A Real-Time Account of an Early Nazi Concentration Camp

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Years before the gas chambers and the death marches, "Dr. X" spent several weeks imprisoned at Sachsenhausen. This is how he described it to Atlantic readers of his time.  

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"Dr. X" wasn't responsible for the murder, but he paid for the crime. In 1938, in the days after Kristallnacht, Dr. X was taken from his home and loaded onto a train bound for the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. This, of course, was for "protective custody." He had the misfortune of being less than German and needed to be both sheltered from the population and reconditioned to embrace Aryanism. While he never states it as a matter of fact, Dr. X is presumably a German Jew, who along with his kinsmen, is paying for the murder of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat murdered by a Polish Jew in Paris. 

In a 1939 Atlantic essay, simply but ominously titled "Concentration Camp," Dr. X recounts his experience in the fortress-like prison near Berlin. His tone is frank and unimpassioned, but what he describes speaks volumes of grim prophecy to future readers.     

I have been asked repeatedly where all the men were procured who torment the inmates of the camps, often with sadistic lust. We must not forget that a career in the S.S. allures, as a steppingstone, many a youth who cannot quite make the military career, whether for financial reasons or for lack of educational background. There are certainly a great number among them who personify brutality and are glad to be allowed to use their instincts without check against defenseless people. But there are also others who, for the sake of a career, run with the pack, and whose cruelties have been developed by the example of the "talented" sadists.

Dr. X (an author who remains anonymous to this day) goes on to describe the cramped living conditions of the camp and the everyday cruelties of his guards. As with so many others, his ordeal began by passing under that damning sign, Arbeit Macht Frei (work will make you free), "an inscription," he says "which many inmates of the camp, after years of work and vain hope for release, will probably take as sarcasm." He saw deaths, suicides, and guards intent on demoralizing the Jewish inmates. And this was years before the peak of the Nazis' solution to the Jewish problem.

Dr. X ends his piece speaking of his release from the prison, although he doesn't say why he was let go. He ends his account of on a note of restrained sarcasm: "It is somewhat difficult to judge whether the commander of the camp was right in saying that the camp was no prison, no penitentiary."

It's difficult to make sense of a tragedy unfolding in real time. One would hope that Dr. X's 1939 readers understood there was a more sinister purpose to the camp than "protective custody." But how many could have imagined that the details he described -- shorn heads, crowded barracks, long periods without food or drink -- foreshadowed the murder of 6 million Jews?

It's questions like these that make Dr. X's story both disconcerting and enlightening. In Hitler's Germany as in today's world, current events lack the clarity that history imposes. 


Read "Concentration Camp" in its entirety.


For more Atlantic archives, check out our new Facebook timeline and find historical essays and reports from 1857 onward.
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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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