Having more time off doesn’t necessarily mean I write more in the blog, but I do get out and see lots of Berlin. We have had the most amazing weather – full sunny spring – since mid-February, and, of course I didn’t feel like going indoors to any museums (which I had originally planned for this break).  Instead, I explored green spaces; I took the u-bahn to Krumme Lanke, which is just a few stops from the University.  There I found a lovely, almost deserted lake, which I noted was for swimming (later in the year). I explored Hasen Heide, a tremendous green space with a petting zoo, super playground and cafe. There are drug dealers at every gate, but they aren’t interested in you, they’re doing business.  And I went to Volkspark Friedrichshain, which has two of the only “hills” in the whole city – Berlin is a totally flat city, a cyclists heaven.  The “hills” are, in fact World War II rubble, which was placed in an enormous mound, and then greened over.  Quite lovely, the steep steps going up the side were reminiscent of the Pyramid at Coba, and on the other side, there was the usual busy café overlooking a small lake.

During the week, I also went to see Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the first of it’s kind in Germany, built in 1933.  When the memorial to the murdered Jews was opened in the city centre, many people didn’t want it so centrally placed, and suggested that they could extend and improve facilities at Sachsenhausen, for people to visit and remember.  Having gone there, I can testify that it takes a long time to get there, and the location of the city-centre Gedankstaette makes far more sense. However, always one to enjoy a train journey, I settled down to see the northern part of Berlin.  Initially, it was industrial and downmarket-looking, but then it thinned out into nice suburbs and then pure countryside.  What amazed me is just how big Berlin is, and how little of it I know. When you get to Oranienburg, you can either walk or take a bus to Sachsenhausen, which is a couple of kilometres outside of town.  This was built as a Musteranlage, a model camp, as a prototype for camps to come.  Its’ proximity to Berlin was a big factor, plus the fact that they could easily extend the 15 or so acres they already had.

Many of us are, in a way, spoiled by Hollywood, in that we recognise the shape and architecture of the camp, the irony of the big gate with “Arbeit macht frei” built into the wrought iron.  It was a beautiful day, so it was less depressing than it might be on a wet and windy day, though the whole place looked bare and sad, with scrappy grass between big swathes of large-rock gravel.  I toured the now-converted buildings, which is a fascinating museum, with pictures of police chiefs from Spain and the Middle East, taken with the Camp Commendant; they were on tour (in the early 1930’s) to see how to control dissidents, undesirables and political opponents.  Even if they started by thinking they would simply “control” dissidents, it soon became a camp for gays, gypsies and Jews, along with regular criminals.  Nobody (including the regular criminals) had an exit date, and, before long, they began to experiment with inmates diets, to see how little they could exist on, whilst still being productive.  There was a whole room devoted to what happened to the Roma.  At 4am on 16th July, 1936, the police rounded up all the Gypsies in a bid to “clean up” Berlin in time for the Olympics.  They were placed in Berlin-Marzahn Concentration Camp (actually called a Rastplatz – “Resting place” – it was an open field sandwiched between a sewage plant and a cemetery). Within a short while, the authorities surrounded it with barbed wire and started a forced labour programme. In 1938 the men were sent to Sachsenhausen, and in 1941, the women and children were sent to Auschwitz. It’s when you see the pictures of individual families, all the men with violins, all the women in swirly skirts, all killed, that it hits you.  The sheer numbers just numb you in the end.

This was also one of the camps where they did experiments – after all, they had a captive audience, they could do something useful to help the Wehrmacht, fighting for the Fatherland. Germany had a great shortage of leather, for boots and shoes (I imagine very important if you’re going to be marching to Russia).  Some bright-spark chemist/doctor decided that they would make shoes from synthetic materials and test them on the prisoners.  They also wanted to test drugs like cocaine and pervitin (methamphetamine, commonly known now as chrystal meth).  The German army were already giving pervitin to their soldiers, in a bid to keep them active for longer, hence the prisoners were used as guinea pigs, to see how far they could march, loaded with weights, and full of pervitin. Some reports there said they marched (on those still visible gravel pits) for up to 5 days with barely any sleep, they couldn’t sleep. Of course, you also have to think of the unfortunates on the Russian front, being fed pervitin to keep facing into the enemy. Just as an aside, this is common practice in military conflict today, though it’s more likely to be cocaine than chrystal meth.

There were other experiments, giving a whole slew of children hepatitis to isolate the germ – since the Army, once again, had had problems with jaundiced soldiers. These experiments took place in all the camps, some of them more gorey than others.  Sachsenhausen became a place to try things out, mobile gas wagons, crematoria, then an actual gas chamber, which, when successful, were then passed on to other camps. In terms of numbers, Sachsenhausen doesn’t compare with Auschwitz, but there were people living right at the edge of the barbed-wire fence.  Surely they must have heard the 10,000+ Soviet Prisoners-of-war being shot individually in the head?  Apparently, the camp commendant didn’t want a riot, so played very loud classical music (probably Wagner) to cover the sounds.  And people dying of hunger don’t make any noise. In 1945, with the approach of the Russians, the Germans marched all those able to march (45,000 prisoners) on what is now called a “Death March”, as far as Wittstock, travelling between 20 and 40 kilometres a day, with no food, in bad weather, sleeping in the open. Approximately 7,000 died, left unburied along the route.  After the liberation of the camp (3,000 sick or dying had been left behind), the inmates insisted on inviting the locals up to have a look, but there was very little response.  The Soviets then took it over and used it as an NKVD Special Camp for internment of Fascists, ex-Nazis and dissidents, under the control of the Gulag.  Also known as Sweigelager, “Silence Camps”, the inmates had no contact with the outside world. The existence of the camp was kept secret, until exposed by Western press. Inmates were not legally charged and nothing was documented. In 1950, it was handed over to the East German Government, who used Sachsenhausen as a sister camp to Hohenshoenhausen (the centre for the STASI).  Just under 200,000 prisoners were kept there, with almost 50,000 dying of hunger and awful conditions, though these numbers are disputed by German and Russian authorities.

So, what does a trip to a concentration camp do to you? It makes you wonder about today’s tyrants, Putin and Obama, having a face-off.  Germany is terrified of what might happen in Ukraine. It’s all very well to have a debate about Syria or Venezuela, but Ukraine is very close to home, and an ancient enemy.  Someone pointed out to me that Angela Merkel doesn’t use the familiar “du” with Putin, they are still on very formal and frosty terms.  It also makes you wonder about how we can leave countries in the financial lurch, which Germany was between the wars, a wide open vacuum for Adolf Hitler to step into.  And then the numbers of dead people, so many that disposing of them became a logistical problem, and they had to introduce things like gas chambers or cremation. It also puts your own relatively benevolent history into perspective. What I have to admire is the German’s honesty in facing up to the past, and looking at what a different generation did, indeed bequeathed to them.  There is still resistance to stories of individual Germans and what they experienced, like the tremendous book I have just read “A Woman in Berlin”, written anonymously, by a 30-year old journalist in the spring of 1945, when the Russians “liberated” Berlin, but that will come with time.