Two Hours in a Nazi Death Camp

Across the Gulf of Time, Bearing Witness to Evil

The phrase
The phrase "Work Makes You Free" cruelly greeted about 200,000 prisoners sent by the Nazis to the Sachsenhausen death camp in Oranienburg, Germany, from 1936 to 1945. (By Craig Whitlock -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 22, 2007


At the end of the peaceful neighborhood street, past the tidy prewar cottages and just beyond the snack bar offering ice cream on a cool spring day, looms what's left of the Nazi concentration camp.

It's 10:07 a.m. and birds are trilling in the treetops, the voices of happy schoolchildren echo from a nearby playground at recess. But that's outside the gates of the Sachsenhausen camp. Inside, except for the sound of the rushing wind, it's as quiet as a tomb.

The Nazis built Sachsenhausen in 1936 as a prototype for their rapidly expanding network of concentration camps. With nine watchtowers and a topographical layout designed for optimal surveillance of prisoners, it was hailed by Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader and chief of the German police, as a "modern, up-to-date, ideal and easily expandable concentration camp."

Unlike many of the Nazi death camps, Sachsenhausen was located in a populated area, at the edge of Oranienburg, a small city about 20 miles due north of central Berlin. The SS officers and guards who brutalized the more than 200,000 people who passed through the camp over the course of nine years-- and murdered an estimated 50,000 of them -- lived with their families in newly built suburban homes outside the gates.

Not much of the original camp infrastructure remains today. But enough has been restored or rebuilt over the years to offer an eerie and unforgettable reminder of the evil that took root here.

At the main entrance, the cruel greeting " ARBEIT MACHT FREI"-- "Work Makes You Free" -- remains wrought in large black letters on the steel gate.

Just inside, two German teenage girls shuffle along a path, gazing at the rusty barbed wire and concrete fence posts that once penned in thousands of starving and sick prisoners. It's the first time the pair has visited a concentration camp, something that virtually all German high school students are required to do before they graduate.

"It's hard to imagine what they had to go through, the people who were imprisoned here," said Liza Rausch, 16, a 10th-grader from Bensheim in south-central Germany. About 40 of her classmates are visiting Berlin. The group was split about whether they wanted to leave the capital to see Sachsenhausen, she said. But in the end, all made the trip.

Her friend, Julia Jannink, 17, pronounced the experience "sad" but necessary. But she is mildly irritated. Most of the visitors to Sachsenhausen today are student groups from other countries, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece and Norway among them. And some can't suppress their normal teenage antics: joking, teasing, making fun of their surroundings.

"I'm surprised that they've shown such little respect," Jannink said. "They just walk through and carry on and laugh."

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