Arbeit Macht Frei

Arbeit Macht Frei

The infamous slogan used at Nazi concentration camps, this one was captured at Auschwitz, Poland.

The expression comes from the title of a novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach (1873), in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labour. The phrase was also used in French (“le travail rend libre!”) by Auguste Forel, a Swiss entomologist, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, in his “Fourmis de la Suisse” [“Ants of Switzerland”] (1920). In 1922, the Deutsche Schulverein of Vienna, an ethnic nationalist “protective” organization of Germans within the Austrian empire, printed membership stamps with the phrase Arbeit macht frei.

The slogan “Arbeit macht frei” was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. The slogan’s use in this instance was ordered by SS General Theodor Eicke, inspector of concentration camps and second commandant of Dachau Concentration Camp.

The slogan can still be seen at several sites, including over the entrance to Auschwitz I where, according to BBC historian Laurence Rees in his “Auschwitz: a New History”, the sign was erected by order of commandant Rudolf Hass. This particular sign was made by prisoner-labourers including Jan Liwacz. The sign features an upside-down ‘B’, which has been interpreted as an act of defiance by the prisoners who made it.

In 1933 the first political prisoners were being rounded up for an indefinite period without charges. They were held in a number of places in Germany. The slogan was first used over the gate of a “wild camp” in the city of Oranienburg, which was set up in an abandoned brewery in March 1933 (it was later rebuilt in 1936 as Sachsenhausen). It can also be seen at the Dachau concentration camp, Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and the Theresienstadt Ghetto-Camp, as well as at Fort Breendonk in Belgium. It has been claimed that the slogan was placed over entrance gates to Auschwitz III / Buna/Monowitz. The slogan appeared at the Flossenbrg camp on the left gate post at the camp entry. The original gate posts survive in another part of the camp, but the slogan sign no longer exists. Primo Levi describes seeing the words illuminated over a doorway (as distinct from a gate) in Auschwitz III/Buna Monowitz

At Buchenwald, “Jedem das Seine” (literally, “to each his own”, but idiomatically “everyone gets what he deserves”) was used.

In 1938 the Austrian political cabaret writer Jura Soyfer and the composer Herbert Zipper, while prisoners at Dachau Concentration Camp, wrote the Dachaulied (The Dachau Song). They had spent weeks marching in and out of the camp’s gate to daily forced labour, and considered the motto “Arbeit macht frei” over the gate an insult. The song repeats the phrase cynically as a “lesson” taught by Dachau. (The first verse is translated in the article on Jura Soyfer.)

In The Kingdom of Auschwitz, Otto Friedrich wrote about Rudolf Hoss, regarding his decision to display the motto so prominently at the Auschwitz entrance:

He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.

Considering the role played by the Auschwitz prisons during the Holocaust as well as the individual prisoner’s knowledge that once they entered the camp freedom was not likely to be obtained by any means other than death, the cruel comedy of the slogan becomes strikingly clear. The psychological impact it wrought on those who passed through the gates of each of the camps where it was seen was incredibly powerful.- Wikipedia

Photography Tips:

Maintain a level of decency when exploring these camps.  When visiting the camps, you may likely find many signs around the camp, which will inform whether photography is allowed and whether silence is required. Flash is prohibited at most locations and I actually don’t advise to use them (too invasive). If you have the equipment available, I recommend using a camera that is good in low light with a decent ISO rating.  Think about the amount of equipment you are taking, you will likely be doing a lot of walking. Security guards will check all of your equipment before entry. Personally, I only took camera, lens, spare battery and carry bag. I recommend using a lens that is capable of ranged photography, such as the Sony SAL1680Z.

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Auschwitz & Birkenau


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