The reason I'm interested in Sachsenhausen specifically is because it was in service from 1936-1950. That makes it one of the earliest still-existing Nazi concentration camps, and formed a blueprint for what would come during the death camps of the "Final Solution." It was also in use five years past the time of the Nazi's power, when the Soviets held political subversives and suspects of fascism after the war. It was also the center of control through which other concentration camps were run--it accommodated a training centre for future guards and wardens (which is now ironically used as a police training academy). The camp is surrounded by little homes that once belonged to camp guards and wardens. The last building the tour group passed before entering the area was what used to be called the "Green Monster" by prisoners. It was a low, flat, wooden building where Nazi guards came to get shitface drunk after a long day of being horrible human beings.
Before Sachsenhausen, I'd been to two different Nazi concentration camps and one death camp: Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death/concentration camp. Compared to these, Sachsenhausen was fairly small and almost unassuming from the outside. Even the guard towers weren't very tall, and the white-green paint job of the exterior buildings reminded me more of a golf pavilion. Once we passed the gate reading Arbeit Macht Frei and went inside the walled area, though, the morbidity of the site came through strong. The crude, wooden buildings that once housed persecuted peoples stretched away from the main guard tower like an explosion of buckshot, spreading into a bermuda triangle formation. There was a huge white field in front of us. That was the place where prisoners would be counted twice a day for hours at a time, often totalling six hours of standing at attention per day. In the cold, wearing two sweaters and a jacket as well as two pairs of pants, I was shivering. Inmates, wearing what were the equivalent of ill-fitting pajamas, would have had to endure the same weather and worse while standing.
The tour group went from location to location in the camp. Of course, the place was huge, so not everything could be covered by the tour alone. Every building was full of signs describing bits and pieces of concentration camp experience, from the personal lives of some few inmates, to the weapons of torture or execution. We passed through barracks, mortuaries, interrogation rooms, half-demolished sites of execution including the remains of a gas chamber and crematorium. Though the tour was very good and painted a strong picture of the camp, from broad figures to specific incidents, the constant stream of information I was being fed made it hard to really let the tragedy of the environment sink in. Things such as the constant photographs from visitors distracted me. When we passed the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, for example, the group practically cued up to take cell phone pictures of it. When we were shown a deceptive measuring device through which unknowing victims were shot, people took pictures of that too, even though it was behind glass. Even as a photographer myself (who was also taking pictures), I had to wonder what purpose those photos could serve. From a tourist experience, are these people going home and showing their friends these torture devices (some of them still marked in blood) to their friends? Is it part of a modern act of remembrance and tribute to take pictures of stuff like this?
Anyway, the constant flow of tour groups, and the fact that we were never given more than ten minutes to look at a given building with its many informative signs, made it hard to connect, in spite of how informative it was. I decided to stay after the tour ended, rather than going back to the train station with the group. I'm so glad I did this. Almost all of the tour groups left at the same time, leaving practically no one in the camp. I could now read at my own place, and linger long enough to really let the reality of the place set in. And yes, I took pictures too. But rather than just doing it in passing, I thought about each picture long enough to register exactly what I was photographing and why. The institution and mass industrialization of social violence is an incredibly close and relevant issue today. Though the numeric magnitude and speed of genocide of the Nazis hasn't been matched, it doesn't mean that the same basic hatred that motivated such violence doesn't exist anymore. In fact, neo-Nazi arsonists took torches to the memorial in the 1990s in an act of Holocaust denial. Specifically, they targeted the Jewish quarter of the museum.
With the halls and chambers of the camp now empty except for me, it became much easier to see the camp not as an exhibition for display with glass cases and plaques and pamphlets, but a place of death, a mass grave site where thousands upon thousands were worked to death or flat-out murdered.
At one point I spent about an hour in the underground morgue. It was built after the influx of prisoners increased well past intended capacity and death rates at the camp soared. The original (and much smaller) morgue then became inadequate for storage of corpses. At this point, the autopsy centre (located above the new morgue) became a parody of its intended purpose--Nazi "pathologists" merely made arbitrary incisions before writing down one of seven "causes of death" for the victim. A murdered camp inmate would often be diagnoses as having died of "heart failure." I spent the hour in the morgue sketching this:
I then wandered the labrynthine infirmary barracks, which were also the original area for storing corpses. It had underground passages. The fact that no one was around here made it incredibly creepy. One whole wing of the place was actually completely unlit, and I wandered through it in the dark. I'm not sure it was supposed to be like that.
Near closing time, I took a few final long-exposure photographs and started to leave. When I was almost out, I found a museum building that was absolutely full of artefacts and exhibitions displaying not only articles from the Third Reich occupation, but the Soviet occupation as well. I could have spent two hours in that building alone. I couldn't believe how much information was at this camp--even having spent two hours with the tour group and two hours alone, I feel like I could have seen a lot more. I found out later that admission to the museum is absolutely free for all visitors (the museum makes its money from donations), so I could see myself going back there again to do more sketches and see the stuff I missed the first time.