Visiting Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Boarding a train out of Berlin, the weather was grey and overcast. It felt appropriate. Visiting a former concentration camp isn’t something you feel a sense of holiday excitement for, it’s not a happy experience that boosts you, or will result in selfies for social media. It’s more important than that. The fact that it is difficult, that it is grey, and dark, and truly horrifying is the very reason you should do it.

If you’re in Berlin there is plenty of history in the city centre, and you can easily fill a week just in the city alone. But I really encourage you to consider a trip to Sachsenhausen if you can spare a day, it’s so rewarding in the most difficult of ways.


History of Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen was the first major concentration camp, and became the model for future camps as well as a guard training camp. It was used by the Nazis from 1936 to 1945 and during this period, an estimated 200,000 people were interned here. An estimated 30,000 people died here. Above the gate are the words Arbeit macht Frei – or work makes you free. Despite the sign, no-one was ever released for hard work.

The entrance gate to the site

As an early camp, it was initially used as a jail for political prisoners and during the war, Sachsenhausen functioned mostly as a forced labour camp with work ranging from brick making to falsifying foreign currency. Although Soviet soldiers were executed in huge numbers here, Jewish prisoners were mostly transported to extermination camps elsewhere.

Sachsenhausen’s awful history didn’t end in 1945 and the end of WW2. From 1945 to 1950, after the Soviet ‘liberation’, part of the camp was used as a prison by the Soviet military. During this period, around 60,000 people were imprisoned here – around 12,000 of whom died. This history was kept secret for decades and only following the fall of Soviet backed East Germany in the 1990s were the mass graves from this period discovered. They were mostly children, women and old men.

I will never be able to fathom how some humans can have such little consideration for another human’s life. I will never understand how ordinary people could be so influenced, or so brainwashed, that other people can become so unimportant to them they see no issue in treating them like vermin, just because they have different beliefs or skin colour. I just can’t comprehend.

Main camp building

What to see at Sachsenhausen

Visiting Sachsenhausen requires a lot of reading and walking. Boards are in English and German, but even if you just read a few you would need around 3 hours at the site. It therefore really is worth at least half a day of your time. I recommend picking up a map at the entrance.

Just before the entrance to the camp is The New Museum, and this is focussed on the site’s use from 1960-1990. If you’re limited on time, this won’t be the priority of your visit so I recommend focusing your time on the more interesting exhibitions inside the camp.

Walking through the main gate, you can see the Guard Towers and Appellplatz with gallows at the back and tracks where the prisoners were forced to march for hours and hours. Within seconds, you can’t help but feel the despair.

Most of the former Barracks no longer exist – most buildings are copies, though white outlines mark the foundations of the originals. In barrack 38 is an exhibition on Jewish prisoners and 39 shows every day life in the camp. Adjacent to this is the Prison building, where the Gestapo and SS tortured, punished and murdered prisoners. The boards explaining the brutality are truly horrifying. The cells in the prison have several memorials for those who died in the camp.

The bleak barracks

There is then also an exhibition in the former prisoners’ Kitchen, which I found to be the most interesting. If you have limited time, I’d recommend starting here. Also behind the kitchen is a memorial erected in 1961, with the 18 red triangles referring to the colours the prisoners had to wear. Given at the time, East Germany was communist and allied to the Soviets, it’s no surprise that the memorial emphasises the struggle of the communists against the Nazis, and that it blamed the crimes on the excesses of capitalism.

One of the memorials to the victims of the camp

By far the most disturbing area of the camp is Station Z. This is the crematorium and mass murder area. Sachsenhausen did have gas chambers (mainly for experimentation and training), but the majority of murder was by bullet. The part that stuck with me was that before they were murdered, prisoners had a medical inspection – this was mainly to see if they had valuable gold tooth fillings. You’ll also see gaps in the walls – these were the holes that the prisoners were shot through.

Walking towards Station Z

To stand where so many lost their lives is haunting. Some visitors at this point were crying or visibly shaken. I remember standing there with a chilling feeling running down my spine. I couldn’t stay there long.

Finally, there is also a pathology building, mortuary cellars and infirmary to the left of the main entrance. These house a huge exhibition on the medical crimes in the camp. Again, some of the experiments were utterly horrific and I cannot even begin to comprehend the horrors these prisoners went through.


Why go to Sachsenhausen?

Go to learn about the horrors of the past. Go to learn how important it is we don’t forget so that never again are such crimes committed. Go to have a reality check – maybe you don’t have the house you’d like, or the money you’d like, or the life you’d like – but at least you have a life, at least you are free. Go to honour the victims and hear their stories, remember them and pay your respects to them. Go to reflect, to rethink, to change your outlook for a bit. And then leave, grateful to live in a time of peace, grateful for the day, and the next day and hopefully many more.

Important words

Getting to Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen is most easily reached by train. There are 2 train options from Berlin to reach Oranienburg, where the site is located:

  • The S1 runs from Berlin 3 times an hour. Obviously you can get on at any S1 stops, including Friedrichstraße, Brandenburger Tor and Potsdamer Platz. The train takes around 45 minutes.
  • There is also the quicker RE5 (Regional Express) train from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to either Stralsund or Rostock (you just need to remember to get off at Oranienburg). This train takes 25 minutes.

As always when writing about getting trains in Germany, please remember to validate your ticket. You have to hold your ticket under the little grey boxes on the platform to get it punched, otherwise you may face fines from on train ticket collectors. I’ve had my share of fun with them – just stamp your ticket.

At the Berlin underground

From Oranienburg train station, there are then three options to get to the Sachsenhausen memorial site.

  • You can take a bus (804 – direction Malz or 821 – direction Tiergarten). You have to get off at stop Gedenkstätte (Memorial).
  • You could take a taxi, which should cost around 10 Euros.
  • You can walk – it’s 2.5km so takes around 20 minutes. This was the option we took as it’s a flat and easy walk. Though the site then does also require a lot of walking too.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate this post isn’t a happy, beautiful pictures, post. But travel isn’t just that, and I think it’s equally as important to share experiences like this. Stay safe and happy travelling everyone.

29 Comments

  1. Very interesting post. I have never been to a concentration camp but I know it is something I want to do at least once, though I’m not sure I could do it more than once. I think it is very important to visit those places to remember that for most the fight is not over yet, and even though we can feel safe, there are parts of the world where theses things can still be a reality. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Juliette. It really is a chilling experience, but one I think is worthwhile for remembering the past and appreciating what we have. Totally – things like this are happening in the world still which is just unbelievable. Have a nice Sunday 🙂

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  2. This is a great post. I agree it is so important to remind ourselves of how little our problems really are, a reality check on our privilege. I struggle to understand how the horrors of WW2 were committed, but I quickly realise that to this day these horrors are still being committed upon innocent people again and again in some parts of the world. I never had the chance yet to visit a concentration camp, but I almost feel that it is my duty to do so. To remind me of how cruel human beings can be to one another. And I hope that those who lead the world remember the lessons from the past.

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    1. Thanks so much Nic for your kind words. Oh for sure – it is absolutely impossible to understand; and the fact that crimes like this are still committed today is just horrific. I also hope we never forget the lessons of the past, it’s so easy as they become further and further away and no longer in living memory. Have a nice Sunday and thanks for stopping by.

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  3. Such an interesting, thought provoking post Hannah. I’ve visited Berlin but not to Sachsenhausen but will consider visiting next time I’m back in Berlin. It’s very useful to learn about public travel arrangements for getting there there which is very helpful. Thanks, Marion

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    1. Oh that book is absolutely heartbreaking isn’t it. I just can’t believe the things humans have done to each other over the years, and the fact things like this still go on in some places. You’re so right; we can’t even fathom it. Have a lovely Sunday Lyssy 🙂

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  4. It is awful! Very hard to understand how such a violence can happen. I went to see Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia. It was very hard to be there, so many people died, so many broken lives. And you are right it is very important visit places like that, learn history and pay respect to victims. Unfortunately people don’t learn from the past. Great post ! Thanks a lot for sharing!

