Scrapbookpages Blog

April 1, 2014

Rabbi explains the meaning of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 11:51 am

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.

Entrance gate into Dachau concentration camp

Entrance gate into Dachau concentration camp

I previously blogged about the meaning of “Arbeit Macht Frei” at

Arbeit Macht Frei gate at Sachsenhausen camp

Arbeit Macht Frei gate at Sachsenhausen camp

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.

My 2003 photo of the gate into the Dachau camp

My 2003 photo of the gate into the Dachau camp

You can read about the sign over the Buchenwald gate on this blog post:



  1. While it is right to despise all that the Nazi regime did in the second world war the origins of that phrase come from deep within the Prussian philosophy of life. They were created by Frederich the great in the late 17th century when the Prussian states were harassed by Russian, austro hungarians, Swedes, French and others. He believed in a form of national socialism that included collective obedience to the common good and this was taught in the school system at a time when the Prussians had pensions/ education etc in advance of almost every other nation. The cost of these social benefits was that citizen had a strict education and had compulsory military conscription . The later religious movements also included both Lutheran and Pieist philosophy which moved the people away from the pursuit of pleasure towards a philosophy of work/ simplicity / piety. Many of the great Prussian thinkers amplified these notions including schopenhaur/ neitzce and introduced the concept of the ubermensh which said that those who worked hardest and were creative would rise in the order of things to direct others who were less able/strong……ultimately this was morphed into many of the extreme nazi ideals in the 1920/30’s

    Comment by peter Green — July 5, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

  2. This is not without irony. The “rabbi” wrote the letter to the students of Vanderbilt U. Vanderbilt has been wooing and courting Jew students to get them to their university. Who would’ve guessed

    Comment by Tim — March 11, 2016 @ 9:56 am

  3. The slogan ARBEIT MACHT FREI had been one of the nazi mockeries accepted even today by naive anglo.american scholars who do not know German, at least not the special nazi way of expression. The first deportations of Jews had been presented to the pubblic opinion as RESETTLEMENT IN EAST FOR WORKING PURPOSES. But … as expressed already by Eichmann at Bislo in 1939 … OTHERWISE IT MEANS TO DYE, At the first times a Jew could be released giving evidence to have a possibility of emigration within few weeks! In war time for ordinary – non jewish -prisoniers the release had been bond to enlistment in the Wehrmacht. In the present as in other posts there is a great lack of knowledge about the nazi rule and way of thingking. One of the reasons of this lask of understanding is the costly and cruel USA Justice with the many death sentences and gas chambers as place of lawfull executions. As well know many capital sentences are based on bargained evidences and racial prejudicies. So there is more understanding for the negazionist pepetrators than for the surviving cictims!

    Comment by Wolf Murmelstein — April 2, 2014 @ 12:12 am

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