The theft of the sign at the entrance gate to Auschwitz in December was a contemptuous effort, for whatever reason, by those who tried to remove a potent symbol of our failed humanity. “Arbeit Macht Frei” which translates as Work Will Set You Free has remained in place at the entrance to the Nazi camp since its liberation in 1945. This sign has represented the memory of more than just the atrocities carried out within its barbed fences and dilapidated huts, it has represented the strength of spirit of those who entered the camp, died in the camp and also those who survived the camp. For anyone who has walked into Auschwitz with the famous sign cast in iron over your head, it is truly is a haunting experience. What is a much more unique experience is walking back out again, by your own choice. I had the opportunity to do just this as a visitor to the Auschwitz site, seeing “Arbeit Macht Frei” looming on the horizon, I can simply say it chills you to the bone.
The theft of this sign is an attack on the memory of those whose lives, identity, culture and nations which were destroyed and scarred by the operations so dutifully carried out at Auschwitz. Though the sign once signified entry and life within this work camp, with freedom coming only by way of death, “Arbeit Macht Frei” has since stood in place to remind the world to never stand by and let such atrocities happen again.
The slogan reminds all people of the collective memory and responsibility we share to always remember, understand and learn from Auschwitz. Camp survivor and author Primo Levi said, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
Levi also put it: “Human memory is a marvellous but fallacious instrument. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features”. Auschwitz and similar sites of horrific abuse and enslavement need such symbols of liberation. They stand in place of our own failings and blindness and ensure documented record and artefacts of the past lie in place for future generations to learn from where we have failed.
Image courtesy of theage.au