Inge Franken

A Day in Sachsenhausen

Notes from the diary of Sophie Lange, Berlin, 14th December 2006

On Tuesday 12th December we set out for the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. We hoped to find out more about the circumstances of Aron and Jakob Süssman’s arrest on 13th September 1939.

We spoke to Frau F. (a teacher, who works in the former camp) who gave us general information about the camp. We were told that shed 60, in which Aron and Jakob slept, had been pulled down. Like most of these prefabricated sheds, it was dismantled after the war for use elsewhere. Some of the parts are  said to have been used installed in houses for boats at the nearby lake.

The National Socialist motto was: „elimination through work“. The whole camp was built by prisoners. In public it was proclaimed to be a camp for re-educating people and originally built for 10,000 men only. By 1944-45, however, it 70,000 people, including women and children from the death marches were held there. As early as 1941-42 Jewish children were brought there from Auschwitz for medical experiments. They were seven and eight years old. For example, they were infected with yellow fever to test new medicines. This was done not only with children but also adults in the sick bay. Dirt was sewn into open wounds or people given bad burns to test a new ointment on them.

The prisoners were brought from the Oranienburg or Sachsenhausen railway stations in trucks to the Appellplatz of the camp, where the rules of the camp were read to them. Any infringement could mean immediate death. It was already an infringement of the rules if, after making a bed, a certain number of squares on a checkered blanket were not visible. That was only as long as they had bed linen. In the 40s the prisoners had only straw to sleep on. In 1939 conditions were made worse. Before that, prisoners had been able to buy cigarettes and post cards at a kiosk in the camp. After that they had to wear heavy wooden Dutch clogs and a rule was introduced that prisoners had to run instead walk within the camp, always looking down at the ground. The punishment for infringing on this rule was public execution. On their arrival, the prisoners experienced a demonstration of the type of punishments meted out. They chose one from the crowd who seemed particularly weak or who had excited the guards’ attention in some way and killed him. There were cases, when something went wrong, that all  the inhabitants of a shed had to stand on the Appellplatz; in one known case for fourteen hours.

Then the prisoners had to shower. This was a form of torture because the water was either icy cold or boiling hot. Then all their hair was shaved from their bodies. The reason given was „delousing“. But it was the greatest humiliation of all. They had to give up their private possessions, including their clothes. Instead their received prison clothing. These were worn from 1938-1944. Finally, the prisoners were allotted to their sheds. One shed was built to house 148 people. In the end there were some 400 prisoners in each. The new arrivals were divided up into various categories like: criminal, unsocial, Jewish, political, Bibelforscher, etc.

Each shed had a small wash-room with two large basins with water coming from a fountain. A room with pissoirs and small brown toilets were right next door. Next to this was the dining hall with lockers that could not be locked lining the walls. It functioned quite well among the prisoners. No one stole anything from the other that was of personal value like letters, photos or a shell.

However, the SS-men sometimes threw a locker over and trampled all over the contents. The room was about half the size of a class-room definitely too small for so many people. A bed stood in one corner, separated from the rest of the room by lockers. This was where the so-called „Capo“ slept. This function was part of the „prisoners’ self-administration“. When so many people have to live together in such a small space, it becomes a source of epidemics and illness like typhoid and dysentery. As the SS did not want to enter the sheds themselves, Blockälteste were chosen. These were given certain privileges for taking over the responsibility that the beds were made properly and food distributed. The distribution of food could decide over life and death. If there was soup, and that will have been very often, the Capo could decide on how deeply he scoops the ladle into the container. The nourishing ingredients were at the bottom. If a weaker prisoner received only the spiced water from the top, that could be a death sentence with the hard work they had to do.

The people ate everything they could find, for instance flowers. It was all the more difficult for the prisoners to see the flower beds that had been especially planted to decorate the camp. If they saw them at all, as they always had to look down when moving about in the camp. A prisoner once said: „Do you remember how elegant our KZ Sachsenhausen was…? Flowers in lovely beds grew along some of the paths. Here, people were tortured amid the flowers…“. (Sczypiorski’s speech on 23.4.1995 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp)

Next to the dining room was the dormitory with 3-storey bunks each 70 centimeters wide and not very long. As the camp became fuller, an average of three men had to share one bunk. As the toilets were not allowed to be used at night, buckets were placed in the dormitory which were always full to overflowing in the morning. The stench in the sheds must have been horrific, if one remembers that the windows were not allowed to be opened at night. If anyone  had to get up during the night, he will hardly have been able to take his place again, because the other two will have filled it.

The sheds inside the Jewish camp were divided up yet again. Those who had artistic talents were put into one shed. They had to forge money and documents for the National Socialists. Others were given the task of testing shoes for the army. They had to walk 40 kilometers over various types of ground, a backpack filled with sand on their backs. For this purpose they got up at 4.30 a.m.

For a certain time, it was possible to buy the prisoners out of the camp for 100 Reichsmark. Aron and Jakob Süßmann were bought out in this way. They were able to leave the camp on 18th September 1940.

As we walked through the grounds, listening to all these things, we asked ourselves, whether we were walking on paths which the prisonsers had trodden then. I asked myself if this sand had been there, too. It was a cold day. The sky was cloudy, it had rained in the morning and we walked around the puddles. I thought: the prisoners will have had to walk through the puddles and will have got wet feet. It was probably forbidden to avoid them, as they always had to run and look to the ground. During the summer, our impression of the camp would not have been the same as in this cold that crept into all our bones. In addition, where sheds had once stood there was now a large lawn. Together with the sunshine, it would have minimised the effect. In the winter it is easier to feel what it must have been like then, although that can only be a fraction of what the people must have felt at the time. No one who has not experienced such a camp, can really know what it was like.

At the memorial stone of the the Judenbaracke, we stood in silence for several minutes in memory of Aron an Jakob Süßmann.

Only sheds 38 and 39 were the remnants of the section for Jews. In the 90s, young right-wingers set fire to them, but they have now mostly been restored. Shed 38 contains a museum about the Jewish prisoners in the camp. One of us, I don’t remember who, discovered something special about the Jewish who had been brought to the camp after the Polenaktion. We followed that trace. Rebekka and I arrived there last. Sophie saw a yellowed list with Aron’s and Jakob’s names. The text in the museum tells us that the Polish Jews were first held isolated from the others. Inge photographed the text, that was in English and in German. For Tosca.

On our way back to Berlin, it was quieter than usual. We did not talk much. It was dark, we were tired and everything we had seen and heard SCHWIRRTE through our heads.

Translation Salomea Genin