Forced labour in Sachsenhausen. Weapons and toys, death and rescue.

'Arbeit macht frei' (Work will liberate). The infamous gate of Sachsenhausen. Background: the roll call square, the former location of the gibbets and GDR's monument (developed in 1961). Oranienburg, February 2013. No © needed. Photo by Joep de VisserDeze update verscheen in het Nederlands op de website van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis.

As soon as the Nazi’s took power, they developed concentration camps for their political opponents. Especially around large cities, the largest camps were build. In 1936, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was opened nearby Berlin. In the following nine years, 200.000 (wo)men were detained here – generally with 30.000 at the same time. Initially, most of the imprisoned men were political opponents. In addition, thousands of Gypsies and Jews were sent to Sachsenhausen – as well as relatively many homosexuals. The systematic executions on this site became infamous, such as the execution of at least 10.000 Soviet Prisoners of War (PoW’s) in the autumn of 1941. Besides there were many executions of resistance fighters in occupied countries and famous bank robbers. Due to a lack of hygiene, various diseases made people suffer and die. On top of that, there were fatal ‘medicines’ tested at inmates, which poisened them. There was even a gas chamber build, of which is unknown how many men were gassed in it. By the end of the war, tens of thousands did not survive Sachsenhausen. The exact number will never be known.

Arrival of the Soviet PoW's in Sachsenhausen, 1941. ©BundesarchivIn despite of this murderous function of the concentration camp, forced labour was the core business of the inmates’ daily life. Initially, prisoners were generally released after working hard. It was randomly decided if and when someone was allowed to leave Sachsenhausen again. The infamous words ‘Arbeit macht frei‘ (‘Work will liberate’) – which also was found at the gate of Sachsenhausen – refers to this forced labour. In later years, it was unlikely that one could leave Sachsenhausen as a free man. The prisoners stayed or were sent to another camp. What kind off forced labour took place in Sachsenhausen? In what did it differ from other forced labour camps? And how is the forced labour within the concentration camp remembered?

Forced labour in Sachsenhausen went through many phases. At its opening in the summer of 1936, the camps facilities were build. Especially at the SS quarters at the southside of the camp, there were still many buildings to be build. Initially, the most inmates of Sachsenhausen were German political opponents. In March and June 1938, the ‘Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich‘ (Operation work-shy Reich) took place. Around the 6000 men were sent to Sachsenhausen – particularly men who could work but were considered to be ‘work-shy’ such as beggars and (small) criminals. Also, German labourers who didn’t agree on the little payment for the tough working standards in the Third Reich were sent to Sachsenhausen. Sinti and Roma were a target group of this operation – 500 of them were arrested. Also, Jews were arrested for being ‘work-shy’ – which is cynical since many of them lost their job due to racist Nazi laws. Another wave of jewish men came to Sachsenhausen after the pogrom of November 1938. It is known that many of these Jews stood for 24 hours at the Appellplatz (roll call square) with the thinnest clothes at -20°C. Hundreds of limbs had to be amputated, which was only allowed at a special jewish hospital. Jews were not given any medication in general.

At the Industriehof (Industrial yard) at the westside of the camp, various fabrics were build in 1938. Here, thousands of prisoners did skilled forced labour for the Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke (DAW, German Equipment Factory) and SS’s commercial enterprises in twelve hour shifts. The various fabrics build to produce mechanics, to saw and to produce furniture, cases, window frames and even toys which were brought and sold on the free market. By 1942, it came to an increase of weapon production in these fabrics. On the same site, there was a Schuhfabrik (shoe factory) located since 1942. Here, not only the skilled labours were exploited – but also the property of those who were murdered. During the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe, 150 train cabbins with shoes and clothes of killed Jews brought to Sachsenhausen and recycled in this Schuhfabrik. Skilled labourers who had experience in the clothing industry worked in this fabric. At its beginning, hidden money and valuable belonings were found in the clothes and exchanged between the forced labours and their SS guards. When the camp direction found out about this black market, it came to a strict control of this part of forced industry.

