Scrapbookpages Blog

February 25, 2010

Arbeit Macht Frei – what does it stand for? (updated)

Filed under: Dachau, Holocaust — Tags: , , , , , , — furtherglory @ 5:23 am

Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz I (main camp) Photo Credit: José Ángel López

The following quote is from an article in Live Action News, which you can read in full here:

“As abortion apologists celebrated Roe v. Wade’s 40th anniversary with Orwellian odes to “choice” and creepily cavalier videos, pro-lifers mark the occasion in a more grave fashion. Virginia Republican State Senator Dick Black took to the Senate floor and forcefully condemned the past four decades’ worth of massacre:

When I hear discussions about this, I hear very mild comments about choice and reproductive rights and things of this sort. But I recall back to the days of Nazi Germany, there was a place called Auschwitz. And over the gates of Auschwitz was a sign, and the sign said “arbeit macht frei,” which means roughly “your labors will make you free.” People who went behind those doors never returned. Their labors didn’t make them free. And I’m reminded that we refer to our clinics as “women’s health clinics” and we talk about women’s reproductive rights and so forth. And somehow in all of our discussion, we forget the fact that in each of these decisions lies the life of a little boy or a little girl. You know it’s quite easy –and from where we look back on history, we say “Why didn’t the Germans do something? Why didn’t they rise up? Why didn’t they take action?” But they were helpless before their government just as we are helpless before our government.

The words “arbeit macht frei” were on the gate into the main Auschwitz camp, but not on the gate into the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, also known as Auschwitz II.

Senator Dick Black can be forgiven for not knowing that the main Auschwitz camp was not a “death camp” where prisoners entered and were never seen again.  The words “arbeit macht frei” have been twisted into a slogan that now means that Jews were gassed during the Holocaust.

Senator Dick Black will not be reading this, but I am going to attempt to educate him anyway.

The plan to establish a concentration camp at Auschwitz was first announced by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler on April 27, 1940.

The first Commandant of Auschwitz was Rudolf Hoess; he was the one who put the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the gate into the main Auschwitz camp. Translated into English, the words mean “Work will set you free.” In his autobiography, Hoess explained that this expression means that work liberates one in the spiritual sense, not that the prisoners literally had a chance of being released if they worked hard. However, according to Franciszek Piper, the former director of the Auschwitz Museum, the camp records show that around 1,500 prisoners were actually released from the Auschwitz main camp.

Konzentrationslager Auschwitz, the main camp, was originally opened on June 14, 1940, as just another concentration camp, in the former Polish military garrison in Zazole, a district of the town of Auschwitz.  Throughout its existence, the Nazis called the main Auschwitz camp a concentration camp, not an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager. The term “extermination camp” was coined by the Allies and initially, it applied to all the Nazi camps.

At first, the Auschwitz main camp, known as the Stammlager, was only a camp for Polish political prisoners, including some Jews, and also German common criminals, who assisted the Nazis in supervising the other prisoners. The first transport to the main Auschwitz camp consisted of 728 Polish inmates of the Gestapo prison at Tarnow, Poland. They were mostly university students, including a few Jews, who had joined the Polish Resistance. The Polish Army had never surrendered to the Germans and no Armistice had ever been signed. The Poles continued to fight during World War II, but as insurgents or illegal combatants, not as soldiers on the battlefield. When captured, the Polish resistance fighters were sent to Auschwitz or other concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Dachau.

Continue reading my original post:

The iron sign with the words “Arbeit macht Frei”  at the Auschwitz main camp was stolen on Dec. 18, 2009.  Within 70 hours, the sign had been found and five suspects were in custody.  During the 70 hours that the sign was gone, the news went around the world, as people everywhere were outraged.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” translates into English as “Work makes (one) free.”  These words have become the slogan of the Holocaust, as people the world over now interpret these words to mean that the Nazis  cruelly taunted the Jews when they entered Auschwitz  because there was no freedom for them, no matter how hard they worked.  The only way out was “through the chimney.”

In the words of Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization:

“The fact is that the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign has become the defining symbol of the Holocaust because everyone knew that this was not a place where work makes you free, but it was the place where millions of men, women, and children were brought for one purpose only — to be murdered.”

Arbeit Macht Frei gate at Auschwitz 1 with Block 24 in background

Auschwitz I  was not a death camp.  The building in the background of the photo above had a library, a museum for the artwork done by the prisoners, a concert hall, and a brothel which was called “the Puff.”

Gatehouse at Auschwiz II (Birkenau) – the death camp

The photo above shows the gate into the Auschwitz II (Birkenau) death camp.  Notice that it does not have the Arbeit Macht Frei sign. It was at Birkenau that more than a million Jews were killed, mainly in gas chambers, beginning in February 1942.

