The bloody Klinkerwerk complex. How Sachsenhausen’s infamous subcamp became a full-grown concentration camp.

The Klinkerwerk (1939-1945). ©Gedenkstätte und Museum SachsenhausenLast week I’ve updated about the horrific forms of forced labour in concentration camp Sachsenhausen. The entry ended with the fact that Sachsenhausen had various Außenkommando’s (external units) and Außenlager (external camps). This update will be about the Außenkommando Klinkerwerk which became an Außenlager.

The worst working conditions for Sachsenhausen’s inmates outside the main camp could have been at the Klinkerwerk – which was known as ‘the murderous fabric’. Only 2.5 kilometre away from Sachsenhausen’s gates, a labour complex was developed for its inmates. The main occupation of the Klinkerwerk was a brick-work factory. Curt Lugenheim was its architect, he planned on a concrete factory of 40.000sq.m. consisting twenty-four tunnel furnaces. The bricks had to be produced to realise the megalomanic Nazi building projects in Berlin, a prestigious initiative by Hitler and Albert Speer. How did the working and living conditions develop in the Klinkerwerk? Till which degree was this torture intended by the SS? And how is this place of forced labour and death remembered?

The roll call at Sachsenhausen started at 5pm. Since March 1938, the unlucky unit for the Klinkerwerk was formed and had to form a line. The unit marched in rows of five. Every inmate wanted to walk in the middle and even argued about this position. Standing in the middle had the benefit that one could take a piss while walking with the least chance of being seen by the SS guards. These weaponed guards had gaps of ten meter between them – on each side. Every inmate had the runs, and especially while marching – one could not prevent it from happening. Stepping out to sit aside in the bushes had the risk that an SS guard would shoot you in ‘your attempt to escape’, which was usually the excuse used by the SS when they felt like shooting someone. The march towards the Klinkerwerk was 2.5 kilometre and the inmates had to sing humiliating songs on their way. By the end of the shift, the prisoners brought the dead bodies of their fellow inmates on their way back to Sachsenhausen.

Propaganda photo (Oranienburg, 1940) ©Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen

Propaganda photo (Oranienburg, 1940) ©Gedenkstätte und Museum Sachsenhausen

Initially, a shooting range for the SS was developed in March 1938. A barrack was build for the SS, as well as earthworks to stop bullets when it missed the target. The workers here were a Strafkommando (penal unit) of Sachsenhausen, consisting of many jews, homosexuals and jehova’s witnesses. Sometimes, the SS drifted an inmate to cross the border’s line – to shoot him in its ‘attempt to escape’. SS men generally liked to use prisoners as a target, resulting daily in death and wounded inmates. In 1939/40, the forced labourers had to dig out the bottom of a two docking sites. They dug eleven meter in the ground while drowning or being beaten till death. Here, most of the fallen were jews, homosexuals and Polish men. When this murderous harbour was build, the work which had to be done here was still dangerous. The inmates had to load and unload the boats with heavy bags of stones, and lost their balance on the landing-stages which bent through. One of these men who lost their balance while unloading a boat was the Polish inmate Edmund Braminski. He was saved from the cold water and brought to the doctors barrack at Sachsenhausen. Braminski had luck after all – someone who knew him told the Nazi’s that he had a technical education. When he left the doctors’ barrack, Braminski worked under relative better working conditions and survived the war. Other men who fell in the water drowned, froze to death or were beaten by the SS for losing their materials. Next to the Klinkerwerk, it came to the building of a SS owned bakery in 1939 and 1941. Here, 80 prisoners were forced to bake 10.000 loaves of bread daily – a number which increased to 43.000 by the end of 1944.

In 1940, another two sites were built around the brick works. One was a laboratory to test the ceramics. Here, more lucky inmates had the opportunity to work under psychically favourable conditions. Most likely, the labourers here were from western Europe. In later years, experiments were done here with ceramic explosives to make more dangerous shells. Secondly, a natural stone processing plant was also realised next to the harbour. This processing plant was intiated by Albert Speer and the unit which worked here was named the Kommando Speer (Speer Unit). For this plant, train tracks were developed up till the factory, which implicates that the harbour was occupied already. When the plans to rebuild Berlin were postponed by 1942, the natural stone process plant changed into a centre were confiscated items from occupied countries were sorted out and loaded on ships again. In this part of industry, 2000 till 2500 inmates were forced to work. Daily, around the ten people did not make it till the end due to torture and starvation. In 1944, the natural stone processing works was also used in the production of Heinkel combat airplanes.

Map of Klinkerwerk's barracks (1941-1944). ©Gedenkstätte und Museum SachsenhausenBy April 1941, ten barracks were developed next to the Klinkerwerk. Barrack 1 was for the labourers in the new Brotfabrik. Barrack 2 and 3 were probably for Polish inmates, barrack 4 for jews. The political opponents were situated in barrack 6. Barrack 9 and 10 were reserved for ‘criminals’ – although the SS guards were not meant with that. They had two offices at the gate of the camp. The other barracks (5, 7 and 8) were mixed with forced labourers from occupied countries, who initially went into hiding but unfortunately were found. With these barracks, the Klinkerwerk became an Außenlager (outside camp) from Sachsenhausen. The daily marches from Sachsenhausen to the Klinkerwerk came to an end. As an Außenlager, the Klinkerwerk also had an own Appellplatz (roll call square) and its own services concerning food, laundry, a barrack for the ill inmates – as well as its own gibbets. In the winter of 1941/42, fourty men who were too weak for work were killed by the SS. Mostly, they were forced to do sports – such as jumping like a frog – before water was poured over them and they would freeze to death. In 1942, a wave of homosexuals were sent from Sachsenhausen to the Klinkerwerk. From July till September that year, around the 200 homosexual inmates were killed. Some of them were beaten up in a fatal way, died in mounted accidents or were executed ‘on their attempt to escape’. After the war, no Nazi has been trialed for these crimes specifically.

