About a half hour outside Berlin in the small, quaint town of Oranienburg, there was a concentration camp called Sachsenhausen [SAHK-sen-how-zen] from 1936-1950. It was built by the Nazis and later used by the Soviets, and some 30,000 people lost their lives there.
It is now a memorial and museum. I set aside a day to go there by myself and would highly recommend anyone else to do the same if you're in the area. It's a very easy train ride to the end of the S-Bahn S1 line. It is free to go and you can rent an audio tour for 3 euros. There are guided tours too, but I honestly preferred wandering around alone. It's that sort of place.
Sachsenhausen is staggering. For obvious reasons, it's a lot to take in emotionally. But it's also huge and full of an overwhelming amount of information. Every single building you walk through has a full exhibit inside of it, with countless photos, documents, and artifacts on display. It would take days to go through them all. So many names. So many stories.
Because of its central location and proximity to Berlin, Sachsenhausen was the headquarters for the entire Nazi concentration camp system - a flagship camp, if you could call it that. There were administrative offices, and it was where SS officers went for training. Sachsenhausen is in Oranienburg, a short walk from the center of town; there are houses you can see from inside the walls of the camp. People were living a literal stone's throw away. There were accounts saying that on some days, smoke from the crematorium would settle over the town like a heavy smog.
It was a regular phenomenon for prisoners to kill themselves by running headlong into the electrically charged barbed wire that surrounded the camp. At some point after the camp was closed, workers discovered a collection of anonymous poems written in Russian. One of the poems is about these suicides.
Standing at roll call in the grey morning light,
transfixed, I gaze at the wires.
Sparks dance, glowing and bright,
as another friend's life expires.
How many sparks have I seen thus fly?
Ashes sinking into the moss-covered clay?
How many brave men have I seen thus die?
Might not I also soon choose to end in this way?
I'm always really affected by knowing that I'm in the exact same place that something happened. To sit and exist and just be in the same space, separated from a life past by only time. To stand where this man would have been standing during his roll call...
...and to look down and see the same moss-covered clay.
There is an ironworked phrase on the main inner gate of the camp, which prisoners would have seen on their way in.
It reads, "Work makes you free."