Scrapbookpages Blog

June 29, 2012

Mass graves at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp Memorial Site

I took the photo above in 1999 when I visited the Sachsenhausen Memorial Site in Oranienburg, Germany. Now a regular reader of my blog has returned from a trip to Sachsenhausen where he took some fantastic photos of the mass graves, which you can see on his blog here.

There have been a lot of changes at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Site since I visited it in 1999.  This quote is from the blog of The Black Rabbit of Inlé:

[at the mass graves, there is] an expensive looking electronic gate. You push a button to let yourself out of the memorial,
and then later, push a button—with a security camera in your face—to request re-entry into the memorial.

When I visited Sachsenhausen in 1999, the mass graves could only be accessed by a revolving gate at the north exit of the Memorial Site, and there was no re-entry. Visitors who exited the Memorial Site to see the mass graves had to return to the parking lot by means of a road that ran along the west side of the former camp.

Sachsenhausen was one of the three major concentration camps in Germany; the other two were Buchenwald and Dachau.  The camps in Germany were mainly for political prisoners and illegal combatants who were captured during World War II; most of the Jews were “transported to the East,” to Auschwitz and Majdanek, or to the three “Operation Reinhard” camps at Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.

After World War II, Sachsenhausen was in the Soviet zone of occupation. The Soviet Union set up Special Camp No. 7 at Sachsenhausen, which was an “internment camp” for German prisoners.

According to an Information Leaflet, which I picked up at the Memorial Site in 1999, the former Nazi “preventive detention camp” at Sachsenhausen was converted by the Soviet Union into Zone I for German civilians who were arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen camp without a trial.

The brick barrack buildings at the north end of the Sachsenhausen camp, which the Nazis had used as a Special Camp for Allied Prisoners of War, were initially converted into Zone II for Soviet citizens who were awaiting return to the Soviet Union. Some of them were former concentration camp prisoners who were looked upon as traitors to Communism; they were waiting to be sent to the gulags in Siberia. Two of these brick buildings are shown in the photograph below. In August 1945, these brick barracks were used by the occupation forces of the Soviet Union as part of their prison camp for German citizens who had been arrested without charges.

Sachsenhausen barracks where German citizens were imprisoned by the Soviet Union, without charges or a trial,  after World War II ended

The Sachsenhausen camp was liberated by soldiers of the Soviet Union on April 22, 1945; most of the prisoners had been marched out of the camp, and only the prisoners who were too weak or sick to walk had been left behind.

The Soviets set up internment camps, in their zone of occupation, along the lines of the gulag system in the Soviet Union under the Communist dictatorship of Stalin.
This quote is from an Information Leaflet which I obtained from the Memorial Site in 1999:

In the Gulags that were created by Lenin and extended into a huge complex by Stalin, millions of people were required to perform forced labor for the development of the Soviet Union. Lawrentij Berija, the head of the Soviet National Commissioner’s Office of the Interior (NKVD), had already made provisions by January 1945 to secure the hinterland of the advancing Soviet Army. Members of the German Army and civilians captured by the Red Army during its advance were placed in camps immediately behind the front lines in order to be deported to the Soviet Union. Following the completion of the war negotiations, these camps were replaced by so-called Special Camps that were intended for long-term internment and imprisonment. Within the German territory occupied by the Soviets, ten camps were established, five of which were in Brandenburg. They were not under the authority of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, but were administered by a department of the NKVD in Moscow.

According to the files released by the Soviet Union, a total of approximately 60,000 German prisoners were held in the Sachsenhausen Special Camp No. 7 after World War II ended. The bodies of approximately 12,000 prisoners who died of starvation and disease were buried in unmarked mass graves in three locations: the Commandant’s Yard in the front of the north exit of the Memorial Site, on the dunes on Schmachtenhagener Street, and in the Schmachtenhagener Forest on highway B 273 between Oranienburg and Schmachtenhagen.

The photograph above shows the graves in the Schmachtenhagener Forest.

The following quote is from a brochure available at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Site in 1999:

A total of at least 12,000 prisoners of the Special Camp in Sachsenhausen died from the conditions of their imprisonment, from disease and chronic undernourishment. During the harsh winter of 1945-46, when the already insufficient food rations were again halved, prisoners died in masses. The dead were hastily buried, naked and without identification, in mass graves in the surrounding area of the camp.

Because every form of contact with the outside world was strictly forbidden, particularly receiving news from relatives, the Special Camp was often referred to as the ‘Camp of Silence.’ After the camp’s closing was propagandistically reported in the press in the spring of 1950, it was not permissible to speak of the camps in the German Democratic Republic. Even in the west zones of occupation and later the Federal Republic of Germany – where organizations like the ‘Fighting Group Against Inhumanity’ and the ‘East Offices’ of the SPD and CDU had tried to procure and spread information about the ‘Camps of Silence’ – by the end of the cold war the camps were completely forgotten.

Only after the breakdown of the Communist system in the G.D.R., when three mass graves of the Sachsenhausen Special Camp were discovered, did ‘Stalin’s camps in Germany’ return to the public consciousness. Former prisoners spoke openly about their memories and placed a memorial stone on the northeast camp wall in 1990.

A permanent exhibition on the history of Special Camp No. 7 is housed in a museum which has been built in the former Zone II, an area which was incorporated into the Sachsenhausen Memorial Site in 1995.

My 2001 photograph above shows the overhanging roof of the Special Camp No. 7 museum, which is located just outside the triangle which is the former prison enclosure.  The museum building is black granite with no windows; the interior is completely dark with spotlights shining on the displays.  In 2001, the museum included a lot of Nazi documents which served to explain why the Germans received such harsh treatment by the Communists in Special Camp No. 7. In 2001, this was not a museum devoted to exonerating the victims; it was highly critical of the Nazi regime, but perhaps it has changed since I visited.

On the right side of the photograph above, one can see the structure which formerly covered the ruined crematorium building and gas chamber.  You can see photos of the new structure that has been built at Station Z on this blog.  I previously blogged about the gas chamber at Sachsenhausen here.

The stone fence, on the left side of the photograph above, separates the Sachsenhausen concentration camp enclosure from Zone II where the brick barracks formerly housed Prisoners of War and later German army officers who became prisoners of the Communist Soviet occupation forces after World War II. The monument to the anti-Fascist resistance fighters can be seen in the center of the photograph.

Until recently, the Sachsenhausen camp was virtually unknown in America.  I had never even heard of it until September 1992 when a fire was started in the Jewish Museum by “right-wing extremists” and this was reported in my local newspaper.

You can read about the Jewish Museum on my website here.