This morning I was reading a travel blog written by a woman who had visited Dachau. She was curious about who had made the Arbeit Macht Frei sign that is on the gate into the camp.
This is a quote from the blog post:
That Arbeit Macht Frei sign? That was someone’s job, to make that sign. Who was he? Did he know its final destination? Did he know what would happen on the other side of it? Did he appreciate the stark irony of prisoners being worked to death in the shadow of those words?
I was curious about who made the sign myself, so I asked one of the staff members at the Dachau Memorial Site several years ago. I was told that the iron gate on the gatehouse into the prison compound, shown in the photo below, was built by a Dachau prisoner named Karl Röder in 1938 when the Dachau camp was rebuilt. The sign which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” was removed soon after the camp was liberated by American troops in 1945, but the gate was reconstructed in 1965 at the same time that two barrack buildings were reconstructed for visitors.
The original sign on the Dachau gate had been removed because the camp was turned into a prison for German war criminals in June 1945.
As you can see in the photo above, the sign on the gate was removed, but the original gate was still there in May 1945.
Back to the questions asked by the blogger:
Did the Dachau prisoner who constructed the sign know what its final destination would be? I’m sure that he did. He was a prisoner in the camp when he made the sign. I’m sure that he was very proud of the finished product on the day that he put the gate into place.
Did he know what would happen on the other side of the gate? Yes, of course he knew. Maybe he didn’t know how the camp would deteriorate as the war progressed or that there would be a typhus epidemic in the final days, but he knew what was going on in the camp in the early days.
Did he appreciate the stark irony of prisoners being worked to death in the shadow of those words? No, of course not. The sign didn’t become ironic until just recently when tour guides at Dachau started telling visitors, at the start of their tour, that prisoners were “worked to death” in the camp.
You can read about the work done by the prisoners in the Dachau camp on my web site here.
It was not until 2005 that visitors to Dachau were allowed to enter through the gatehouse. Between 1965 and 2005, the entrance into the Dachau Memorial site was through a hole in the fence on one side of the camp. There was a high wall, a few feet from the gate, which blocked the view of the SS garrison that was right next to the concentration camp. American soldiers occupied the former SS garrison for 28 years after the camp was liberated. For 17 years, beginning in 1948 when the German war criminals were released, the former Dachau concentration camp was the home of ethnic Germans who had been expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II ended.
The photo below, taken with my back against the wall, shows the view of the gate house that visitors had in 2003.