The train brought us to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Located in Oranienburg on the northern rim of Berlin, the museum and memorial greet the anxious visitor with grey walls and overcast sky. On this Sunday the site was just as Jessi had imagined it: bleak, muddy, somber. It was raining lightly upon our arrival at the train station, but we opted for the 20-minute walk rather than wait for a bus. I knew the way well by now, as this is my third visit to Sachsenhausen within a year. My reason for coming to this sad place is educational, not a perverse appetite for horror. Though less people died here than in extermination centers like Auschwitz or Treblinka, Sachsenhausen was no less a hell for its hapless inmates. Mass executions, starvation, torture and disease occurred within its walls. The camp also served as a training center for SS officers who would go on to administer Hitler’s ghoulish Barbwire Empire. Today the Brandenburg State Police Academy and College occupies this space, separated from the memorial and museum by only a fence.
Lasting images for Jessi are the autopsy room in the sterile pathology lab, the small foot basins in the Jewish barracks where guards drowned Jewish prisoners, and the execution trench where firing squads massacred Soviet POWs and others. We saw the ruins of the gas chamber and crematorium at “Station Z,” a moniker for the murder site used mockingly by the SS. The place evokes a sensation in me that, mutatis mutandis, I recall from a visit to Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota some twenty years ago. Genocide comes in different forms but it’s ubiquitous and universal. A separate section of Sachsenhausen became a prison under Soviet-controlled East Germany after World War II. Exit Hitler, enter Stalin. Soviets sent German civilians to the camp without a trial. The inauguration of Sachsenhausen as a national memorial and museum occurred in 1961, the same year the Wall went up. In the photo Jessi is reading about Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who spent years in an isolation cell because of his opposition to the regime.
A couple hours later we walked through the town of Oranienburg before taking the train back to Berlin. All the shops are closed on a Sunday. We chanced upon a Renaissance fair in the town center, came across a few Stolpersteine on the bridge leading to the Dutch-style Oranienburg Palace, observed a strange collection of bronze and iron statues of wolves by the artist Rainer Opolka, and headed back to the train station. At Potsdamer Platz we looked for places to eat, but nothing tickled our fancy. We finally settled on an Italian restaurant, Antica Roma, near our hotel on Wittenbergplatz, before settling into our hotel room for yet another sleepless night.