Auschwitz theft: sign of times

Death camp robbers underscored need to up fight against antisemitism

By Rabbi Barry Marcus, December 23, 2009

The joy of our Chanucah celebrations was dampened when we awoke on the 7th day to learn of the distressing theft of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from the gates at the entrance of Auschwitz I.

Coincidentally, our Torah reading on the 7th day of Chanucah mentions the tribe of Ephraim. In Jeremiah Chapter 31, Ephraim is referred to as Haben Yakir Li Ephraim — “Ephraim is My most precious son, a delightful child that whenever I speak of him I remember him more and more.” The thoughts of many survivors and others were sadly deflected away from the light of Chanucah to the dark days of the Shoah and found themselves forcibly reflecting on precious family members lost at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices.

The expression “arbeit macht frei”, which literally means “work makes free”, or “work liberates”, was first used in 1872 by Lorenz Diefenbach, the German Nationalist author, but later embraced by the Nazi Party when it came to power in 1933.

The same slogan was placed at the entrance of a number of Nazi camps including Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Theresienstadt.

However, it is the 16ft sign over the entrance to Auschwitz I which has come to symbolise the horrors of the Holocaust and has become one of the most tangible and visible reminders of the Nazi tyranny.

Though most people will be visually familiar with this sign, hearing about something

This instantly recognisable sign has stood in its place since 1940 when the camp’s first Commander, Rudolf Höss, put it there.

Whether the motive in stealing this sign was part of some lurid fascination with Holocaust memorabilia or for financial gain or for a more sinister reason, the speed at which the Polish authorities have recovered the sign is to be acknowledged.

The stolen sign adorned the entrance to Auschwitz I, which was originally an army barracks but was later enlarged by the Nazis to hold Jews, Polish political prisoners, war prisoners, Gypsies and others.

It was, 3km away from Auschwitz I, in the purpose-built killing factory Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, where over a million Jews and others were gassed and incinerated.

Though most people will be visually familiar with this sign even before visiting Auschwitz, either from books, films or documentaries, as our Rabbis point out in the Midrash, “Eino domeh re’iyah l’shemiyah” — hearing about something is not like seeing it.

However well a visitor to Auschwitz may think he is prepared, the truth is, nothing can prepare one adequately.

I have watched on countless occasions how both students and adults upon entering Auschwitz I are stopped in their tracks when entering the camp, as if completely transfixed by this duplicitous sign that has become synonymous with the unspeakable acts of evil that occurred just beyond it.

Once you move under the sign, along the double barbed wire fences, you are no longer reading from a book or watching a documentary but you become enveloped and surrounded by evil of an unimaginable scale.

I have witnessed initial discomfort on people’s faces turn into anguish, numbness and an overwhelming sense of disbelief.

I hope the sign is speedily restored, not only for the obvious reasons but also to retain crucial and vital evidence in the face of the grotesque phenomenon known as Holocaust denial.

Only last week in Copenhagen, world leaders attempted to tackle controversial environmental issues. The theft of this sign may be a further indication that what we equally need is to effect a “climate change” across Europe and further afield as a response to increased levels of antisemitism.

What is abundantly clear is that the theft of the sign confirms the need for continued education both here in the United Kingdom and worldwide.

Rabbi Marcus regularly escorts groups to Auschwitz

Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010


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