On 22 April 1945 Soviet troops liberated the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. They found only 3,000 unguarded, weak and ill prisoners remaining. These were the people who were too unwell to join the forced death march, which set off from Sachsenhausen the day before liberation.
Approximately 30,000 prisoners, including 13,000 women, had been forced to march from the camp under armed guard with no food or water. The guards soon left the column of prisoners and they were able to seek refuge. Two weeks after the death march left Sachsenhausen, US soldiers liberated survivors of the march near Schwerin, Germany and Soviet troops liberated another group near Zechlin, Germany. Today a memorial museum stands on the site of the former camp.
Sachsenhausen was built by political prisoners who were deployed specifically for that purpose in July 1936. By the end of that year, approximately 1,600 prisoners were incarcerated there.
Following Kristallnacht in November 1938, almost 6,000 Jews were deported to Sachsenhausen from across Europe. Later, Jews living in the Berlin area were sent there too. In 1941, Soviet prisoners of war started to arrive at the camp.
Sachsenhausen grew in size to accommodate these new arrivals. Eventually there were 50 barracks for prisoners, an infirmary, a prison and a centre for medical experimentation, as well as a crematorium, morgue and gas chamber, which would be used to murder small groups of people at a time. The camp was later expanded to include sub-camps in the industrialised area surrounding Sachsenhausen. In 1944, responding to the Warsaw Uprising, Polish citizens were deported to camps, 6,000 of whom were sent to Sachsenhausen.
Life in Sachsenhausen was incredibly hard and many perished through starvation, lack of medical care and ill-treatment. Shooting of prisoners was a regular occurrence, and violence was deployed indiscriminately. Medical experimentation, including castration and sterilisation, took place within the confines of the camp, and disabled men and women were sent from Sachsenhausen to euthanasia centres. Deportations to Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and other labour camps happened regularly.
It is estimated that approximately 50,000 registered prisoners were sent to Sachsenhausen, but tens of thousands of unregistered people were also imprisoned at the camp over the years of its operation. In 1947 a Soviet military tribunal convicted 16 camp officers and civil servants, including the last serving Camp Commandant of Sachsenhausen, 14 of whom were given life sentences.
Find out more:
- Concentration camps
- Life in the camps
- Buy and watch The Counterfeiters, a 2007 film centred on events in Sachsenhausen
- Read Walter Winter’s book Winter Time, which details his experiences as a Sinto (Gypsy) surviving the Nazi camps, including Sachsenhausen
Image: © Sophie Harrison