Going to a concentration camp within hours of arriving in Berlin may not seem like a usual first choice, but Sachenhausen was where I headed. Eavesdropping as a young Brazilian couple asked for directions at the hostel , I invited myself along for a true adventure in foreign city travel as our one hour trip swelled in time and frustration. Sachenhausen was Berlin’s only real concentration camp from 1936 – 1945. Created before the start of WW II it raises questions that continue to be asked long after the war’s end.
I wrote about my visit to Auschwitz in my post ‘Unimaginable to Awe’ and shared emotions and thoughts about humanity’s crimes against itself. In 2009 the BBC ran a story about Auschwitz, suggesting that perhaps the real question to ask was if human beings were out to destroy themselves. Sachenhausen, as a training camp for SS guards and model camp (for torture) in the ‘imperial capital’ begins that line of questioning. SS guards mastering acts of torture went on to run camps including Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Majdenek (in Poland).
Sachenhausen housed over 200,000 prisoners initially incarcerating political opponents of the Nazi regime before settling on those considered to be racially and biologically inferior. Nazi organization assigned different colored stars to the different groups including pink for homosexuals, black for gypsies, and at the bottom of the hierarchy, yellow for Jews. It’s estimated that about 105,000 Jews were killed here, many due to malnutrition and poor conditions, and included most of the Jews left in Germany. Of the 30,000 Jews arrested during Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, many were sent here.
Sachenhausen not only excelled as a source of cruelty, but as a source of generating profit – through counterfeiting. When I saw the 2007 movie ‘The Counterfeiters’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Counterfeiters), the story of the prisoners who literally made money for the Reich, I didn’t pay much attention to the camp’s location,which I couldn’t picture. Connecting the movie to this place as I walked the camp’s grounds heightened my awareness of yet another Holocaust story.
There’s something even more puzzling to me about this camp. The largest prisoner populations were Jews, and, Soviet prisoners of war. Russians (and Poles) liberated Sachenhausen in 1945 (and Auschwitz), AND, from 1945 – 1950 used this camp as their own center for torture and imprisonment. Did the Soviets ‘learn’ from their enemies? Why was this the lesson they learned, adapted, and, perfected?
And the question I’ve asked before (and need to keep asking), why and how do people contain so much hate, fear, loneliness and greed that leads them to such unspeakable acts? I haven’t been able to answer that question successfully and can only add my wonder to all those who have posed this questions over the life span of our species. Tanya, a Russian Israeli I met in Vilna had an interesting perspective that in review sheds some light on the question: people don’t like to be threatened. Her insight is based on her experience as one of two very smart Jewish kids in (Russia) elementary school before moving to Israel and finding herself a Russian ‘outsider’. Simplifying the issue? Sure. Yet as I read back through my notes it seems she pulls together the reasons so many of us have identified.
Is there anything that justifies the cruel actions the battered Soviets mimicked then made uniquely their own? And to be sure the Soviets suffered great loss and hardship during the war. Does this relate to other unspeakable crimes like Columbine (and the teased becoming the aggressors)?