Languages
Page last updated at 13:53 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Auschwitz's sign of death and defiance

Undated file image of Arbeit Macht Frei slogan at Auschwitz
The Auschwitz sign with its inverted "B"

For people the world over, few relics have come to symbolise the Nazi Holocaust more than the infamous wrought-iron sign straddling the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, bearing the cynical words Arbeit Macht Frei.

The gate itself was constructed under German orders by Polish political prisoners who had arrived in late 1940 and early 1941.

Its construction was part of a general overhaul of the camp, which included replacing temporary barbed wire with high-voltage fencing and concrete posts.

The 5m (16ft) sign was made by prisoners in the metalworking detail under Jan Liwacz, a master blacksmith.

It is believed that, in an act of defiance which went unnoticed, the prisoners reversed the B in Arbeit, giving it the appearance of being upside down.

Locals also say that after the camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945, Red Army soldiers took down the sign and were preparing to transport it back to the Soviet Union, but were bribed by local Poles to leave it.

Survived war

The phrase Arbeit Macht Frei itself was coined by the 19th Century linguist, ethnologist and author Lorenz Diefenbach.

The Weimar Republic in the 1920s, and later the Nazis, were both attracted to the leading character of Diefenbach's book Arbeit Macht Frei, whose achievements are defined by concentrating on doing his work.

Pope Benedict's visit in May 2006
Pope Benedict insisted on walking alone under the sign

Weimar politicians used the phrase to promote employment policies.

Then the Nazis latched on to it and a sign bearing the inscription appeared at the Dachau concentration camp, set up by Heinrich Himmler in 1933 to use dissidents as slave labour.

The phrase later became part of the Nazis' deception for the real use of the concentrations camps.

Ultimately for most the freedom referred to could only be achieved in death.

Jan Liwacz did survive the war. He was released from another concentration camp in May 1945 and returned to Poland.

His sign is occasionally removed by officials for conservation work and a replica is used as a substitute - the replica is now being used again to replace the stolen original.

Several months of conservation were done in early 2006 ahead of and after a visit by Pope Benedict XVI in May of that year.

The surface had deteriorated and was treated with extra preservation materials. The replica was made in the workshops of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Pope Benedict insisted on beginning his emotional visit by walking alone under the infamous sign and saying a prayer in front of the reconstruction of the execution wall where Nazis lined up and shot thousands of prisoners.



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Auschwitz death camp sign stolen
18 Dec 09 |  Europe
Auschwitz launches Facebook site
14 Oct 09 |  Europe
Auschwitz note leads to survivor
29 Apr 09 |  Europe
Auschwitz: Past and present
26 Jan 09 |  Special Reports
Cash crisis threat to Auschwitz
26 Jan 09 |  Europe
Audio-slideshow: Auschwitz in decay
26 Jan 09 |  Europe
Should Auschwitz be left to decay?
26 Jan 09 |  Europe

RELATED BBC LINKS

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific