I had not heard of Sachsenhausen before my trip to Berlin. Located in Oranienburg, just outside the city, it was the first iteration of Nazi design—the early concentration camp was shaped as a triangle to enable the guards to have a full view of the prisoners at all times. Beginning in 1936, it was the headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (commonly known as the “SS”) training and the Inspekteur der Konzentrationslager (inspector of concentration camps). The SS training academy, in a touching but stunning irony, is now the location of the German police training. It is amazing to think the next generation of Germany’s police cadets is learning literally next to the greatest example of the corruption of its police authority.
Because I am Jewish, and because I am a human, I have visited various memorials and museums of World War II and the Holocaust. The experience has always felt emotionally draining, but there is something different inside a concentration camp. I touched the hatred and the hope still living in the wood of the barracks; I walked the same stones walked on by patriotic soldiers and starving prisoners. It is an experiment in the depth of my empathy, my memory, and my ability to balance despair and joy at the situation past and present. A feeling of awe at the width and breadth of human hatred. A feeling that my definitions of “service” and “helping others” are misguided and shallow. A feeling of terror that killing technologies have only become sharper since. A feeling of overwhelming privilege that I am wearing a coat. A feeling of shame that I haven’t read more about the systems that enabled this exploitation. A feeling of futility that I will not do it justice when I attempt to describe this place. A feeling of urgency to call my Bubbe (grandmother).
I visited on November 8th, the anniversary of the most-nearly-successful assassination attempt on Hitler by a man named Johann Elser. Elser planted a time bomb in Munich where Hitler was expected to give a 3-hour speech. Hitler ended the speech 13 minutes early, left the building, and boarded a train back to Berlin the minute it detonated. Elser was later detained in Sachsenhausen.
I ask: is there more goodness in the world than evil?
The camp was not hidden. The train we took, on railway tracks that withstood a whole World War’s weathering, leads to the center of Oranienburg. The inmates exited the trains and walked on these paths and were seen by people who looked through these windows. I look, from the outside, at these windows now and I wonder if the town’s residents said “good morning” to the SS officers in charge of walking the inmates to and from the brick factory, if they noticed how prisoners would dig all day without being fed, or if they ever asked what crimes these prisoners had committed. Residents of Oranienburg could see the smoke and they could hear the gunshots and even if they closed their eyes or ignored the sounds, there was always the stench of burning flesh.
Our guide spoke of the camp’s better-known prisoners. She asks if anyone knows the poem “First they came for the Communists,” and I said yes, I grew up reading those words. Pastor Martin Niemöller, the author, was kept in the isolation chamber until he was sent to Dachau. She asks if we think anyone escaped the camp and I say nothing. A British officer called “Mad Jack Churchill” escaped Sachsenhausen and fought his way through the rest of World War II with a sword. Niemöller and Churchill both lived, but the lowest estimate of prisoners to pass through the camp is 200,000.
Our guide takes us to Station Z, the killing chamber built in 1942 to implement the Final Solution: the Nazi plans for complete annihilation of the Jewish people. There are two suspension poles, a firing range, a gas chamber and a crematorium. Unique to Sachsenhausen, this gas chamber had a real shower with hot, running water. Prisoners experienced exactly two minutes of a warm shower, and then died quickly as steam more rapidly and evenly distributed poison gas.
I ask: is the world getting worse or getting better?
As a friend reflected to me, to sustain good in the world, we must “tend it like we might a newborn or a dear relationship, with intense care and attention and vigilance.” How might we ensure this world we tourist through and ultimately leave behind is a little better than the one we were born into?
For me, it is fostering the goodness in ourselves, through service or religion or friendships or reading or reflection, that can ultimately craft our vigilance against the bad. It is believing that our actions, like rainwater, are sometimes reused and sometimes refused but at least eternal in this thing we call the life cycle. Maybe you’ve been to a concentration camp, or a provocative museum, or a border zone, or some place that knifed your belief in humanity. Our guide ended the tour with the story of a young girl staring at the prisoners digging in front of her house. She waited patiently until the SS officer walked away, trotted to one of the ditches, unloaded apples hidden in her pockets, and ran back inside. These are the rays of light within history’s night.
We exit through the iron gate that coldly boasts the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free). I kept glancing back. The clock at the top of the watchtower is stopped at 11:07am – the exact minute of liberation.
As the sun set over Sachsenhausen, I could think of nothing, and then of one thing: as night fell 70 years ago, there was at least the hope that morning could bring.