by Lisa Berry-Waite
On my third day in Berlin I decided to visit Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp which is a short train journey from Berlin. As I’m not the best at using public transport in foreign countries, I decided to book onto a tour, meeting again in Paris Square similar to the walking tour.
On the journey our tour guide (who had a very strong Liverpudlian accent) discussed the events that led to the rise of the Nazi Party and what the camp in Sachsenhausen was used for. Opening in 1936, it was used mainly for political prisoners, though there were also Jewish and homosexual prisoners that were kept there. Our tour guide explained that among the prisoners, there was a “hierarchy” with each type of prisoner distinguishable by the colour triangle they wore on their clothes. At the top were criminals (murderers), then Communists (red triangles), homosexuals (pink triangles), and Jews (yellow triangles). This was intended to stop the different groups coming together and rebelling against the camp commanders and guards.
Walking through the gate, emblazoned with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work sets you free’), into the camp was a surreal moment, especially as it was such a beautiful day; it was hard to believe thousands of prisoners were beaten and murdered on these grounds.
On 27 April 1945 the camp was liberated by advance troops of the Soviet army, and at the far end of the camp stands the Soviet Liberation Memorial to mark this. Of the 30,000 prisoners who died at Sachsenhausen, the vast majority were Russian prisoners of war; and to mark this the Memorial contains eighteen red triangles as a symbol for those political (mainly communist) prisoners of the camp.
Following this liberation, the camp was used by the Soviets (until 1950) and then the East German ‘Kasernierte Volkspolizei’, who were disbanded six years later. In 1956 planning began to make the camp into a national memorial site; this was inaugurated in 1961. Today the camp is open to the public as both a memorial and a museum. Many of the buildings have survived or have been reconstructed including the guard towers, the camp entrance, crematory ovens, and the camp barracks. The museum contains artwork created by inmates, models of the camp, and documents and pictures that detail what camp life was like. Artefacts belonging to the inmates are also on display for the public to view which of course was incredibly moving to see, as were the bunk-beds and toilets inside the barracks.
The most moving part of the visit was seeing the crematory ovens and execution trench. Seeing it in real life is, as you would imagine, completely different from reading about it in a text book. Nothing can quite prepare you for seeing something as terrible as this. Although I’m glad I visited Sachsenhausen, it was certainly quite an overwhelming day. However, I think it’s important that camps such as this one are open to the public to ensure that the horrific mistakes of the past do not repeat themselves.
After I got back to Berlin that day, I decided to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum situated under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which I had visited the previous day. The personal stories of the Jews who were sent to concentration camps were told through the use of archive material which made their stories feel even more moving. In one part of the museum there was even a dark room where people’s personal experiences and letters were lit up on panels on the floor which I thought was a good way of engaging the public.
The following day I visited The Typography of Terror. This museum was very different as it focused on archive material relating to Hitler and the Nazi. For instance, on display was the 1933 bill that prohibited the formation of any political party apart from the Nazi Party.
It was incredibly busy in the museum and although there was a lot of information to read, the displays were very interesting to read. One part of the exhibition included a panel of different mug shots of those who had been arrested by the Gastarpo. Underneath were the details their ‘crime’ and the concentration camp they were sent to. One particular man I came across called Arthur L was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp for being a homosexual. Having visited this camp the previous day, this definitely made it feel more more real for me
The Berlin Wall was directly outside this museum, therefore on one side of the wall the exhibition continued with information panels consisting of photos and archival material relating to the rise of the Nazis. As it was so busy and I was running late to pick up my bike for the placement excursion, I didn’t get a chance to read a lot of this. However, I would definitely pay the Typography of Terror a visit if you’re ever in Berlin as it was my favourite museum.
After this I made my way to a local bike shop where Leonore had made a bike rental reservation for me. As the excursion included a lot of cycling from place to place, it was paramount that I picked it up before the shop closed up at four! … However, one thing I’ve learnt during my time in Berlin is that I should never be trusted with a map. After getting incredible lost and panicking as it was almost four, a lovely German lady gave me directions and I made it on time. Though she didn’t speak a word of English, I managed to make out roughly what she was saying. Thank goodness I paid attention in German class when we were learning directions!
Having picked up my bike, I wanted to make the most out of my last evening in Berlin before I started my placement the next day. And what better way than by going on a river cruise! Here I passed Museum Island, the Reichstag, Martin Luther Bridge and many other buildings of significance. It was certainly a nice way to end my long weekend in Berlin. The rest of the night I spent packing ensuring I had everything ready for my placement the following day (and trying to brush up on my German.) Though my time in Berlin was quite hectic trying to fit everything in, the city has so much to offer and I will definitely be going back.
Look out for my next blog post where I begin my placement excursion and get to explore the beautiful medieval town of Prenzlau and cross over the river Oder to Poland.