Behind the walls of a concentration camp

Last updated 05:00 30/01/2015
The area where Soviet POW’s were killed for shooting practice
Chloe Milne

SOMBRE: The area where Soviet prisoners of war were killed for shooting practice.

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Visiting a concentration camp was something I had wanted to do for a long time. I felt it was important to learn more about the Holocaust and remember those who suffered

After being in Berlin for about 10 days and having already visited the Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, the Holocaust Memorial and the Anne Frank Zentrum, all of which gave me greater insight into World War II and the Holocaust, I decided to continue my education and visit a concentration camp. 

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is located in Oranienburg, 35km north of Berlin - a 30-minute train ride on the regional train or longer on the S-Bahn. I joined a group tour to visit the camp, hoping it would give me greater insight into what happened there, and it certainly did. 

After arriving at the camp, our tour group was lead into a classroom where we were given a brief introduction. The camp housed 200,000 prisoners and we were shown on a map just how large it was - something that shocked all of us.

Today, we would only be seeing 10 per cent of the original area. It was then that we learned that Sachsenhausen was a working camp, rather than a death camp, like the better-known Auschwitz.

That's not to say it was any better for prisoners. There were still beatings, hideous conditions, gas chambers and medical experimentations conducted on prisoners. 

Our tour leader explained that the life expectancy of working camp members was only six to eight weeks and that work given to prisoners was not necessary for a goal, but rather to break a prisoner. A prisoner might have to dig out an area, then fill it in, then dig it out again.

It was stories like this that brought home just how demoralising it would have been as a prisoner.  

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'WORK MAKES YOU FREE': The entrance gates to the camp. 

Most of the original buildings at Sachsenhausen have been destroyed, so much of the area available for viewing is empty space. What is left though is very meaningful.

Barracks have been reconstructed to show what it would have been like to live at the camp - much of the infirmary still remains, there is a death pit, parts of experimental gas chambers and a large soviet liberation memorial.

As we walked through the gates to the camp we walked past the words "Arbeit macht frei" or "work makes you free".  We were told that the prisoners would have arrived at the same station we did for the tour and walked the same 15-minute walk to the camp.

Most would have suffered physical abuse in this time.

They would be taken to a building, through the gates, where they would have to surrender all of their possessions, including clothing, and all of their body hair was removed.

As my tour guide said: "... they would be losing part of their identity and because the experience was so traumatic, many of the prisoners would die within the first 24 - 48 hours, some from suicide".

In a separate building, the prisoners were given blue and white striped uniforms, which were decorated with a symbol that would show their prison ranking. Distinctions were made between people who were deemed Jewish, homosexual or gypsy.

After being shown the general area, we were taken to see reconstructed barracks. The barracks had been attacked as late as 1992, by holocaust deniers.

Inside, we could see wooden beds like the ones they would have been forced to sleep on. Overcrowding was such that it was impossible to roll over and only possible to change sleeping side if everyone did so.

There was very limited time for prisoners to wash and at times there would be as many as eight prisoners washing in the small baths. Often beatings would occur in the washrooms, with some prisoners being drowned in the toilets.

A small room beside the toilets, about the size of a small walk-in wardrobe, was used for punishments. Men were forced to stand completely still inside the room, without touching the sides. Sometimes it would be so crowded that prisoners would suffocate. 

I noticed my tour members grow quieter and more sombre after we had seen the barracks, but the worst was still to come.

MEDICAL EXPERIMENTS: Concrete tables where autopsies were performed.

We were walked to the crematorium, execution trench and shooting practice area. Some 5,000 Russian prisoners of war were shot through the back of the neck as they stood against a tape measure during what they thought was a physical, but was in fact target practice for SS soldiers.

The gas chamber was also experimental at Sachsenhausen. They experimented with different types of gas, using warm water and warm air to be more "efficient".

The group tour ended after this, but I stayed at the camp and continued to explore on my own. The infirmary was one particularly chilling place that I found.

I had heard that medical experiments had been conducted on prisoners at the camp. There was a small room with two concrete tables where autopsies were performed to determine the result of those experiments.

Apparently around 40 different medical experiments were conducted on the prisoners, including castrations, sterilisations, testing the effects of various toxins on the human body, and introductions of various diseases that would either kill the prisoners or give them serious health issues.

Once the bodies had been assessed, they were pushed down a slide to the corpse cellar, which was as awful as it sounds.

Final thoughts on visiting a camp: 

It was certainly a meaningful experience. I learned more about what some 200,000 people went through not so long ago.

I thought I would feel emotional and upset during and after the experience, but it didn't really hit me until I got back to my place in Berlin, where I found myself with a lot to think about.

It's hard to imagine what it was really like, but I just hope people keep visiting and remembering so that what happened is never forgotten. 

I highly recommend taking a tour of any concentration camp you might visit. My first impressions were that the camp was too "prettied up" to really show what happened there. Without a guide explaining everything that had gone on in the area I think I would have left feeling as though I hadn't really seen the horrors of a concentration camp. 

Read more about Chloe's travels here.


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