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    1. Oh I’m sure Salaspils was equally as heartbreaking. It really is just so important to remember and to learn – but like you say, unfortunately people don’t! Thanks for stopping by and have a good Sunday.

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  5. I think it’s important to visit such sites during one’s travels. Not all travel is fun and games; it can be educational as well. I didn’t visit Sachsenhausen, but I did go to Auschwitz in Poland, where I spent the day learning about the horrors of the Holocaust. Visiting the sites of such places brings gravity to the human experience, and to understand our part in this world, to treat each other with as much kindness and dignity as we can. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Yes I definitely think travel can be educational and very important as well. Auschwitz I think is one of the most chilling, awful places on the planet. You’re so right, places like that make you consciously recognise the importance of being kind and supporting each other. Thanks for stopping by and have a nice Sunday.

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  6. I also have the same thoughts as you, the psychology behind how these atrocities were committed and how the general population were ok with it (and other nations, let’s face it) is really interesting to me. Probably because I don’t understand it. It’s still an important part of travel to see the history of the country and of our world really. I haven’t been to Sachsenhausen but have been to Auschwitz and it is an eerie place. Was the size bigger than you thought? I couldn’t believe how big Auschwitz was.

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    1. I find that aspect really interesting too – I’m no expert, but I think the majority of the population justified it because they couldn’t ‘see’ it and so they could pretend it wasn’t happening, or at least not as brutally as it was. Plus the propaganda machine had made a lot of people anti-Semitic anyway. It’s so so important, like you say and Auschwitz I think is one of the most awful places in the world. Yes, the big open spaces were shocking – everything just felt so bleak, so desperate, so cold. Thank you for stopping by and have a nice Sunday.

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      1. Yeah, these camps were in far locations from towns (I think anyway, not sure if what they would be back then) and also fear for the general population. If you were seen to be against the party’s idealogies, you were also sent to prison.

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  7. Europe is unbelievably full of history, but this history was not full of peace – besides those fairy-tail knights in metal armour wielding swords and shields, humans have committed plenty of bloody crimes. I’d say visiting a concentration camp was an incredibly enriching and moving experience. I agree with you, Hannah, that’s it is important to honour the victims, look at the struggle of both the Jews and the Poles against their oppressors and educate yourself against anti-Semitism. Thanks for sharing and have a good day. Aiva 🙂

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    1. Yes humanity is shockingly capable of inflicting so much damage and tragedy on itself. So much inhumanity is unbelievable, and like you say it’s just so important we all learn from it and make every effort to be kind and understanding always. Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely day Aiva.

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  8. It’s a hard journey to make, but essential. Because, as you said, it is important to recognize and honor the victims of the Holocaust. My visit to Auschwitz was equally heartbreaking and difficult, but I had to do it. Your article is very thoughtfully written. Ordinary Men is an excellent book that explores how a group of working class middle-aged men from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military service, were employed as torturers and killers. Despite not actually being ardent Nazis. It’s a chilling read, so not for everyone.

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    1. Yes for sure….I really do think Auschwitz is one of the most horrific, haunting places on earth. I’ve read a lot of war books but not Ordinary Men, so I will give that a read, thanks for the recommendation. Thanks for commenting and have a good Sunday.

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  9. Wow, how eerie and heartbreaking (but also fascinating) to visit such a place. I share your inability to comprehend how things like this could happen and how people manage to convince themselves it’s okay.

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  10. What a chilling experience. So much important history and yet deep sadness. Thanks for sharing. Even if it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy post, it’s good to understand our past, even if it’s ugly.

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  11. Certainly a chilling and humbling experience. I went to Dachau a few years ago and it’s so hard to comprehend why these atrocities happen. Glad you got the opportunity to visit, I think self-guided is probably a good way to experience it too so you can take it in at your own pace, rather than with a tour.

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