In a letter to students at Vanderbuilt, which you can read in full here, Rabbi Schlomo Rothstein explains the meaning of the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the entrance gates into the Nazi camps. A photo of the gate into the Dachau camp, which is shown below, accompanies the letter.
I previously blogged about the meaning of “Arbeit Macht Frei” at https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/arbeit-macht-frei-what-does-it-stand-for/
The Arbeit Macht Frei slogan was first used at the the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, which was a camp for political prisoners, not a camp for Jews.
According to Rudolf Höss, who was an adjutant at Sachsenhausen before he became the first Commandant of Auschwitz, the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” means that works liberates one in the spiritual sense. Sachsenhausen was a Class 1 camp, where prisoners who worked had a good chance of being released.
After World War II, 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.
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 Höss was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Auschwitz, he had the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan put over the entrance gate into the Auschwitz main camp, which became known as Auschwitz One.
The Auschwitz II “death camp” did not have the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, and few prisoners were released from there.
This quote is from the Rabbi’s Letter to Vanderbilt students:
“Arbeit Macht Frei” — or “Work Makes You Free” — is not just a slogan. It represents hate at its worst. They were the words twisted in metal above a Nazi death camp in which millions of human beings, Jews and non-Jews alike, were cruelly killed. “Arbeit Macht Frei” has been purchased with blood; it belongs to the murdered.
I do not expect all people to know the words and meaning of “Arbeit Macht Frei.” What I am asking is that this phrase and all phrases from the Holocaust not be separated from their tragic history. This extends to all situations of hate and cruelty: Let us not separate the words from their context.
To separate “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or anything that means destruction, from its horrible historical sense and apply it to causes and campaigns — no matter how righteous — is a gross and dangerous mistake.
Does anyone think that the Vanderbilt students will ask the Rabbi whether the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was put over the entrance into the Auschwitz II “death camp”? Or the Buchenwald camp, which was a Class II camp, mainly for captured Resistance fighters, in World War II?
How about the Majdanek “death camp” where the latest death toll is 59,000 Jewish deaths? Does Majdanek have the Arbeit sign? No!
Does the Mauthausen Class III camp have this sign over the gate? No!
The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign was only put over the gates into the Class I camps, like Dachau, where prisoners were sometimes released.
You can read about the sign over the Buchenwald gate on this blog post: https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/buchenwald-was-a-class-ii-camp-with-jedem-das-seine-on-the-gate/