On the night of 9-10 November 1938, SA and Hitler Youth units took to the streets of Germany and, in plain view, set synagogues on fire, smashed the window fronts of Jewish businesses, attacked Jewish people, and vandalized their homes. Well over 1,300 Jewish men and women were killed during the riots or died as a direct consequence of the attacks known today as ‘Kristallnacht’, “Night of Broken Glass” or “November Pogrom”.
In the days following the pogrom, over 27,000 Jewish men throughout Germany were arrested and put in concentration camps; more than 6,000 of them were taken to Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, north of Berlin. Their fate marked the beginning of a new phase in Nazi policies of persecution, and is the subject of the special exhibition in Berlin the author is currently preparing.
The mass arrests were intended to dramatically escalate pressure on German Jews to leave the country. Once in the camps, the men were subjected to much harsher treatment than the rest of the prisoners. Over 80 of them died in Sachsenhausen. The great majority, though, were released by the spring of 1939 on the condition that they leave Germany immediately. Many in fact managed to leave and consequently survived the period of Nazi rule and war.
Some survivors later gave testimony, like Gerardo (Gerhard) Nassau who had fled to Argentina in February 1939. From mid-November to mid-December 1938, Nassau had been detained in Sachsenhausen, or – as he called it – in the “Country of Numbers where the time stands still and the men have no names”. His report on what he experienced there was already given in September 1941, less than three years after he had left the camp. At that time, Nassau lived in Cordoba, Argentina. Still – and for unknown reasons – he wrote his report in English; perhaps because he simply mastered this language better than Spanish at that time. As a particularly early recording, Nassau’s testimony is a rare and very valuable source.
Nevertheless, his report also is a delicate document which does not open up easily to the reader. In Sachsenhausen, Gerhard Nassau was exposed to extreme terror and arbitrariness. To describe this bitter experience, he made use of a biting sarcasm, presumably in order to protect himself from traumatic memories.
In the following blog post, Nassau’s outstanding report will be presented as extracts combined with explanatory comments and an aerial photo of the camp. Typos and misspellings have been corrected by the author; Nassau’s non-native-speaker’s English, however, remained unchanged. Special thanks to Pete Sacker, Gerardo Nassau’s nephew, who donated the memoir to The Wiener Library, and kindly gave permission to present it in this blog.
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Below is a visualisation using an aerial photograph of Sachsenhausen concentration camp taken by the Allies. The photo shows the Sachsenhausen camp complex in early 1945: on the bottom, the SS-headquarters can be seen, on the top the prisoners’ camp in its triangular shape. Click on a highlighted area to read an extract from Nassau’s memoir that describes that part of the camp. References to these areas of the camp in the body of the blog will also link to a fullscreen visualisation.
Photo credit: Landesvermessung Brandenburg
“An Excursion into the Country of Numbers, 14.11.1938 – 13.12.1938”
by Gerardo Nassau, Córdoba, Argentina, September 1941
Gerardo (Gerhard) Nassau was born in Hildesheim, Germany on 1 November 1917. His parents, the paediatrician Dr. Erich Nassau and his wife Tony, moved to Berlin soon after Gerhard and his twin sister Gertrude were born. From 1936 on, Gerhard went to an agricultural school near Berlin. The school probably belonged to the Hachschara movement; it prepared Jews intending to emigrate for a life in Palestine.
On 9 November 1938, the men and women at the school had just finished the harvest and were preparing to celebrate the beginning of the winter with its theoretical classes. In the afternoon of the following day, the Gestapo (German Secret Police) suddenly paid them “one of their untimely visits”. All the male students older than twenty years – some twenty young men – were put under arrest and taken away by bus a few days later:
“The first part of our drive was not very long. We stopped at the town hall of the next town to pick up some more prisoners. We were standing almost an hour in front of the town hall. People gathered around us, cursing us, laughing and staring at those strange outcasts of German society. […] We sat there in that bus like a flock of sheep which is being taken to the slaughterhouse. […] Where would they take us to?”
The bus went to Oranienburg, a small town about thirty kilometres out of Berlin, where it came to a halt at the entrance of a large camp. The men were told to get off and “welcomed” by SS-men (“Schutzstaffel”) with kicks, strokes and shouting which evoked fear and panic among them.
