Friday, November 18, 2011

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen was a Nazi concentration camp located, 35 km (22 miles) north of Berlin, in Oranienburg. It was not originally intended to be an extermination camp. It was at first a training camp for SS officers who later served at extermination camps in the east. In 1942, large numbers of Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz. Gas chambers and ovens were installed here in March 1943.

Between 1936 and 1945 around 200,000 people passed through the gates. At first, most of the prisoners were political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, those the Nazis considered racially or biologically inferior were also sent here.

Prior to the Nazis, Berlin was very liberal and was a mecca for gays. So it's no surprise that Sachsenhausen had more homosexual prisoners than any other Nazi concentration camp.

Each prisoner had to wear a colored triangle for easy classification. Red triangles were for political prisoners and communists. Black triangles were for social misfits, brown triangles were for Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), green triangles were for repeat criminal offenders (murderers and rapists), white triangles were for the "work shy", purple triangles were for Jehovah's Witnesses, pink triangles were for homosexuals and Jews wore two yellow triangles to form a six point star.

Sachsenhausen was home to the largest counterfeiting operation in history. The Nazis forced inmate artisans to produce fake currency in order to undermine the economies of the UK and America. Over £1 billion in counterfeited banknotes were recovered.

In the spring of 1945 the Soviet Red Army was advancing on Berlin. On April 20-21, the camp prepared for evacuation and 33,000 inmates were marched northeast. Those prisoners that collapsed along the way were shot. On April 22, 1945, the Red Army and Polish troops liberated the remaining 3,000 inmates, including 1,400 women.

After the war, Sachsenhausen was used as an NKVD (pre-KGB) special camp until 1950. It was then used by the East German military until 1990. However, in 1961, 5% of the original camp became a memorial.

East Germany's communist government emphasized the suffering of political prisoners above all other groups. The memorial obelisk has 18 red triangles (for communists) but no others. I guess honoring the Jews, gays and others who perished here wasn't a priority for East German communists.

One thing that most people don't realize is that in Nazi Germany, being gay was a criminal offense. So, in both East and West Germany, gays who were freed from concentration camps were transferred to civilian prisons to complete their sentences. Gays were also denied the reparations given out by the West German government to other groups who spent time in concentration camps.

Probably the most famous Sachsenhausen prisoner was the Reverend Martin Niemöller. He is best remembered for this famous quote.

In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak for me.

We all need to stand up to injustice.

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