Today was the first of two days dedicated to the single most difficult aspect of Germany's past, the concentration camps, and the holocaust.
We set out on a 45 minute drive from Berlin to the town of Oranienburg, which was the centre for all SS activity with regard to concentration camps. It was home to Sachsenhausen, one of the first of the camps, which was also to be the model for all future camps. Although meant mostly for political prisoners, and not specifically considered an extermination camp, 22,000 people nevertheless ended their days here under the Nazi regime, and a further 12,000 under the subsequent use as a Soviet "Special Camp".
I wasn't sure what to expect as we walked down the long path from the parking and ticket office to the entrance of the camp proper. Those who have been to any relatively popular museum would recognize the throngs of tourists, the array of languages being spoken, the hurried selfies in front of various artifacts, etc. We toured the various structures, and walked the large, open field. We read the placards telling us the history of this place. It struck me, as I watched tour groups being led about by guides, that this may not have been much unlike the work groups being led by soldiers to their various duties. It also occurred to me that the array of languages and races that wandered these grounds were the ultimate testimony to the failure of the Nazi ideal.
I noted the cleanliness of the entire place, and it was something others who have viewed my pictures pointed out as well. Clearly that cleanliness removes some of the feeling of what this once was. It removes you from the suffering, and from the death.
I also noted that the narrative was almost pro-Soviet in nature. This surprised me until I realized that it was the Soviets and subsequent communist East German government that had put this museum and memorial in place originally. While so much of it focused on the crimes of the Nazis here, mention of its time as a Soviet Gulag was conspicuously absent.
When we finished here, we crossed the river to scope out a place much less public. In fact, it's off the tourist radar altogether. It was a bakery. But this bakery was special. It was, at one point, operated by prisoners from Sachsenhausen, and it produced bread that was distributed to other concentration camps in the SS network. At it's peak during the war, it was producing over 40,000 loaves of bread per day. The Soviets continued to operate it through their occupation, and it was closed by its private owners in 1994. It is located near another SS enterprise, a brick-making operation supplying the reconstruction of Berlin into the shining Nazi model for the new Reich.
Having completed our look around here, we continued along our way to the town of Furstenberg to see Ravensbruck. It was another concentration camp, but unique in that it was almost exclusively for women prisoners. The wind was up, and it was almost cold. The museum part was mostly closed for the day, but much of the rest of the public section of the camp was still open for us to wander. A fence kept us from the far half of the camp that looked quite interesting, but not accessible. My later research informed me that Siemens operated on that side of the camp, taking advantage of the ready supply of labour.
Perhaps because of the weather, perhaps because it was semi-closed, but for whatever reason, the place was almost completely empty and we had it largely to ourselves. This was better for my tastes than the crowds we dealt with at Sachsenhausen. When we finished here, we drove back to Berlin with a different perspective on history.
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