Across the Gulf of Time, Bear­ing Wit­ness to Evil

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Craig Whit­lock

ORANIEN­BURG, Ger­many A t the end of the peace­ful neigh­bor­hood street, past the tidy pre­war cot­tages and just be­yond the snack bar of­fer­ing ice cream on a cool spring day, looms what’s left of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp.

It’s 10:07 a.m. and birds are trilling in the tree­tops, the voices of happy school­child­ren echo from a nearby play­ground at re­cess. But that’s out­side the gates of the Sach­sen­hausen camp. Inside, ex­cept for the sound of the rush­ing wind, it’s as quiet as a tomb.

The Nazis built Sach­sen­hausen in 1936 as a pro­to­type for their rapidly ex­pand­ing net­work of con­cen­tra­tion camps. With nine watch­tow­ers and a topo­graph­i­cal lay­out de­signed for op­ti­mal sur­veil­lance of pris­on­ers, it was hailed by Heinrich Himm­ler, the SS leader and chief of the Ger­man po­lice, as a “mod­ern, up-to-date, ideal and eas­ily ex­pand­able con­cen­tra­tion camp.”

Un­like many of the Nazi death camps, Sach­sen­hausen was lo­cated in a pop­u­lated area, at the edge of Oranien­burg, a small city about 20 miles due north of cen­tral Ber­lin. The SS of­fi­cers and guards who bru­tal­ized the more than 200,000 peo­ple who passed through the camp over the course of nine years— and mur­dered an es­ti­mated 50,000 of them — lived with their fam­i­lies in newly built sub­ur­ban homes out­side the gates.

Not much of the orig­i­nal camp in­fra­struc­ture re­mains to­day. But enough has been re­stored or re­built over the years to of­fer an eerie and un­for­get­table re­minder of the evil that took root here.

At the main en­trance, the cruel greet­ing “ AR­BEIT MACHT FREI” — “Work Makes You Free”— re­mains wrought in large black let­ters on the steel gate.

Just inside, two Ger­man teenage girls shuf­fle along a path, gaz­ing at the rusty barbed wire and con­crete fence posts that once penned in thou­sands of starv­ing and sick pris­on­ers. It’s the first time the pair has vis­ited a con­cen­tra­tion camp, some­thing that vir­tu­ally all Ger­man high school stu­dents are re­quired to do be­fore they grad­u­ate.

“It’s hard to imag­ine what they had to go through, the peo­ple who were im­pris­oned here,” said Liza Rausch, 16, a 10th-grader from Ben­sheim in south-cen­tral Ger­many. About 40 of her class­mates are visit­ing Ber­lin. The group was split about whether they wanted to leave the cap­i­tal to see Sach­sen­hausen, she said. But in the end, all made the trip.

Her friend, Ju­lia Jan­nink, 17, pro­nounced the ex­pe­ri­ence “sad” but nec­es­sary. But she is mildly ir­ri­tated. Most of the vis­i­tors to Sach­sen­hausen to­day are stu­dent groups from other coun­tries, Spain, the Nether­lands, Greece and Nor­way among them. And some can’t sup­press their nor­mal teenage an­tics: jok­ing, teas­ing, mak­ing fun of their sur­round­ings.

“I’m sur­prised that they’ve shown such lit­tle re­spect,” Jan­nink said. “They just walk through and carry on and laugh.”

An es­ti­mated 350,000 peo­ple visit Sach­sen­hausen each year. This week­end, about 40 sur­vivors were ex­pected to re­turn for the 62nd an­niver­sary of the camp’s lib­er­a­tion from the Nazis.

Crab grass cov­ers the wind-swept grounds, along with a few scrag­gly dan­de­lions. Sev­eral sycamores and birches have been planted in re­cent decades, but no liv­ing thing ap­pears to date to World War II. Dust devils spin across the bare earth on the paths along the camp perime­ter.

Next to a large ditch known as the Ex­e­cu­tion Trench — where the Nazis sum­mar­ily shot tens of thou­sands of pris­on­ers — a sprin­kler at­tached to a gar­den hose wa­ters a small shady patch of green and brown moss. A sign says the ashes of “pa­tri­ots from all Euro­pean lands” were scat­tered here. In 1940, the SS built a cre­ma­to­rium. Black clouds of smoke hov­ered above Oranien­burg for weeks at a time.

The orig­i­nal in­mates at Sach­sen­hausen were po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, in­ter­nal en­e­mies of the Third Re­ich. As war raged across Europe, in­mates were brought here from across Europe.

Plaques adorn the camp walls to honor Ukraini­ans, Bel­gians, Lux­em­bourg­ers and other vic­tim groups. One marker memo­ri­al­izes 890 Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses “who suf­fered for their Chris­tian faith at Sach­sen­hausen.” Jews died here, too, though in smaller num­bers than in other camps. An es­ti­mated 10,000 Soviet pris­on­ers of war were killed in a sin­gle mas­sacre.

At 11:07 a.m., Marta Gunn Dynna, 60, a Nor­we­gian school­teacher, walks slowly along the path through the Ex­e­cu­tion Trench. She’s been bring­ing stu­dents from her high school near Lille­ham­mer here since 1992.

“It makes a deep, last­ing im­pres­sion,” she says. “We try to re­mind them of this pe­riod of his­tory. No one should for­get what hap­pened. It’s just dif­fi­cult for young peo­ple to­day to com­pre­hend.”

Sach­sen­hausen was over­run by the Soviet Red Army on April 22, 1945. Four months later, the Sovi­ets re­opened Sach­sen­hausen as a prison camp, this time for Nazis and anti-com­mu­nists. About 50,000 peo­ple were de­tained there un­til it was shut­tered for good in 1950.

In 1961, the East Ger­man gov­ern­ment de­clared the site a me­mo­rial to the strug­gle against fas­cism. But it wasn’t un­til af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin Wall in 1989 that Sach­sen­hausen be­came a non-ide­o­log­i­cal mu­seum.

At 12:17 p.m., an Amer­i­can teenager walked past the main gate, one hand grip­ping a bratwurst in a bun, the other cradling a cell­phone to her ear. “It’s amaz­ing!” she said, loudly enough for all to hear.


The phrase “Work Makes You Free” cru­elly greeted about 200,000 pris­on­ers sent by the Nazis to the Sach­sen­hausen death camp in Oranien­burg, Ger­many, from 1936 to 1945.

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