Transmuting Darkness to Light: A Journey through Sachsenhausen
“For the 5-day forced march, about 1,600 prisoners were each issued with a horse blanket, some tinned food and a piece of bread. It was snowing and the weather was cold and damp. […] The SS guards beat us across the head with truncheons. When they beat someone to death, we would bury them the next morning and strike their name from the list. The same thing happened to those who were too exhausted to march any further.”
- Wojciech Cieslik, Poland
Wojciech was one of thousands of prisoners in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp when the excruciating death march began in the wee hours of 21 April 1945.
The painstaking detail I am interpolating this blog post with comes from my extensive research for my ongoing novel, TWIN FLAME, where one of my lead characters is partly a Jew. That means I may layer his backstory with a heartbreakingly realistic throwback to the experience of his ancestors during the Holocaust era.
Sachsenhausen, once a hellish inferno for hundreds of thousands of people during the Nazi era, is now a partly renovated complex of rambling gardens and grounds. It is tucked away in a quiet corner, well out of sight from the mainstream bustle of the city of Oranienburg, roughly 21 miles north of Berlin. The camp still exists, to some extent in its original state, although many parts of it have now been converted to museums.
When I entered Sachsenhausen, I expected to feel sadness for all the souls that had suffered at the hands of the Soviet Special, or SS, forces in that camp. Instead, a sense of eerie calm held sway as I walked towards a flattish, partly ranch-style beige building with grey roofs, shaped like an inverted T and known as ‘Tower A’. The sense of calm and pride coursing through my veins surfaces from a reiteration of my belief in the triumph of the human spirit against all odds.
Tower A, which carries the slogan ‘Work Liberates’ in German, was home to SS guards who could keep watch on the hapless prisoners in the barracks, straight ahead. Between Tower-A and the barracks lies a sprawling ground with a semi-circular ring, which was privy to prisoners’ roll call every morning from 1938 until 1945. Across that wide semi-circular ring, adjacent to Tower-A, are barbed wires, which were electrified up to 300 volts as a measure to deter prisoners who sought escape. The infirmary, or medical care facility, which was mostly used as a place for forced sterilization of men and women as well as medical experiments on otherwise healthy children imported from other camps, lies far beyond the residents’ barracks, near a mass grave, which held decaying bodies of those who had perished in the camp.
The unfathomable torture that took place in Sachsenhausen as well as Dachau and other camps, with Auschwitz, being by far the most severe… the deplorable living conditions of residents in those camps… the starvation and lack of amenities for hundreds of thousands of those people…the grueling work… the sadism they faced at the hands of the SS guards… Much else can be said in brief space.
Being put through 10% of all that they went through is probably enough to make some of today’s people lose their minds. Even so, residents in Sachsenhausen shared some of their own limited, severely rationed food supplies with their sicker and/or less abled counterparts, physically weakened from the abuse and torture at the camp. One resident used his rations of bread to make a shoe, decorated with colourful flowers on top, as a gift for a fellow resident who had helped the former during a time of need. Many residents exchanged self-made artifacts like cigarette holders for more food. Several inventions were made by prisoners of war, and new creations came to the fore, even as many were forced to work on armaments to serve their sadistic SS forces during the war.
What’s more, it was possible for those that survived the camp to experience joy even after all that they had been through; They cried out in jubilation when a suite of International Red Cross trucks appeared on April 28, 1945 one week after the death march, in order to liberate them.
The key message I take home with me is this: Many of us whine about the rain or any other minor irritant. Many of us complain that we don’t have a job—or a better job, so to speak. Many of us gripe about the lack of time or the lack of money or whatever else it is. We tend to take all that we have for granted. Next time, we feel lousy, let us remind ourselves about the conditions that people lived in not only to just survive and exist, but also to conquer.
I do not mean to preach here; the sole intent of this blog post is primarily to share my intense experience of Sachsenhausen and unveil my own perspective. But, I find that the meaning and purpose of one’s existence comes from within. It’s about conquering your biggest fears by facing them for real. Once we’ve come face-to-face with ourselves, and our deepest fears, we are liberated to chase our destiny.
And once we believe in ourselves, regardless of what we are told, once we create our own path against all odds, once we are well on that path towards what truly resonates with us, nothing can stand in our way—not people, not situations, not finances, not geography. In fact, we have it within us to transmute the darkness to light and make some of our adversaries our allies, whether those exist in the form of situations or people. Not unlike what many prisoners of war did, more than six decades ago, not unlike what fighters have done for eons, long before and after.
On the field: In the barracks at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, taking notes and recording.
Entrance to the Sachsenhausen camp through Tower A
Utensils used to prepare meals in the prisoners' kitchen at Sachsenhausen. A cooking bowl, bottom centre; a coffee mug on the top left, and a large tin on the top right.