“At last we were all off the bus, we formed a line, a commando, and marched through a high gate into the Country of Numbers where the time stands still and the men have no names. A city wall enclosed us, well protected by big towers and an electrically charged wire on the top. […] Above the gate, an inscription: ‘REICHS SCHUTZHAFTLAGER SACHSENHAUSEN’, no postman could miss that address, if he ever got there.”
Arrival in Sachsenhausen concentration camp
Sachsenhausen concentration camp was built in the form of a triangle. The camp’s layout was focused on the entrance gate and main watch tower, from which the whole camp could be monitored. Directly in front of the tower, a roll-call area was located which was surrounded by a fan-shaped semicircle of barracks [see #1 in the aerial photo above or follow link]. It was there on the roll-call area, that the men had to stand absolutely still for several hours to be finally counted by the SS.
“The yard in which we were standing now seemed enormous, desolate, surrounded by a circle of barracks with their small fronts towards us. Between each barrack was a long narrow path entirely paved with cinders and ashes. At regular intervals, looking over the roofs of the barracks, were towers manned by machine-guns.”
After a lengthy roll-call and a frightening admonitory speech by a higher ranking SS-official, the incomers were taken to a barrack. There, they were received by so-called inmate officials (“Kapos”), i.e. prisoners used by the SS to assist in organising camp operations. As Gerhard Nassau probably realized only later, Kapo-positions were mainly held by political prisoners or “criminals” with a long camp experience who behaved submissively towards the SS.
“Barrack ‘B’ it was called, the office and the baths. We entered the office in a single file, each one receiving a card which was filled by some prisoners of good behaviour and long residence, judging by their [low prisoners’] numbers. They asked us for our names, occupation and other personal data of importance. After those came a list of questions, one of them was: whom do you want to be informed in case anything happens to you. I answered: ‘My father’, giving his name and address. ‘Is here’, said the prisoner who took this down.”
By this, Gerhard learned that his father Dr. Erich Nassau had also been arrested after the November Pogrom and brought to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This was not as great a coincidence as it may seem, since it was not uncommon for several men within a single family to be taken to Sachsenhausen.
Affiliation to the “Country of Numbers”
In “Barrack B” Gerhard Nassau and his fellow inmates had to hand in their civilian clothing, which was tied up in bundles and stored [see #2 in the aerial photo above or follow link]. The only items they could keep were their shoes. Then, the camp barber crudely shaved off their hair – a procedure the observant Jews among them perceived as torment. After a quick shower with ice-cold water the men were given their prisoners’ uniforms consisting of a shirt, a pair of striped trousers, a worn-out police uniform jacket, a striped coat and a cap. On the uniforms, coloured badges had to be worn which marked them out as members of certain prisoners’ groups:
“They had a significance similar to the caste-marks in India.”
Political prisoners like communists were marked with red triangles, “criminals” with green, so-called anti-socials as well as Sinti and Roma with black, homosexuals with pink triangles. The Jewish men who had been arrested after the November Pogrom had to wear two triangles: a yellow one and a red one which were placed one over the other to form a star. As the different prisoners’ groups were treated quite differently by the SS, the category had a big influence on the living conditions for the inmates. Jews were at the very bottom of the SS-made prisoner hierarchy.
Under the coloured badges, a piece of cloth with the prisoner number was to be fixed. By that, the inmates lost their personality and were reduced to a number. They became a nameless part of an anonymous mass. Nassau did not only repeatedly depict this transformation with the deadly pen of biting sarcasm; he even regarded it as the main specific of Sachsenhausen concentration camp which he constantly called “The Country of Numbers”.
“Let us consider for a moment the use of a name, and what an enormous advantage a number has over a name in a small community. A number is not so liable to be repeated and at the same time, as we get used to it, fulfils the same purpose of identification. May be even better, because it is easier to remember, and if we get used to it just as pretty as Rose or Jack or Mary or Bob. Why not call your girl 1265 or 734?”
First night in the concentration camp
After having been shaved, showered, dressed and affiliated “to the Country of Numbers”, the incomers were sent to their barrack for the night. The barrack was part of the “small camp”, an extension of the main prisoner’ camp in Sachsenhausen [see #3 in the aerial photo above or follow link]. Being well separated from the other camp area, the “small camp” became the coercive residence of the over 6,000 Jews who had been apprehended following the November Pogrom. Gerhard Nassau and his fellow incomers were assigned to one of the barracks there.
