“Arbeit Macht Frei”; these three German words meaning “work brings freedom” were the cold cast iron welcome prisoners of war during WWII saw as they entered Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Today these words still stand in place on the gate of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, just a short trip outside Berlin.
Brief History of the Camp:
After replacing the Oranienburg Concentration Camp in 1936, Sachsenhausen (named after part of the town of Oranienburg) was designed and ran as the model for the entire German concentration camp system. As the first new camp developed after Heinrich Himmler was appointed chief of police as well as the architectural ideal of camps to follow, Sachsenhausen quickly became the headquarters for the administration of the entire system in 1938.
Between 1936 and 1945 the prison held over 200,000 prisoners. Early on the occupants were largely political opponents to the Nazi party. As the war progressed, the population increasingly became those considered racially or biologically inferior to the Nazi regime. By the time the camp was evacuated in 1945 tens of thousands had perished from malnutrition, execution and disease. This was followed by thousands more during the “death march” from the camp that April as soviet troops closed in.
From 1945 to 1950 the camp was occupied by the Soviets who used the camp in a similar fashion to house political prisoners. By 1948 Sachsenhausen was re-named “Special-Camp #1” and before its closure in 1950 over 60,000 prisoners lived within its walls as prisoners of the Soviets. Over 12,000 of those men and women died of disease, horrible living conditions and physical exhaustion.
In 1961 the camp was inaugurated as a memorial. Many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, were in use by soviet military or, like the crematorium, blown up without ceremony. The boundaries of the original camp were moved in to create a focus on the “memorial are a” which was designed by the Soviets to replace the “scandal and horror with a commemoration area that is indisputably art.”
Still reduced to the triangular protective custody camp, the memorial in 1993 came under the jurisdiction of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation. Working with the idea that the original structures, reconstructed or renovated, were “guarantors of memory” the foundation undertook a huge project. No longer focused on the “art” of the memorial (a huge obelisk which sits opposite Tower A, or the entrance) the camp is now an ongoing reconstruction of particular buildings where the horrors of history can be evaluated in the setting in which they occurred. These “exhibits” are further complimented by a very well put together and informative museum where artifacts from the camp’s time as a German and Soviet Prison.
A Visit Today:
Today, a visit requires a short walk through a visitor’s center and down a fence lined path with decaying SS housing on your right. Soon, you are confronted with the eerie entrance structure known as Tower A as well as a somber memorial museum. Once you pass through the gate where the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” still hang you are instantly aware of the space you now occupy. The ground before you which was once the assembly area is devoid of vegetation and stands as a visual reminder of the lack of real “life” that the camp promoted among its prisoners.
Surrounding the assembly area is a memorial wall which depicts, with simple shapes, the arrangement of the many barracks and other buildings that radiated outwards from this point but are all but gone at present. Today only a few structures stand or have been reconstructed but each tells a particular story and shouldn’t be missed. Visitors can visit a prisoner’s barracks, the infirmary, the prison confinement area, and a soon to open reconstructed kitchen. In addition to these areas the excavated crematorium stands in a protective tent, a small building where “autopsies” were performed along with the deep, tile, drainable tables which were used and a trench designed for executions. On the opposite side of the camp entrance an additional museum was erected after 1990 when the mass graves created by the Soviet occupants were discovered. Today this museum stands in remembrance of those that died under Soviet occupation. Although the size of the camp had been reduced in the 1950s the site is still expanse and walking the entire area can be exhausting.
Along the outer wall one can see the several gun towers that were constructed as back-ups to the central tower which despite its intention as an efficient design was unable to handle its duty alone. Below the wall is the “no mans land” where all prisoners knew that they could be shot without warning if the line was crossed. The mood is expectantly reflective and the site’s removal from the hustle and bustle of Berlin accommodates the silence necessary for such. As part of their formative school years, German students are often brought to the memorial sites throughout the country. As with all children released from the confines of the classroom their chatter and carefree attitude can disrupt solemn reflection but Sachsenhausen’s history demands attention and loosing such for long is hard to do.
The easiest and most cost efficient way to get to Oranienburg is to catch the S-bahn line S1 (Wannsee to Oranienburg) out of Berlin. Be sure your train goes all the way to Oranienburg. The ride takes approximately 50 minutes and the last stop is where you will get off. The snack shop at the station is a good place to grab a quick bite despite its small and unappealing appearance. Be aware that if you are a Eurail pass holder for any pass valid in Germany the trip on the S-bahn is included.
Once you exit the station, signs will point you in the right direction if you choose to walk. On foot you will spend about 20-30 more minutes until you reach the gate. Oranienburg is not a very lively town and in all truthfulness its situation and popularity as home of a major world atrocity seems to have taken its toll. There is a distinct feeling of heaviness that lingers in the air. Still, the walk is pleasant and along the way one can find bits of history regarding the path of the camp’s evacuation and subsequent death march. If you would rather take the bus; bus 804 from the station in the direction of Malz will take you to the memorial (Gedankstätte).
The site is open daily from the 15th of March until the 14th of October from 8:30-6:00 and from the 15th of October until the 14th of March from 8:30-4:30. Entrance is free. The visitor’s center, bookstore and museums are closed on Mondays. If you are looking for a guided tour they are generally set up for groups and are priced based on the number of people. Unless someone else sets up a tour for your group I wouldn’t bother with a tour; the memorial is very well run and seeing yourself around is easily done.
Visiting a concentration camp on your trip to Germany may not be at the top of your list. The country is beautiful and the culture is engaging. Cities like Berlin can keep you occupied for days and towns like Tübingen welcome you in to a history of community and local tradition. Still, a visit to Sachsenhausen is a visit to a history that the world shares and a community that should be remembered.