Painting of the Schuhläuferkommando by a Sachsenhausen inmate. ©Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum

One of the most senseless and absurd battalions to work for were located at the Appellplatz. Here were the Schuhläuferkommando (shoe walking battalion) and the Stehkommando (standing battalion) situated – doing the most useless work in front of the two gibbets who were often in use. The standing battalion was forced to stand up – doing nothing. After many hours without a break, the battalion must have been hungry – and it was nothing but a painful torture. It must have been an absurd view seeing these men in heavy rain, snow and the summertime. Sometimes, they had to make the Sachsengruß (Saxon greetings) – in which they had to kneel down at the rough ground and lay their hands in their necks for several hours. For the standing battalion, it was forbidden to go to the barracks for a toilet. They were forced to use a bucket in front of their inmates – if the SS cared to bring one. Behind the standing battalion, the Schuhläuferkommando had to fulfill their punishment for minor offences against the camp’s rules. These men were forced to test shoes on a 700 meter long strip which was developed in 1940. This strip had a variety of surfaces – such as sand, grit, broken stones, gravel, clay and bond stone. Regardless the weather and time of the year, the shoes were tested. The shoes were numbered and changed daily – and it happened often that one was given too small shoes for causing pain. The group consisted of 120 men – a number which increased to 170 by November 1943. Then, the Kommando also was forced to carry useless sandbags. The Kommando walked 40 kilometers a day in a high tempo. The SS was paid by the shoes’ producer for using ‘their’ labour force. In the meanwhile, the SS guards were given much power to punish imprisoners randomly, the way they wanted.

As WWII proceeded, an increasing number of the inmates came from occupied countries. Fourty different nationalities have seen the camp from its inside. Being placed at a ‘favourable’ working condition could save ones life. Once, a Dutch inmate named Ab Nicolaas saw that the SS asked for a pianist. The one who replied positive, had to pick up dead bodies in the camp. Ab Nicolaas decided that he would make up a lie – and tell the SS that he was a house painter. Nicolaas succeeded, and he worked inside an air raid shelter at the SS camp. Nicolaas had clearly better working conditions than other prisoners. He was given twice as much rations and had daily a nice, warm meal. The negative side was that he would be surrounded with miserable SS members and had to paint ‘gasty’ decorations. Ab Nicolaas remembered that he had to draw a man and a woman walking into the forest, holding hands – though the man brought a shovel to kill and bury her. Nicolaas understood that this was telling much about the mentality of the SS commanders. Other ‘favourable’ working conditions were in the camp’s kitchen. The work was done inside, near to the warm pits – and was not as dangerous as the work at the industrial quarter. Although Sachsenhausen’s menu was not much of a luxury, it created work for 360 potatoe peelers by March 1942.

Map of the counterfeiting barrack (1942-1945). ©Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum

By the end of 1942, all jewish men were sent to Auschwitz because das Altes Reich (The Old Empire, meaning the German homeland) had to be fully ‘Judenfrei‘ (‘clean’ of Jews). By the end of 1942, the only Jews who were imprisoned in Sachsenausen were secretly held in barracks 18 and 19. These men had experience in the bank industry and graphic arts and were used as a counterfeiting. This group had to falsify stamps, banknotes and personal documents. This counterfeiting battalion was 142 men at its largest and they falsified £134 million. They were given huge privileges – such as allowance to listen to the radio and to see entertainment. They also had a weekend – and they could even play ping-pong with their SS guards. Although by November 1942, a unit of jewish men who had experience in the watch industry was formed in Auschwitz – they were only sent to Sachsenhausen in February 1943. They had to repair broken watches which were stolen from murdered Jews. This group was secretly held in block 42 and consisted of 160 workers. It is likely that they were also given certain privileges, though not as many as the counterfeiting battalion. Also, a small number of jews survived by working in the Schuhfabrik.

As said before, doing work inside a fabric was favoured over the work outside. The battalion which were feared the most were the corps-bearing unit, the latrine battalion and the unit which worked in the brick works – located 2 kilometers outside the camp. The SS commanders decided who would work for which battalion. Because all the inmates had to wear a triangle on their clothes which revealed their nationality, race, sexuality or criminal record – Jews were an easy target for the antisemite guards of the concentration camp. Also were Soviets usually forced to do ‘easy’ work in stead of technical work, according to the Nazi stereotypes that Eastern people are unintelligent. Generally, half of the inmates were Soviet PoW’s. They were not treated according to the Geneva Conventions, which secured other PoW’s (such as the Italian) to be safe from forced labour.

Location of the Industriehof and its remainings (February 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

After WWII, Sachsenhausen has been used for many situations. The Soviets used the camp to imprison former Nazi’s since August 1945. Among the Nazi’s were also many social-democrats and opponents of communism detained. The shoe factory kept its initial function till 1950. The Soviets left Sachsenhausen that year, after another 7000 men passed away – mostly in the cold winter of 1946/7 in which was a food shortage. The GDR used the former concentration camp as a military training ground and a rubbish dump. With the development of a megalomanic memorial, Sachsenhausen became a GDR’s memorial site by 1961. The systematically executed Soviet PoW’s and the German (communist) political prisoners were considered to be the most important group of victims. After the Fall and the German unification, the memorial site developed to a more balanced memorisation of the victims. More information is exposed about the fate of the Jews and inmates of foreign countries. Although the many executions still seems to be central at Sachsenhausen, references to forced labour are everywhere around. At the southeastern corner of the memorial site, barrack 39 is situated. Here, the daily life of the inmates is the central topic. This is where the most experiences with forced labour are told. At the end of the barrack, one can find a panel with voices of twenty inmates, telling their experiences with forced labour specifically.

Twenty stories about forced labour in Sachsenhausen. Located at barrack 39 (February 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Taking everything into account, the forced labourers in a concentration camp as Sachsenhausen were generally more of a victim of Nazism than other forced labourers. The inmates were never recruited because of Nazi sympathies or by propaganda – but they were arrested and hated by their guards. Unfortunately, the Nazi’s gave much power to the SS guards who would torture the inmates on purpose. This cruel punishment is the main difference between Sachsenhausen’s forced labour and other forced labour camps. An illustrating case is the useless suffering for the Stehkommando and the Schuhläuferkommando. Hunger, fatal diseases, torture and executions were more in sight than in other forced labour camps. Also, the concentration camp was forced to work with remainings of other extermination camps – such as ‘recycling’ the shoes, clothes and watches from gassed, killed and executed victims. Of course, there were also similarities with other forced labour camps. For instance, much industrial labour in the arms industry was done and – as anywhere else – Jews, Sinti and Roma and Soviets were treatened the worst. The only escape for them was through being lucky and being forced to do (high) skilled labour. Perhaps did the Nazi’s realise the economic value of Jews when they definitely lost the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943, when the watchmaking battalion was sent to Sachsenhausen after various months. Although this might slightly relativate the Nazi’s dogmatic pattern of racial hierarchy, we have to remember that this was an exception. At Sachsenhausen’s memorial site it seems that initiated executions are remembered primarily – and forced labour secondary. I still wonder till which level Sachsenhausen’s forced labour was part of these initiated killings. After all, it is clear that the words ‘Arbeit macht frei‘ were as useless and absurd as the labour which it referred to.

It is also important to clarify that thousands of Sachsenhausen’s inmates were forced to work outside camp. Already in 1938 onwards, with an rise in 1942 and 1944 satellite camps with barracks were developed. They were located in Oranienburg, Berlin and further away. Next week I will tell about one of these camps in detail.


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