“It looked rather big; but considering that we were 280 men who had to sleep in it, it turned small again.”
The barrack was about seven meters wide and fifty meters long, and divided into two equal parts, each one consisting of a big sleeping room and living quarters. The two parts were separated by a bath room, a closet and a toilet. On each side, the sitting room was equipped with tables and benches to seat about 50 persons. In the sleeping room, however, no furniture could be seen:
“In the sleeping room there was nothing but some straw along the sides and a heap of blankets in a corner. […] We spread out the straw in the sleeping room and each one of us got a woollen blanket, and so we settled down to sleep.”
There was very little space since 140 men had to share a room around seven to eleven meters in each wing of the barrack.
“We lay down side by side, each one on his right side, like sardines in a tin. It had the great advantage that we kept each other warm during the night.”
Still, this first night in Sachsenhausen had a traumatising effect on Gerhard Nassau, making him realize how helpless they were.
“This first night in the Country of Numbers stays in my memory as long as I live. We were hungry, cold and tired, for excitement makes one tired. Some of us had been wounded when we had been taken by violence from our homes. Some were seriously ill, others were just old. We all were afraid. We had seen nothing of our hosts [as Nassau sarcastically labelled the SS-guards] since we had left the baths, but we felt them all around us, and it was unbelievable the effect this had on some of us.”
Re-encounter of father and son
On the second day, however, a pleasant incident awaited him for a start: among the prisoners in the “small camp“, he met his father.
“At first I had difficulty in recognizing my father. He looked so very changed without his hair.”
Dr. Erich Nassau had been in Sachsenhausen for five days by then, and had already learned some important rules for behaving in a concentration camp. These, he passed on to his son:
“Shut up, keep your eyes open, keep moving, and if they want to kick you, put your behind before them, there it hurts least.”
Now Gerhard saw his father every day, until Dr. Nassau was released from Sachsenhausen on 24 November 1938. In the evening, the prisoners had some spare time and were free to move about the barracks of the “small camp”. Due to their daily walks, the relationship between father and son deepened:
“Here I realised for the first time what my father meant to me, and how close we really were to each other.”
Slave labour at the brickworks
The days in the camp were filled with hard physical labour. After some deployment in a paving detail at the parade ground in the SS-Kaserne (English: SS barracks) nearby [see #4 in the aerial photo above or follow link], Gerhard Nassau was sent to an infamous work crew:
“There was one kind of work most feared by all my father’s friends. They told me to avoid that work if possible. This work was on a site about three kilometres outside the camp. They said that they were erecting a brick factory. […] In our language it was called ‘KLINKERWERKE’ and we went out there in the morning not to return until the roll-call in the afternoon.”
On the daily march to and from the brickworks [see the bottom right side of the more distant aerial photo above], the prisoners often saw inhabitants of Oranienburg, even children crossed their path in their games. But these people just stared at them and moved on without a word.
“My first job at the KLINKERWERKE was the most terrible and most senseless one I have ever done in my life. It was called the ‘Roundabout’ and if one had to ride on it all day you needed very good legs, good lungs and a quick eye.”
Even for young and physically trained men, this work was a big burden. Men over forty who had had an office job in their “normal life” could not stand it at all:
“[T]he roundabout consisted of a chain of men who had to put their coats on the wrong way round, i.e. back to front, buttoning them up on their back. If you do this the coat will form a kind of bag in the front. Into this bag we got about five pounds, or let us say a shovel full, of sand. This we had to carry off at full speed to a place about 100 meters away. Once our coat was empty, we had to return running to get our coats filled again, running off again. And so on, and so on.”
Kapos and SS-guards put the men deliberately off their stride by shouting, beating and kicking so that the prisoners ran around in panic. The men stumbled, fell, lost their sand, and had to go back to receive a double portion as a punishment.
Despite the hard work, nutrition in the concentration camp was absolutely insufficient. Breakfast consisted of a watery milk soup, a piece of black bread, a bit of cheese and some weak coffee. At midday and in the evening, the men got a watery soup.