Execution at the Klinkerwerk. ©Etienne van Ploeg, 1945In 1942, a Strafkommando was developed with a seperate barrack for them. The windows of this barracks were painted white, so inside tortures would be more secretive. After Walter Hilger organised ‘schnapps’ in his concentration camp Lichterfelde, an Außenlager of Sachsenhausen, he was sentenced to work in this Strafkommando for about seven weeks. Constantly, some of this 40-men unit died – and they had to be replenished all the time. The Strafkommando had to load sand on a truck and fill a pit on the site with this. Men in this unit were beaten all the time and for the smallest mistake – one was not given his daily meal.

At the end of 1943, the arnaments industry was introduced at the Klinkerwerk. At the eastside of the brick-factory, a grenade foundry was build. Day and night, shells were produced – up till 10.000 a day. For this, 30.000 kilograms of metal was used. With the three of them, prisoners had to bring special ‘bags’ with boiling metal to make the shells. These ‘bags’ weight 50 kilograms when they were filled. Pouring the boiling metal in the ‘bags’ or spilling a drop created a small firework of steel splinters. Except from their thin cothes, prisoners were not protected from any of these and suffered often from burning splinters. In an attempt to exterminate them, Hungarian jews were forced to do this work during the autumn of 1944. Because of the forced work in the arnament industry, the number of Klinkerwerk’s inmates rose to 3600 by the end of 1944. Therefore, two-story stone barracks had to be build.

By January 1945, the SS dumped around the 8000 kilograms of ashes in the harbour. The Klinkerwerk became the target of a heavy Allied air raid on April the 10th, in which at least 200 prisoners lost their lifes. The victims were cremated afterwards, or burried in bomb craters. Other victims drowned in the nearby swamp in their attempt to escape the bombs and the camp. After the air raid, the Klinkerwerk was fully destroyed had to close. All inmates were forced to go back to Sachsenhausen again.

1977's memorial for the Klinkerwerk. (Oranienburg, February 2013.) No © needed. Photo by Joep de VisserThe first memorial to the Klinkerwerk is erected in April 1977. This brick wall is located on the road towards the Klinkerwerk because the former industrial yard was used by the GDR as a military training ground since 1966. After the Fall, the site became an industrial yard for concrete in 1990 – despite various protests. The site has a protected status since 1996, when also the project started in which the site will develop as a History Park. From 2000 onwards, this site is being build – and it is still under construction. One can already visit parts of the site now. Many information panels inform the visitor since December 2011. Unfortunately, the site of the former production fabric is still not visitable – probably because the bodies of air raid victims can be found here. At the harbour, an improvised memorial of a brick triangle is made in August 2007. It remembers the executions of the homosexuals in the summer of 1942.

The Harbour with the improvised memorial from 2007 (Oranienburg, February 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

By the end of the day, working at the Klinkerwerk already was a punishment for the ones who were sentenced to a concentration camp. The SS’ers seemed to form the Klinkerwerk’s units by groups which they hated the most. Marching towards there was already a humiliation. The work was too heavy for all of the inmates and it was known that one could not do this work for a long time. The only exception within the Klinkerwerk complex might have been the laboratory, of which little is known (or shown). Within the Klinkerwerk, there was even another punishment unit – which increased the chance of an inmate to be murdered. That being forced to work in the Klinkerwerk was close to being murdered is illustrated by the execution of 200 homosexuals in the summer of 1942. So to speak, death was all around at the Klinkerwerk – if not by working, it was by torturing and exectutions. In the meanwhile, the complex of the Klinkerwerk expanded. Not only bricks were baked, also shells were produced since 1943. Bricks and shells had in common that they needed a harbour for the materials and ovens for the production. Secondly, the production of bricks and shells were both physically heavy. Most of the work which had to be done at the Klinkerwerk were digging ground, (un)loading ships, working with ovens, draining swamps and building barracks. During the years, the site seemed to be always under construction. The number of inmates increased together with the site’s complex. The barracks, who were build in 1941 for 1500 men, were used by 3000 men before more barracks were developed. After WWII, a memorial for the Klinkerwerk only came after three decades. Sachsenhausen became a memorial site in 1961 – while five years later, the site of the Klinkerwerk became a military training ground for GDR’s army in its total. For that reason, the first memorial was even located at a public place at a traffic road nearby – but not at the original ground. After the Fall, the harbour – in which over 8000 kilogram of ashes is dumped – wasn’t given any memorial but again used for an industrial enterprise in the concrete business. After protests, the former camp finally had a memorial status in 1996 – definetly saving the remaining SS barrack from 1936 and the former Brotfabrik which are not visitable either. Now, the development of a History Park takes over 15 years already. Nevertheless, the site is already an interesting place to visit since the information panels were revealed in December 2011. In my opinion, the History Park is a promising project which clarifies the layered complexity of a concentration camp with the Außenkommando’s and Außenlager.

Information panels at the former Klinkerwerk. At the background, the SS barracks from 1936. (Oranienburg, February 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

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 VisserAs 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.