A Walk in a Concentration Camp

A few kilometers away from the enigma created by the collective presence of graffiti, the wall and all the clubbing lies an important reminder for the whole human race - Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. From the Holocaust to the Berlin wall, the city of Berlin has been through a lot and as a result it has evolved so much by allowing people to live freely. From the eyes of an Indian, the culture here seems way too open and can sometimes be intimidating. So when our tour guide tells us about the story associated with the Berlin wall and the consequences of the breaking of it, I realize the cause behind this openness.

To an outsider, it feels like there’s a lot of disciplined independence in this city. I was impressed by the rainbow flags hanging out of the windows of so many buildings and also, in particular, by one incident where I saw a swift police response to a call of help by someone who was beaten up on the streets. On the third day, however, near the place of the incident, my eyes couldn’t ignore a message against homosexuality. Where there’s freedom, there’s agitation against it and there’s a freedom to control that freedom as well.

In the city where you realize the actual meaning of night life, when you hear about how it gradually came into light after the reunification caused abandoned sites to be occupied by squatters for little or no rent, you want to go back and explore more and hence the visit to the remains of Berlin Wall happened and we got to know how two external powers ripped this country apart due to the fear of what a unified Germany might do again.

History repeated itself after the end of the World War II and this time there was a death strip for people who dared to cross the border and flee to West Germany. West Germany was undergoing economic miracles but peace had not entered the communist East Germany yet. East Germany (GDR) had an official state security service commonly known as Stasi to spy on people. Stasi maintained files on every citizen which were then returned to them after GDR was dissolved. An overlook at these files opened up betrayals from the closest folks which is why a large number of people never opened them.

One of the measures taken by Stasi to ensure there’s no movement across the wall was the use of different clock systems across West and East Germany. The teachers were asked to make students draw clocks and send a report of which student drew it in the West German style, an indication that s/he sees West German TV at home. Maybe Stasi were as cruel and demeaning as Nazis and a lot of things they did might never come out. Cold War might not have been as visibly violent and warlike as the World Wars but it definitely did break the spirit of people.

The next stop was Anne Frank Museum - Hier and Heute. It’s funny how none of this history intrigued me when I was in school (probably because I was not free to choose it) but when I was in the city, the sudden realization of walking on the streets, where one of the biggest mass killings and tortures in history happened, affected me and pulled me towards its story.

Anne Frank was a Jew and was just 13 years old when her family had to go into hiding in Amsterdam. The hiding spot was disclosed by someone, following which they were taken to Germany. She died out of starvation in the concentration camp just before the war ended. Two things affected me a lot in particular - a quote by Anne Frank written in her diary and a picture of her father who was the only one to survive in their family. On 5th April 1944, Anne Frank wrote -

"When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or writer?"

Her father read her diary when the Holocaust came to an end and was so affected by the maturity in his daughter's thoughts that he eventually got convinced to publish her diary and give her what she wanted when she was alive. This is the photo of her father in contemplation, I guess I don't need to say why it affected me.

We ended our visit with Sachsenhausen concentration camp which was the most affecting part of this journey. Before I go on, an advice for people who get a chance to visit this camp - do not take the audio guide. It gives you so much information that it becomes a distraction. A guided tour would be the best for this place.

People were taken to Sachsenhausen on the pretext of work. For the outside world, the building believed in the motto 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work makes you free), which was also written on the main gate. Probably not a lot of people knew what went on inside. The camp was made in the form of an equilateral triangle for better watch towers and vantage points. Our guide talked about various forms of punishment here (punishment for being a Jew, communist, intellectual, gypsy or homosexual), a few of which I have mentioned below.

There was a death strip in the front where a person was immediately shot on entering. There's a story that once the Schutzstaffel (SS) guards wanted to kill a political prisoner, so they threw his hat in this strip and asked him to pick it up leaving him no choice but to die. The death strip was followed by a semicircular roll call area in the center where people had to stand in attention after breakfast, lunch and dinner. The maximum a roll call went for was 16 hours in minus 22 centigrade where the propaganda was to kill all the sick people because they were no more of use to the camp. The person who came up with this idea got promoted as well after he successfully executed this and killed half of the population of sick people in the camp.

On the periphery, there was a shoe testing track as well where people were made to run with 30kg of bags wearing shoes designed for Nazi armies covering 30 to 40 km. The maximum a person survived after this was one week. There were other modes of punishment as well, out of which I found strappado the most brutal one, in which the prisoner’s hands were tied behind his/her back and suspended by a rope attached to the wrists, resulting in dislocated shoulders, eventually leading to death.

In the midst of the walking tour, having been moved by all of this so much already, we entered the Z zone. Since Z is the last symbol of the alphabet, it symbolizes the last phase of a prisoner's life. When people were taken to this zone, they were not told that they were going to die. The idea was to produce a sudden horror in their hearts so that they don't get time to get ready for their death. How strong the hatred must have been that resulted in satisfaction being driven from seeing other people in pain and devising the most brutal plans one can think of to finish a race altogether! How did these people get convinced to commit this horrendous atrocity!

Once you come out of this camp, having known what really happened inside, it raises a lot of questions in your mind about why people have so much hatred in their heart and feeling of superiority over one another in their mind. You ponder over the lengths people can go to in order to achieve something and also get incessantly shocked by how a propaganda turned into a euthanasia just by tapping the nerves of people.

This is how the school kids were brainwashed -

This was probably a secret agenda being carried out on such a larger scale and across borders that it couldn’t be kept secret anymore, what about the bunch of clandestine tasks being carried out by similar forces today? Most important of all, have we really learnt anything at all from the Holocaust or are we repeating the same mistakes again? Should we be grateful that we were not born in these times to witness the madness of twentieth century or is it too soon to say that 21st century will not repeat the past?

A picture from the Berlin wall which I’m still observing -