Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 20, 2009

Arbeit Macht Frei

I apologize immediately to anyone offended by the appearance of those shocking words in the title. They’re here to make a point. If you are unfamiliar with this phrase, I invite you to learn about it.

The sign that hung over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland was stolen last Friday. That sign greeted more than a million human beings who entered Auschwitz. It was made of simple letters of welded iron that read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Sets You Free.” Those iron letters epitomize the willingness of organizations to devalue humanity in a century that specialized in the institutionalization of horror, hate and fear.

When I read that the sign had been taken, I was outraged. This was an act not just of vandalism but of sacrilege against the site that has become a memorial to more than a million human beings who perished there. It’s just a piece of metal, reason says. Can it matter all that much? Can anything erase the memory of what occurred there? Do symbols matter?

In one view, no, they do not. Not if we fully grasp not only the human suffering, terror and torture that prevailed there,  but that this program of improvement was proudly represented to an imbecile world as a program for improving the race, provided by a fostering, paternal state for the betterment of its wayward children.

We have to appreciate that those iron letters were forged by a satanic hypocrisy to reassure the men and women and children who had been torn from their homes and who were about to lose their lives that they were being imprisoned in order to be free, and that, by accepting this view, the wider world was complicit in their murders.

Symbols do matter. The theft of that sign mattered to me because symbols matter. In another generation — two, at most — this tale of six million dead and countless others harried, starved and tortured will fade from our memory of humanity’s insults, along with Stalin’s 20 million dead, Mao’s 30 million, then the millions in Myanmar, Rwanda, Angola, Serbia. The utter horror of Auschwitz may be lost to memory unless we preserve not just the number of the dead, but an awareness that one of the world’s most powerful, influential states represented its abominable actions as a laudable protection of order and progress. The willingness of the state to use the language of freedom to veil actions of the rankest oppression is offensive to all of us. So long as that sign, or a clear memory of its disingenuousness endures, we are able to see it for what it is: a doppelgänger for the sign graven in stone over Dante’s Hell: Lasciate omni speranza: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Hitler, Goebbels and their gang were able to teach Satan lessons in outrageous deceit that he had not yet learned in the 14th Century.

Most of you, like me, do not need the iron words to remind us, now. Like me, many of you have met one or more living survivors of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka, Sobibor, or a dozen other of the camps. On their forearms, if they allow you see them, are the figures, now black or dark brown, originally blue, in the wrinkling skin: the letters and numbers that are one of the world’s most shocking testaments to the darkness that can exist right beside us under the bright sunlight of creation. Those tattoos are the true iron letters. The ones over the gate are mere symbols, but, for once, the iron letters catch the state in its own lie, and display it to all who can see. Individuals, organizations and states who deny that such a thing ever happened are made liars and worse by the existence of the iron gate. No wonder that the leaders of those states would be pleased to see the sign come down: it makes their own denial of oppression and torture and secret executions all too obvious as lies. Those living beings with their numbers on their arms will be among us only for short time longer. After that, a few decades, and memory can fade. Without the iron letters to remind us, we may truly come to believe what the deniers say: that the state will give us the means to make ourselves free, by imprisoning us.

Tonight, we learned that the Auschwitz sign has been recovered, HERE, and that suspects in the theft are in custody.

You can read first-person accounts of Auschwitz in the writings of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who entered under the iron gate, and survived to tell us what they saw.

Let us not abandon hope. Let us not abandon memory and the will to oppose the oppressors.



  1. yeah, this whole thing made me angry, even if it was “just” local meth-heads getting some metal to sell. on one of our trips we “toured” a concentration camp, dachau, which also had “arbeit macht frei” over the entrance. i thought after anne frank’s house i’d be ok, but no. we left early and went back to the bus.

    for me, almost as horrible as the fact that those camps existed and operated, is the number of people, ‘mericans, who believe it never happened.


  2. I was an army brat raised in post World War II by my Protestant major father and Jewish mother. As were most dependant brats we were as vindictive toward the krauts as they still were towards us until we rotated back in 1961. The German kids openly flaunted eagle and swastika tatoos at the Nuremburg olympic swimming pool so that the entire area was put off limits. This emboldened confrontations until the XO forced what we hoped was our last battlle with the brown shirts. Make no mistake that young Germans took pride in being the best military force of their time and old Nazis miss the terror they sowed and to quote the Sundance Kid ” All I need is one clear shot”.


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