DAY 29: A Day at Schaffhausen Concentration Camp

Back in Amsterdam I mentioned a dublin-based DJ I’d encountered at a coffeeshop. He’d mentioned visiting a concentration camp during his visit to Berlin. Couldn’t stop saying what a harrowing experiencing it was. “Eerie”, he kept saying. From that point on, it was my mission to visit this place. Sachsenhausen concentration camp was only an hour and fifteen minute trip from the Berlin center. Specifically in a town called Oranienburg. It’s a free memorial and museum unless you want to hold an obscure tour guide device to your ear.

I wanted to wander and dwell in this place without interruption. To experience it. Feel it. I wanted to think without a voice outside the ones in my own head. Admittedly I did have one headphone in my ear playing Massive Attack’s “Joy Luck Club” over and over. Opened me up. I urge you, the reader, to listen to it while you read this; I’m listening to it while I write it.

The tightness in my chest I described when I walked through a cemetery in Bruges was present the entirety of my visit. Some areas tighter than others. There was a steel model of the entire camp outside the visitor’s center detailing the camp. Tremendous and empty. Each area was compacted to a small corner in a vast space. I followed a path to the far side near the entrance. There was an officer’s barracks directly across from the main gate. Before I entered the camp, there was a small collection of tombstones scattered throughout the woods. Each gravestone couldn’t be more different than the other. Some elaborately designed, and others, a simple tombstone with dry, dead flowers at it’s base. Hidden speakers were placed throughout the woods reciting old letters from the victims or giving information about them individually.

I proceeded to the black iron gate entrance and stepped into nothingness. A wide, hopeless space made for torture and cruelty. It was another world. An enormous fenced-off empty plane with patches of gravel throughout. I followed the dirt path to my left along the barbed wire fence towards the first set of elongated buildings. There was a sign impaled in the gravel beside the main entrance: “Neutrale zone”.

The two structures ahead were the infirmary wards. There were no beds or hospital supplies left behind. Instead the infirmary was embedded with glass walkways that guided you through the rooms. Inside each room were erected glass displays consisting of letters, photographs, drawings and stories of various prisoners here. I honestly couldn’t read much beyond what I did. I could feel the camp already depleting what energy I brought.

I read the details behind one specific prisoner who’s name sadly escapes me. They wanted him to confess to something. Tortured him endlessly. Bent him over like a toddler sometimes. The Nazi officers performed these heinous acts until the prisoner’s spirit was broken. “I’ll say anything. Do whatever you want. I don’t care anymore.” The prisoner only desired peace.

His captors proceeded to drug him, knocking him unconscious. When the prisoner awoke in the infirmary ward, he was lying in a bed surrounded by 8 other men in similarly exhausted appearances. A Nazi officer was there to greet him upon awakening: “There. Now we’ve cut off your balls, you faggot.” I loathe the word "faggot" and those who subscribe to using it regularly. I associate it with children disguised as adults.

By May 1941, 106 prisoners at Schaffhausen had suffered castration. And for what? Hate. Cruelty. I now associate anyone who includes “faggot” in their vernacular a potential Nazi; I was angry. Sad. Enlightened. I left the infirmary ward and entered the smallest building at the end. This was where the Nazis conducted the bulk of their “experimentation”. The facility walls were cracked but clean. The building was sterile and spotless but it wasn’t. Resided in a limbo of cleanliness and filth. Too much had happened here.

I followed along the concrete wall to the execution trench. Large dug out ditch with a rocky declining path. There were maybe over a hundred stacked logs on the opposite side. A single wooden box with two holes for ankle restraints sat before the collection of wood. Decayed red flower beside it. There was a section next door with concrete high-walls. Inside was a statue of two thin prisoners attempting to carry a weak and ill comrade. Then, I took a proper observation of my surroundings. Cracked concrete flooring below us. To my right, sabotaged furnaces. This was where they burned the bodies and buried the ashes of the prisoners. I didn’t linger here long.

Walked towards the guard tower at the North-most gate to the barracks area. Trailed through the dormitories, where over 40 people were forced to sleep on bunks atop each other. There was one “bathroom” per barrack for all 40 men to share. Eight men to a bed, I believe. Claustrophobia crept up and I was the only one standing in the barracks. I can’t imagine what living through these conditions could’ve possibly been like. There were about 14 red brick barracks total. Each place had a number painted on the side facing the center path I was walking. Barbed wire fence all around. A guard’s barracks awaited at the end. Gray cracked paint. Black door. The place loomed over the other barracks in it’s distinguished palette and design.

At the very center of this entire camp was a monument some 40 meters high with a statue depicting a soldier walking behind two freed prisoners. The height of the monument rose above the camp’s high concrete walls. Symbolic of the prisoner’s preservance, I suspect. That the prisoners survived this dreadful place and therefore rose above it.

My endurance was fading. Particularly after reading a letter at one of the exhibits. It was a letter from a husband knowingly facing death. Asking forgiveness of his family for his involuntarily absence. Begging them to forgive him for something he couldn’t control. I was nearing the end of my rope with the camp by this point but I was determined to view every square inch before I left.

The washrooms consisted of two large circular sinks in a tight room. 400 prisoners at a time would squeeze into the room, clamoring for a chance to bathe in the ice cold water it spouted. I left for what would be my final exhibit: the prison barracks. I don’t know what happened to the prisoners here but by this point, I didn’t want to know anymore. I was exhausted. Fatigued by this camp. I’d had enough death and misery for one day. But it’s so important that this place exists. It needs to remain. For us, the human race. This can never happen again. But it is.

Even now as I write this a new phase of horrific genocide descends upon places like Darfur. I never wanted to feel the energy I felt in that camp ever again but it was important that I did. I’m researching ways to aid those in Darfur and I'm not sure that initiative would've happened without having experienced this place.

I returned “home” but I couldn’t stay inside. I needed to be around people. I never thought I’d say that but I needed positive energy. Rearched the best jazz bars in Berlin I could find but they weren't what I was looking for. Too fancy, too quiet. Then, I found Murphy’s Irish Pub. An Irish singer with an acoustic guitar was playing covers. Taking people’s requests. The place was packed. Bustling with good energy. Some dancing in the small area they had to work with while he played. I had a pint and listened. Relaxed. The singer finished with his rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It was hilarious to watch him play the song so well only to completely half ass the song’s elaborate guitar solos.

I needed this. More of this. To get out of my head more often. To surround myself with more people and have a good time. I left for home feeling elated. It was time to pack and prepare for the journey the following day.

- Greg


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