As a child, I was always fascinated by history, specifically the Ancient Egyptians, Medieval Period, Romans, Spartans, the Civil War, and World War II. I’m not sure why, I’m just eclectic. Because of my historical slant, my dream has always been to stand at those specific sights, where everything happened. If you think about it, those time periods were probably only a mile or two beneath the earth we walk on today. Crazy.
My first day in Berlin I visited the Topography of Terror and the Jewish Memorial which only fueled the fire to move up my concentration camp visit. The closest concentration camp to Berlin was Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg. Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps in which they started to murder its inhabitants. You can reach the memorial through public transportation (either a regional train directly to Sachsenhausen or the C zone for the S-Bahn to Oranienburg). From the S-bahn station, there’s a bus every 30 minutes that takes you to the memorial. However, it’s definitely walkable—maybe 3km even though the signs all say 2.2km no matter how close you get.
I wasn’t sure what to expect regarding my reaction to standing on soil so rife with blood, misery, and history. Some people have no reaction to the sights whereas others take a large emotional hit. I fell somewhere in the middle.
As I saw the entrance into the memorial, I felt a bit anxious; before I get too spiritual, I’ll just say that I was already feeling the soul of the place, something that would continue to happen throughout my trip; it affected me so much that I felt cold the entire day even though it was sunny. It may have been the wind; however, I felt cold from the inside out. Throughout the length of my stay on the grounds, I wondered how its inhabitants managed to survive when I could barely survive with a puffy vest under a puffy coat.
Entrance is free but the audioguide is 3€—totally worth it and cheaper than hiring a tour guide; you get to go at your own place but some disembodied voice is still talking to you. I did see Seb, my Sandeman tour guide, walking around so I’m pretty sure their tour would be pretty quality, albeit 5 hours long. One complaint I do have about the audioguides is that they could’ve designed them better. These were like old telephones—you need to continuously hold them up with a hand or prop them on your shoulder with your jaw.
The walk toward the famous gates, although not as famous as those at Auschwitz, still felt treaded, historical. This was the same path that had seen the weathered soles of the Jews not too long ago, the same sights they must have seen before entering into the camp.
It was a lot emptier than I thought it would be; in my mind, I pictured a place physically ravaged by its history, that the emotional scars created in this place would be physically apparent to us decades later. But it isn’t apparent at all. Here, the grounds are open, tranquil.
What I first noticed was a smell. It was.. indistinguishable. Nothing I’d ever smelled before but it gave me the creeps anyways. I imagined it as a first layer of cleaning solution covering up the layer underneath, which smelled like misery and death. Something old… something dying.
Furthermore, for some reason while I was in the eerily quiet barrack, a kind of fear grew irrationally in me. It was preserved so well that I half expected that someone was going to pop out of the bathroom at any moment. I felt this so much that I heard a sound and almost jumped out of my shoes.
Needless to say, this entire 4-hour journey was exhausting. Somewhere during the 3-hour mark, I found a room that showed a 30-minute documentary—solely for educational purposes, I told myself. Before long, I was fast asleep. Not even subtly. The kind of asleep where your head lolls back to rest on a seat-back that is far too short and your mouth drops open. The kind that makes you feel asleep… even when not at a concentration camp.
But it was far from over. The last hour of my time there was probably the most intense part, comprised of visits to the prison barracks, which contained cells with pictures commemorating those that stayed there; the kill-ditch; and finally, the site of their gas chambers.
As the sun set over the camp, I felt another shudder of dread; how eerie would it be on the grounds at night? So I left, feeling… not exactly happy that I visited, but a sense of gratitude for my own life and burdened with thoughts of the past.