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Bernburg 'euthanasia' centre

  
    - darkometer rating:  8 -
 
One of the six “euthanasia centres” of Operation T4 during the Third Reich in which the Nazis systematically murdered disabled and mentally ill people. The original gas chamber is still there, together with contemporary permanent and temporary exhibitions. 
More background info: Bernburg is a small provincial town in Saxony-Anhalt, eastern Germany, which would normally be quite unremarkable in terms of tourism, dark or otherwise, if it wasn't for its role in a particularly sinister part of the Nazis' deadly history. In this case that was the expression of the Nazi ideology of racial superiority, purity and fitness (to serve the Third Reich) on the one hand, and the notion of racial degenerateness and “lebensunwertem Leben” (literally 'life not worth living/being alive') on the other. The latter included in particular disabled and mentally ill people, who were regarded as a burden to society. From this ideology the Nazis developed their programme of “euthanasia”. Euphemistically called “mercy killings” it was in fact mass murder – of precisely those deemed unworthy of living (cf. also Hartheim!).
 
The systematic mass killings were organized under the code name "Aktion T4" and began in 1940. A part of the local psychiatric hospital in Bernburg became one of the six "euthanasia" centres set up for this programme. The gas chamber in the basement of one of the hospital buildings became operational in November 1940. By August 1941 over 9000 mostly mentally ill/disabled patients had been murdered here.
 
Officially, the “euthanasia” programme ended in 1941 (but continued more secretly in mental institutions all over the country). The murderous operation of Bernburg's gas chamber, however, was not over yet. In addition, as many as 5000 inmates declared "unfit for work" were sent here from various concentration camps to be murdered at Bernburg as well, an operation conducted under the similarly cynical code name “Sonderbehandlung 14 f13”, literally 'special treatment' (but meaning murder) ... 14 was the code for concentration camp, and f13 for the method of killing. This continued until July 1943. Only then was the Bernburg killing centre closed.
 
Amongst the more prominent victims of Bernburg was Olga Benario, a German communist who was arrested in Brazil in 1936 and extradited to Nazi Germany, where she was imprisoned in the concentration camp Ravensbrück before being murdered in the gas chamber at Bernburg in April 1942.
 
Remarkably, the gas chamber at Bernburg is still in place and forms the chilling heart of today's memorial site. It was a long time before any commemoration of Bernburg's dark role in history was even attempted, though. Only in 1982 was a first memorial room set up in the basement, but this remained inaccessible to the general public. From 1988, more systematic attempts were made to develop the place as a memorial and its first proper incarnation opened in September 1989, shortly before the collapse of the GDR (and in co-operation with West Berlin).
 
This exhibition commodification was subsequently adapted and modernized in stages, until the current exhibition was opened in 2006.
 
It is probably due to Bernburg's location in provincial Saxony, in east Germany – with all its unsavoury neo-Nazi movements – that the memorial goes to great pains distancing itself from, and discouraging any inappropriate displays of, Nazi ideology and the new ugly heads this has raised again. There is even a sign right by the entrance admonishing potential visitors that they will be refused entry if they are dressed inappropriately (e.g. displaying Nazi symbols) and/or act in a disrespectful manner, such as voicing revisionist denials of the Nazi horrors.
 
When I asked if I could take photographs inside they said in general yes, but with the exception of one particular exhibit, namely a carved wooden Reich's Eagle complete with a swastika in its talons – the ultimate Nazi symbol. It was part of then current temporary exhibition, and the staff were clearly a bit uneasy about its presence and potential of appealing in the wrong way to the wrong kind of clientele.
 
I fear they may have good reason for treading so carefully. A poster near the entrance to the exhibition space corroborated this further: it showed a whole catalogue of “styles and codes” (i.e. symbolism) of right-wing extremism beyond the more familiar (and illegal) swastika or SS runes – it was probably there to educate school groups on how to identify such manifestations of neo-Nazi ideology early, before they unwittingly get entangled in it ... as unfortunately still happens all too easily, and too regularly in Germany, in the east in particular. (But I hasten to add that the problem is far from being only a German one – see e.g. also Poland or Hungary!)
 
