08 November 2016

Auschwitz remains a warning that we must
never leave extremists go unchallenged

‘Arbeit macht frei’ … the sign at the entrance gate to Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I think it is going to take me some time before I feel comfortable enough to write about my visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau yesterday [7 November 2016]. Already it is challenging my thoughts for my sermon next Sunday to mark Remembrance Sunday [13 November 2016] in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. But I may reserve further reflections for my monthly columns in two diocesan magazines, the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in advance of Holocaust Day in January.

So many of those images from Auschwitz and Birkenau are familiar to all of us, yet none of them prepared me for the ghastly reality of what we are capable of doing to each other in war, in the outworking of racism and religious hatred, in our demeaning of any part of humanity, in allowing political extremism to go unchallenged.

I walked into Auschwitz under one of those familiar images, the sign above the gate that proclaims with cynicism and sick satire: Arbeit macht frei.

The German phrase, meaning ‘work sets you free,’ is derived from the title of a novel by a 19th century German pastor, philologist and extreme nationalist, 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 writer in his book Fourmis de la Suisse (Ants of Switzerland, (1920). In 1922, the Deutsche Schulverein of Vienna, an extreme right-wing group of Germans in Austria, used the slogan on their membership cards.

The slogan Arbeit macht frei was erected above the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps on the orders of an SS general Theodor Eicke, inspector of concentration camps and second commandant at Dachau.

The slogan was first used over the gate of a camp set up in an abandoned brewery in Oranienburg in 1933. This camp was later rebuilt in 1936 as Sachsenhausen. It was then used in other camps, although the slogan at Buchenwald was Jedem das Seine (‘to each his own,’ or ‘everyone gets what he deserves’).

Inside a gas chamber in Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The BBC historian Laurence Rees, in Auschwitz: a New History, which I bought at Auschwitz yesterday, says the sign at the entrance to Auschwitz was erected on the orders of the camp commandant Rudolf Höss. This particular sign was made by slave labourers in the camp.

Rudolf Höss regarded his decision to erect the motto so prominently at Auschwitz not as a gesture of mockery, nor did he even to intended to have it interpreted literally. Not was it a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released. Instead, he thought of it as some type of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour in itself brings a kind of spiritual freedom.

As I walked under that sign, I noticed how the lettering on the sign includes an upside-down letter ‘B.’ It is said that this was an act of defiance by the prisoners who made the sign.

The slogan can still be seen at the sites of several concentration camps as well as Auschwitz. However, the original sign at Auschwitz was stolen in December 2009, and when it was later recovered it had been broken into three pieces. Anders Högström, a Swedish neo-Nazi , and two Poles were jailed for the theft, and the original sign is now in storage at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and a replica is now in its place over the gate.

The train tracks in Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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