Built in 1936 as a complex which integrated a prisoners’ camp, an SS troop training ground and camp administration department, and an industrial yard for forced labor, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was intended from the outset to be a “modern” and “model” camp within the Nazi camp system. From 1936 to 1945, Sachsenhausen saw more than 200,000 prisoners – both Germans and non-Germans – pass through its gates and those of its numerous sub-camps. Over 31,000 did not survive. In 1945, only a few months after Soviet and Polish troops liberated the camp, the Soviet Union established a Soviet detention camp, “Special Camp no.7/no.1” which lasted five years until 1950, during which time a further 12,000 prisoners perished. You may read more about Sachsenhausen Nazi-era history, and its “second chapter” as a post-war Soviet detention camp here.
Selecting Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette as our pilot site made sense because of its unique role in the Nazi camp system, the museum’s proximity to Berlin – a growing tourist destination – and the strong relationship between the institution and the project’s founder.
Today, the memorial/museum receives over 400,000 visitors each year. Guiding groups around the site, we have had discussions with a wide range of group and individual visitors. For example, Sachsenhausen receives many school groups from Germany and other European countries, and the students, depending on their age, background knowledge – and often the weather on the given day – have varying reactions. Some are bored or even resentful from over-exposure to the subject at a young age, while others are fascinated by stories of prisoner life and survival. Camp survivors or family members of those who died during the Holocaust sometimes visit the Gedenkstätte, alone, or in the context of an official ceremony, as do Jewish and non-Jewish historians, doctors, and tourists making an excursion from Berlin. By providing a space where visitors can voluntarily express their thoughts, we hope to learn more about what brought them to Sachsenhausen, what resonated, and at which exhibits or areas they found their own access points in the enduring intensity of the site. Further, we hope to ascertain what visitors might take away from their experience to build on in their personal lives, classrooms, and communities.