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Across the Gulf of Time, Bearing Witness to Evil

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 22, 2007

ORANIENBURG, Germany

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."

An estimated 350,000 people visit Sachsenhausen each year. This weekend, about 40 survivors were expected to return for the 62nd anniversary of the camp's liberation from the Nazis.

Crab grass covers the wind-swept grounds, along with a few scraggly dandelions. Several sycamores and birches have been planted in recent decades, but no living thing appears to date to World War II. Dust devils spin across the bare earth on the paths along the camp perimeter.

Next to a large ditch known as the Execution Trench -- where the Nazis summarily shot tens of thousands of prisoners -- a sprinkler attached to a garden hose waters a small shady patch of green and brown moss. A sign says the ashes of "patriots from all European lands" were scattered here. In 1940, the SS built a crematorium. Black clouds of smoke hovered above Oranienburg for weeks at a time.

The original inmates at Sachsenhausen were political prisoners, internal enemies of the Third Reich. As war raged across Europe, inmates were brought here from across Europe.

Plaques adorn the camp walls to honor Ukrainians, Belgians, Luxembourgers and other victim groups. One marker memorializes 890 Jehovah's Witnesses "who suffered for their Christian faith at Sachsenhausen." Jews died here, too, though in smaller numbers than in other camps. An estimated 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war were killed in a single massacre.

At 11:07 a.m., Marta Gunn Dynna, 60, a Norwegian schoolteacher, walks slowly along the path through the Execution Trench. She's been bringing students from her high school near Lillehammer here since 1992.

"It makes a deep, lasting impression," she says. "We try to remind them of this period of history. No one should forget what happened. It's just difficult for young people today to comprehend."

Sachsenhausen was overrun by the Soviet Red Army on April 22, 1945. Four months later, the Soviets reopened Sachsenhausen as a prison camp, this time for Nazis and anti-communists. About 50,000 people were detained there until it was shuttered for good in 1950.

In 1961, the East German government declared the site a memorial to the struggle against fascism. But it wasn't until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that Sachsenhausen became a non-ideological museum.

At 12:17 p.m., an American teenager walked past the main gate, one hand gripping a bratwurst in a bun, the other cradling a cellphone to her ear. "It's amazing!" she said, loudly enough for all to hear.

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