 
What there is to see:
As you enter the building to get to the memorial you first have to proceed through a long corridor, where there are also the administrative offices. Staff are on hand to help if you have any questions and they also have a few brochures/books and free leaflets.
 
The corridor is also home to additional/temporary exhibitions. The main permanent exhibition, however, is housed downstairs in the cellar. These basement rooms are the original location of where the killings took place.
 
The original gas chamber is still remarkably intact, complete with the fake shower heads installed in the ceiling to camouflage the actual function of this death trap room. The walls are tiled white, the floor in the familiar chessboard black-and-white pattern. A steel door for sealing the chamber is still there too (cf. also Mauthausen). Right next to the gas chamber two gas cylinders are standing upright in a niche in the wall and you can even see the valves with which the doctors opened the gas flow through the pipes inside the chamber next door (these pipes are also still there). It's all very creepy indeed.
 
The tiled dissection table next door is a reconstruction, but oozes the typical sinister post-mortem atmosphere all the same (cf. Hadamar, Sachsenhausen, etc.). The crematorium ovens in which the “euthanasia” victims were burned immediately after gassing have been dismantled. In the room in which they used to stand only large black-and-white photographs serve as a reminder of their role in the whole operation. The same room also serves as a kind of memorial shrine. Small photos of individual victims are pinned to the wall.
 
The rest of the basement, especially along the main corridor is home to the permanent exhibition. Apart from a scale model of the hospital complex (on which the route of the arriving victims is marked) the exhibition consists simply of panels filled mostly with explanatory text and a few photographs and document reproductions.
 
These cover the historical background from origins of the ideology of “racial hygiene”, the Nazis' propaganda against minorities, and in particular against mentally ill, disabled and “asocial” people. Operation T4 and its implementation in Bernburg are an obvious focus in the exhibition. There is a special section about the “Sonderbehandlung 14 f13”, i.e. the killing of concentration camp inmates at Bernburg after the original “euthanasia” programme had (officially) ended. Another aspect is the post-war period and the prosecution (or absence thereof) of the perpetrators. The history of commemoration and the development of today's memorial site is also covered.
 
Note that all texts are in German only! So if you don't know the language you won't get much out of the exhibition, unless you pre-arrange a guided tour in English (see below). Otherwise you can still just come to sense some of the eerie atmosphere in this cellar of death that it was back then.
 
For those who can read German and would like more in-depth information, there is also a room with six computer workstations set up for this purpose.
 
Overall however, the memorial in Bernburg is, especially in comparison to Hadamar or Hartheim, much more lower key, less varied, less richly commodified in terms of information. (The available space is also much more limited). As far as authenticity of place is concerned however, Bernburg's original installations (that gas chamber!) make this by far the creepiest of all the six former T4 sites.
 
Since Bernburg is slightly less remote than most of the other five T4 sites, a visit can easily be worked into a wider itinerary when in the area. e.g. as a short stop en route when using the main north-south motorway running just a few miles west of Bernburg – see under access and combinations. So you could just as well pop by. It is more a special interest site, though. For those who do have that special interest in the legacy of  Aktion T4 it is a must-see in any case.  
 
 
Location:
in the grounds of a still working psychiatric hospital on the south-western edge of the small town of Bernburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, a good 20 miles (35 km) west of Dessau and ca. 25 miles (40 km) south of Magdeburg and about the same distance north of Halle (Saale).
 
Google maps locator: [51.7873,11.7294]
 
 
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track, but not difficult to reach (easiest by car); free.  
 
Details: You can get to Bernburg (Saale) by train (direct e.g. from Dessau or Halle) – check connections on www.bahn.de.  
 
From the train station, which lies at the other end of town, to the east of the town centre (next to an industrial area and a chemical plant), it's about a 20-25 minutes' walk (or a short taxi ride) to the hospital. It is called "Landeskrankenhaus für Psychiatrie und Neurologie" but is more usually referred to simply as "Fachklinikum" for short and signposted as such. It's located at Olga-Benario-Straße 16/18 south of Bernburg proper. Within the hospital grounds look for the signs directing you to "Gedenkstätte". These lead to a building to the north of the main one which is called Haus Griesinger” (also "Haus 9").
 
