Sachsenhausen - 'Saxon's Houses' - is in Orianenburg, a town 35 kilometres north of Berlin. Orianenburg was the administrative centre for all Nazi concentration camps, and it was here that one of the first camps was built in 1933; this was taken over by the SS in 1934, who closed it down and replaced it with Sachsenhausen.
Sachsenhausen was used as a training ground for SS officers, many of whom would go on to oversee other camps. Although it was not constructed as an extermination camp, many executions took place here: prisoners were initially shot or hanged in a trench, but many more were later killed after the camp commandant installed a gas chamber and ovens in 1943.
Prisoners were placed in a descending hierarchy of criminals, Communists, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jews, differentiated by labelling them with differently coloured triangles. This was a grimly effective camp, intended as a template for others: very few prisoners escaped, and around 50,000 died here, either executed or due to the poor living conditions. Over 10,000 Red Army prisoners of war were executed in the camp in a device called a 'Genickschussanlage' - they were shot in the back of the neck through a hidden aperture while being measured for a uniform.
This was also the site of Operation Bernhard, an enormous counterfeiting operation whereby inmates were forced to manufacture fake American and British currency as part of a mission to undermine the British and United States' economies - the Germans planned to drop forged British pounds over London by plane. Prisoners were also forced to march miles a day over a variety of surfaces to test military footwear.
The camp was evacuated as the Soviets approached in 1945, and the remaining inmates were liberated by the Red Army and the Polish Army's 2nd Infantry Division. The Soviets held many senior Nazi prisoners here over the following years. It was then used as a police training centre by East Germany, before it was inaugurated as a national memorial in 1961. After German Reunification, the camp was opened as a museum: the exhibits include documents, artifacts and photographs, artwork by inmates, and a chilling 30-centimetre high pile of gold teeth extracted from prisoners. Long hidden behind the Iron Curtain, Sachsenhausen is less well known than Auschwitz or Dachau, but visiting is a valuable experience for anyone who wants to understand the atrocities that took place.
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