It wasn't the first concentration camp, but it became a model for all others. Close to Berlin, it housed political dissidents, prisoners of war, homosexuals, Jews, Roma and Sinti and anyone else that Hitler declared an 'other'. Just outside of the prison walls was the main SS training complex. A building stood near by that housed the headquarters of all of the Nazi prison camps. From this office they planned the 'Final Solution' - the mass execution of all Jews. In a comfortable office, in a comfortable town.
The day we visited it was miserable. There was a cold, biting wind and a slow drizzling rain. The only sound around the camp is the cawing of the crows - a sad but hungry sound that echoed through the grounds. The weather was fitting. I didn't want to be comfortable.
As the prisoners were led up a long path they would come to the gate house (below) and be greeted with this ironic message "Work Makes you Free". Freedom only came to the prisoners through death.
The prison grounds were a large triangle - at the base of the equilateral triangle was the gate house. On the top of the house sat a large machine gun, with range over the entire grounds.
Along the base of the triangle beside the gate was gravel area. Behind this was barbed wire, behind that a electrified barbed wire fence, and behind this the main prison wall. If you stepped onto the gravel you were shot without warning. This is how Stalin's son, a prisoner at the camp who Stalin refused to exchange for, killed himself.
There was a large open field that stood in between the bunk houses and the gate house. Around the field was a small track. They would inject prisoners with drugs, weigh them down with weight equivalent to a man, and force them to run a marathon around the small track. This was usually done to teenage boys.
Every morning in this field there would be roll call. Before roll call, you had to be showered (except there were not enough showers) your uniform had to be clean (except you had no way to clean it) and you had to be present. If a prisoner did not show, the entire camp had to remain standing until the prisoner was accounted for. If there was no work for you to do that day (the prison was extremely overcrowded in its later years, with a population of nearly 50,000) you had to remain standing in this field for nearly 14 hours. Many prisoners, standing in the extreme heat or cold, malnourished and dehydrated, died in this field.
During roll call a prisoner might be singled out for any reason and brutally beaten. Often it was for being unclean.
The washrooms in the bunkhouses were inadequte for the number of people using them. Every morning, fearing being singled out for being unclean, there would be a stampede to wash.
Washing was also matter of survival due to disease. The bunk beds were much too small for the average man (no women were kept at this prison) and were stacked three high. Unable to get up during the night and often suffering from disease, prisoners were forced to defecate, urinate and vomit in their beds.
There was a seperate area where they would keep prisoners with special skills - leaders, priests and rabbis, and POWs. These prisoners were given especially horrible treatment. They were whipped, hung from posts by their shoulders, thrown in a deep hole with no light. Some were forced to counterfit money to fund the Nazi army (a recent film was made about this group).
But on the opposite side of the camp prisoners were occasionally led through a door near a smoke stack - they were told they were visiting the prison physician. They would sit in a small waiting room while loud music played. They would eventually be called in and examined - the doctor would note interesting tattoos or markings on the skin. They were then told to stand up against the wall to be measured. But behind the wall stood an SS guard with a gun. A single shot was fired to the back of the skull, the person's body slumping the floor lifeless. Those with interesting tattoos would have their skin made into a lampshade or decorative object.
Most of the bodies were cremated. Prisoners at the camp would be given the task of putting the bodies in the furnaces. The ashes were piled near the furnaces. When they memorialized the site, they placed moss and large stone markers over the hills to memorialize the site that is a mass grave.
The prison was open for nearly 10 years. Especially in the early years, the prison had to try and maintain plausible legitimacy. They had to file fake coroner reports with fake causes of death. Some prisoners bodies were even returned to the family for burial. To keep up the charade, they would force other inmates to perform fake autopsies - cutting the body in such a way as to make it look like the procedure was performed.
Bodies that were not immediately cremated were stored in a large basement room. Again, prisoners were forced to move the bodies in a large wheelbarrow into the room below which was full of corpses.As the Russians neared Berlin, it became clear to the Nazi's that they would soon be overtaken. The SS carefully covered up all evidence of their crimes in the camp. They then marched the prisoners out of the camp in small groups in what has been known since as the Death March. Most of the starving and sick men died or were killed along the road and their bodies were left to be stepped over by the next group being marched away from the prison.
Liberation did occur - and the clock at the gate marks the time. However, the suffering at the camp didn't end. Stalin continued to use the camp for many years after the war ended - torturing and mistreating many prisoners of war.
Hitler never visited any of the concentration camps. The men and women who committed this violence and murder did not have to. They willfully chose to dismiss their humanity. They willfully chose to torture, beat, and murder what amounted to millions of men and women. It continued for so long because for so long it remained hidden. It continued for so long because people - individuals with mothers and fathers and children - continued to participate in the genocide.