I also spotted a bus stop right outside the hospital, but I haven't been able to dig up any information about possible connections and times.
 
By car it's best to approach Bernburg on the A14 motorway between Magdeburg and Halle (Saale), and to avoid driving through the centre of Bernburg best take exit 12 (Könnern) and then head north on the Hauptstraße, which becomes Hallesche Straße. After Peißen turn left and then right into Olga-Benario-Straße. Alternatively (when coming from the north) you could also take exit 9 at Staßfurt or exit 10 (Bernburg) and fiddle through the town. Look for signs to the hospital (“Fachklinikum”), which lies south of the centre and east of the river. Coming from the east on the A9 motorway or from Dessau, take the B185 overland route via Köthen. You can park by the road that passes the eastern perimeter of the hospital just to the north of the main entrance (access to and parking inside the hospital grounds appeared to be very restricted).
 
Admission free.
 
Opening times: Tuesdays to Thursdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fridays until noon only; in addition on the first Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Guided tours (also free) can be arranged at other times as well.
 
Guided tours are apparently also available in English, are offered by the society "Förderverein der Gedenkstätte Bernburg e.V." ('friends of the memorial Bernburg'), but have to be pre-booked well in advance; email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The length of the tours is variable and can be tailored to visitors' wishes and interests.
 
 
Time required: if you can read German and want to go through all the texts on the exhibition panels, then you may need over an hour. If you can't read German or just want to have a look at the original rooms, then 10-15 minutes may do.   
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Thematically most linked with Bernburg are of course the other five T4 “euthanasia” centres, of which Brandenburg would be the closest. Pirna-Sonnenstein south of Dresden is also feasibly within reach (when driving, that is). The remaining three (Hadamar, Grafeneck, Hartheim), are too far away to be easily combinable with the Bernburg area. However, two of the most notable concentration camp memorial sites in east Germany are within fairly easy reach, namely Mittelbau-Dora to the east of Bernburg, and Buchenwald further south near Weimar.
 
Geographically the closest to Bernburg – and a good base from which to explore all these sites in the area – is Leipzig.  
 
If you're interested in industrial heritage too and in particular the remnants of the large-scale lignite strip mining in these parts then the "Ferropolis" at Gräfenhainichen is worth a stop in particular for its display of colossal steel machinery.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Leipzig, just 50 miles (75 km) south from Bernburg, is the nearest hotspot in terms of general tourism. Not much further south-east, Dresden is generally regarded amongst the top attractions in the whole of Germany, and even Berlin is just about within reach, some 100 miles (160 km) to the north-east. Closer by, just a couple dozen miles to the west of Bernburg, nature lovers can find the forested hills of the Harz mountains.
 
In general see under Germany.
 
  
 
  • Bernburg 01 - the main building and wall from the roadsideBernburg 01 - the main building and wall from the roadside
  • Bernburg 02 - model of the complexBernburg 02 - model of the complex
  • Bernburg 03 - upstairs exhibitionBernburg 03 - upstairs exhibition
  • Bernburg 04 - cellarBernburg 04 - cellar
  • Bernburg 05 - additional workstations for studyingBernburg 05 - additional workstations for studying
  • Bernburg 06 - the gas chamberBernburg 06 - the gas chamber
  • Bernburg 07 - camouflaged as a shower roomBernburg 07 - camouflaged as a shower room
  • Bernburg 08 - gasBernburg 08 - gas
  • Bernburg 09 - gas inletBernburg 09 - gas inlet
  • Bernburg 10 - disection tableBernburg 10 - disection table
  • Bernburg 11 - former location of the crematorium ovensBernburg 11 - former location of the crematorium ovens
  • Bernburg 12 - now only photos mark their locationsBernburg 12 - now only photos mark their locations
  • Bernburg 13 - old furnitureBernburg 13 - old furniture
  • Bernburg 14 - new threats of NazismBernburg 14 - new threats of Nazism
 
     
  
  
  
  
  

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