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the gate at the Auschwitz I camp was put there in 1940 by the first Commandant, Rudolf Höss. In January 1941, the Auschwitz I camp was designated a Class I camp, where prisoners had a chance to be released. According to the director of the Auschwitz Museum, there were around 1,500 political prisoners released from Auschwitz I. Only Class I camps had the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan over the gate.

Other Class I camps included Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg and Gross-Rosen. Buchenwald was a Class II camp and Mauthausen was a Class III camp; neither of these camps had the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign. The six death camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek and Auschwtiz II, also known as Birkenau) did not have the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the gate into the camp.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the Dachau gate house

Dachau was a camp for political prisoners who had a good chance of being released.  There was a special badge for prisoners who had been released and then re-arrested, which means that there were numerous prisoners that were given their freedom after they had been “rehabilitated.”

According to Wikipedia:

“The expression (Arbeit macht Frei) comes from the title of an 1873 novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labour. It was adopted in 1928 by the Weimar government as a slogan extolling the effects of their desired policy of large-scale public works programmes to end unemployment, and perhaps mocking the Medieval saying “Stadtluft macht frei” (“City air brings freedom”). It was continued in this usage by the NSDAP (Nazi Party) when it came to power in 1933.”

The idea of a gatehouse was not invented by the Nazis.  There were many walled German towns that had several gates into the town.  The old walled town of Dachau had three gates, each with a gatehouse. A model of one of these gates, the Freisinger Tor, is shown in the photo below.

Marker denotes former location of Freisinger Tor at Dachau

Gatehouse in Braunau am Inn (Hitler’s birthplace)

It used to be very common for houses in Germany to have writing over the door into the building.

A house in the town of Geseke in Germany has writing over the door

When the Nazis built gatehouses at the entrances to the concentration camps and put slogans on the gates, their intention was not to insult or taunt the Jews – they were just carrying on an old German tradition.

Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Theresienstadt

An interior gate in the Small Fortress at Theresienstadt, shown in the background of the photograph above, has black letters on a white band over the arch which read “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

I took the photo above when I was on a group tour; two Jewish members of our group, who were from Israel, were quite upset when they saw these words displayed inside the prison, but the guide explained that there were actually some prisoners who were released from the Small Fortress. According to a booklet that I purchased at the Museum, there were 5,600 prisoners released from the Small Fortress, which was a Gestapo prison for political prisoners and captured partisans.

According to Rudolf Höss, who was an adjutant at Sachsenhausen before he became the first Commandant of Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei” means that works liberates one in the spiritual sense. Höss was himself a prisoner at one time and he complained about having to sit all alone in a prison cell without having any work to occupy his time. When the Sachsenhausen camp was turned into a Communist prison for German citizens, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was removed and the prisoners did not work.

Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Sachsenhausen camp

Gatehouse at Dachau concentration camp

The gatehouse at Dachau was built in 1936, the same year that the gatehouse at Sachsenhausen was built.  The Arbeit Macht Frei sign was first put up at a temporary camp in an old brewery at Oranienburg, which was later rebuilt as Sachsenhausen.

Arbeit Macht Frei sign on Dachau gate

According to the staff at the Dachau Memorial Site, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign on the Dachau gate is a reproduction; the original was allegedly stolen by one of the American liberators of Dachau.  After all the prisoners were released from Dachau, the former concentration camp was used as a prison for German war criminals for 3 years and then as a refugee camp until 1965, when the sign was restored on the gate just before the Memorial Site opened.

Tours of Dachau always start at the Arbeit Macht Frei gate where the guides tell visitors that this sign was very offensive to the prisoners who had to walk through the gate twice a day on their way to and from the factories where they worked.  The guides tell visitors that the official policy at Dachau was “extermination through work.”

5 Comments »

  1. […] “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was only put over the gates into camps where prisons had a chance of being released.  […]

    Pingback by The Small Fortress (Malá Pevnost) in the Czech Republic | Scrapbookpages Blog — May 24, 2013 @ 8:32 am

  2. [...] I tried to explain the meaning of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in a previous post which you can read here. [...]

    Pingback by What’s wrong with the caption on this photo which shows the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum? | Scrapbookpages Blog — May 3, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

  3. [...] Did anyone ever explain to Halfon and the British students, on their one-day trip, why the Auschwitz main camp has an “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the gate, but this sign is not on the gate into the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp? I previously blogged about the sign at Auschwitz here. [...]

    Pingback by How Holocaust remembrance 24/7, 365 days a year affects people today. « Scrapbookpages Blog — February 18, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  4. [...] which you can read in the Live Action News, I have updated an old blog post which you can read here.  The title of my blog post, which I have updated, is “Arbeit Macht Frei, What Does It Stand [...]

    Pingback by Senator Dick Black compared Abortion to deaths at Auschwitz « Scrapbookpages Blog — January 25, 2013 @ 7:32 am

  5. These are great pictures. Your blogs are really worthwhile just for the excellent and seemingly rare photographs you show us. Keep it up!!

    Comment by Sceptic — March 1, 2010 @ 5:42 am


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