-minute walk to the former camp. Upon exiting the train station, you can simply follow the signs through town. Similar to the past few days in Germany, it was a dreary and cold day and the weather set the tone before I even made my way past the concrete barrier that acted as an entry to Sachsenhausen.
The visitor’s center staff was friendly, and I rented an audio tour for a couple of Euros. I was told the tour could take 2-3 hours, and it wasn’t hard to see why. However, I only lasted about 50 minutes because a.) it’s extremely depressing and b.) my hands were numb from the wind and cold.
Here is a very brief background on Sachsenhausen:
- It was built in 1936
- More than 200,000 people were imprisoned here by the Nazis
- Depending on which report you read, between 30,000 and 50,000 people died or were killed here
- Sachsenhausen became a model for other concentration camps and the administrative center for all German concentration camps
- Sachsenhausen was a work camp, not a death camp- it was initially home to political opponents, unlike Auschwitz which practiced racial genocide (later Sachsenhausen would also include ‘inferior’ groups such as Jews, homosexuals, and religious leaders).
To enter the camp, you must first walk along the outer wall. Here is where the audio tour gives you much of the background info. For quite sometime, you can’t see what is behind the wall, but it gives you the sense of space as you’re lead up to the gates and realize just how large of an area it is. The tour takes you past the barracks, the prison barracks, the infirmary, Station Z (which was where the gas chamber and a crematorium was located), and several memorials. Why was it called Station Z? Because Z is the last letter.. it’s the end. Most of the buildings are replicas of the originals.
Visiting a concentration camp is not what many would deem as a tourist destination. However, as a tourist, I feel it is an educational obligation to visit sites such as these to make history on paper more of a reality. The camp experience and blustery weather left me in a melancholic mood. Since it is just outside of town, it’s literally set in the middle of a neighborhood. I walked past houses who saw the former concentration camp everyday. I imagine you grow accustomed to the site, but I think it’d be depressing to look out your window and see a former killing ground. I warmed up on the train back to Berlin, and while I’m glad I took the opportunity to visit Sachsenhausen, I was happy that it was behind me now. Like others, I will not forget.