“Food was the most important question of all. Almost every day we had the same soup of barley, or barley-soup for a change. Sometimes there were vegetables in it, at others even potatoes. Once a week we got meat. In civilian life you may be unable to obtain it. It was dehydrated whale meat.”
In this situation of constant, agonizing hunger, everyone just tried to get additional food, sometimes even by questionable means:
“I often ate the remains out of the dishes of the old men, who could not manage to finish the whole ration they got, or who were to weak to eat at all. If you wanted these remains you had to eat very fast, and I know how to eat quickly. Today I despise myself for that; but who cared at that time? It was a question of filling one’s stomach.”
The worst punishment which could be inflicted to the inmates, therefore, was when a prisoner had to keep standing at the camp gate after the evening roll-call, for as a result he would miss the evening soup and have to go to bed hungry. The penalty was imposed for minor offenses against the camp regulations.
Major violations of the rules were punished with beatings over a trestle where the victim received 25 or more blows on the backside. Even though the brutal act was performed in the isolated area of the camp’s prison [see #5 in the aerial photo above or follow link], the SS terrorized the whole camp by it. Before starting, the SS closed off the way to the prison.
“The first time I did not know what this meant, but I saw how old inhabitants of the Country of Numbers turned pale under their skin when this happened. Later, I think, I also turned pale …”.
Nassau now knew that a punishment was to be executed.
“We could, of course, not see how it was done, but we heard it. This was worse. As soon as the path was completely blocked off, we began to wait for the first sound of the whip. Then we started counting, each one for himself, first up to ten, to twelve, to fifteen, to twenty. Even up to fifty lashes we had to count sometimes. And there was no other sound in the whole camp. You just heard the whip falling on human flesh, you seem to see with all your mind how the man flinches under each impact, yet he does not utter a sound. First we grew pale with rage and fear; but the food they fed us left us without strength or with just enough to keep us going, but none for unnecessary emotions.”
Nassau’s report vividly shows how all the prisoners suffered vicariously with the victim. Still, the daily struggle for survival in the camp left them with little strength for compassion.
From 14 November 1938 on, every day a certain number of men imprisoned after the pogrom were released – at first elderly or handicapped, then veterans from World War I, then others. Daily at the morning roll-call some 100-150 prisoners’ numbers were announced, causing the remaining Jewish inmates to again and again set up theories on the system behind the releases.
“Each day the form of releases proved this theory to be completely wrong. I think I listened to more than thirty theories in the thirty days I was resident in the Country of Numbers. My own release came in the end as something completely unexpected.”
Once his number had been called out during the daily announcement of the releases, Gerhard Nassau had to remain standing on the roll-call area after the morning roll-call had ended. Together with more than 200 fellow inmates, he had to wait for several hours until they were allowed to enter “Barrack B” to hand in their prisoners’ uniforms and get their own clothing and other belongings back.
“We got our purses and other valuables back and had to sign for it with our name. We no longer were numbers!”
Then they were taken to the gate and advised not to speak about their experiences in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the outside world.
“After that we had to sign some papers: we signed that we left the camp in good health and that we would not tell what we had seen. We signed everything.”
Finally they were allowed to go.
“The gates of the Country of Numbers closed behind me and I was once again in the world where men have names and time goes on.”
Returning to Berlin, Gerhard Nassau found out that his parents had just left for Palestine. His father had already organised his emigration to Argentina through a medical colleague and friend. Gerardo, how he now called himself, lived in Argentina for several years; then left for Israel to be near his parents. He died in Haifa in 1997. His twin sister Gertrude emigrated to the UK in 1936 and also survived the Nazi period.
Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, Oranienburg (Germany)
In June 2017, I was an EHRI visiting research fellow at The Wiener Library in London. It was an important opportunity that gave me the chance to explore new archival sources in connection with my research project on “Inmate physicians in concentration camps”. In addition, I found many new sources on the Jewish men admitted to Sachsenhausen concentration camp after the November Pogrom in 1938. Many thanks to The Wiener Library staff for their precious and constant help during my fellowship, to Pete Sacker for granting me permission to use his uncle Gerardo’s memoir, and to Jessica Green (The Wiener Library) for her help editing/formatting this blog and photo visualisation.