Arbeit Macht Frei Sign at Entrance of Auschwitz I

Hovering above the gate at the entrance of Auschwitz I is a 16-foot wide wrought-iron sign that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work makes one free"). Each day, prisoners would pass under the sign to and from their long and harsh labor details and read the cynical expression, knowing that their only true way to freedom was not work but death.

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign has become a symbol of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps

Who Made the Arbeit Macht Frei Sign?

Arbeit Macht Frei
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On April 27, 1940, SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered a new concentration camp to be built near the Polish town of Oswiecim. To build the camp, the Nazis forced 300 Jews from the town of Oswiecim to begin work.

In May 1940, Rudolf Höss arrived and became the first commandant of Auschwitz. While overseeing the camp's construction, Höss ordered the creation of a large sign with the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei."

Prisoners with metalworking skills set to the task and created the 16-foot-long, 90-pound sign.

The Inverted "B"

The prisoners who made the Arbeit Macht Frei sign did not make the sign exactly as planned. What is now believed to have been an act of defiance, they placed the "B" in "Arbeit" upside down.

This inverted "B" has itself become a symbol of courage. Beginning in 2010, the International Auschwitz Committee began a "to B remembered" campaign, which awards small sculptures of that inverted "B" to people who don't stand idly by and who help to prevent another genocide.

The Sign Is Stolen

Sometime between 3:30 and 5:00 am on Friday, December 18, 2010, a gang of men entered Auschwitz and unscrewed the Arbeit Macht Frei sign on one end and pulled it off on the other. They then proceeded to cut the sign into three pieces (one word on each piece) so that it would fit into their getaway car. Then they drove off.

After the theft was discovered later that morning, there was an international outcry. Poland issued a state of emergency and tightened border controls. There was a nationwide hunt for the missing sign and the group that stole it. It looked like a professional job since the thieves had successfully avoided both the night watchmen and CCTV cameras.

Three days after the theft, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was found in a snowy forest in northern Poland. Six men were eventually arrested—one from Sweden and five from Poland. Anders Högström, a former Swedish neo-Nazi, was sentenced to two years and eight months in a Swedish prison for his role in the theft. The five Polish men received sentences ranging from six to 30 months.

While there were original concerns that the sign had been stolen by neo-Nazis, it is believed the gang stole the sign for money, hoping to sell it to a still-anonymous Swedish buyer.

Where Is the Sign Now?

The original Arbeit Macht Frei sign has now been restored (it is back in one piece); however, it remains in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum rather than at the front gate of Auschwitz I. Fearing for the original sign's safety, a replica has been placed over the camp's entrance gate. 

A Similar Sign at Other Camps

While the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz is perhaps the most famous one, it was not the first. Before World War II started, the Nazis imprisoned many people for political reasons in their early concentration camps. One such camp was Dachau.

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp, built just a month after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933. In 1934, Theodor Eicke became commandant of Dachau and in 1936, he had the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" placed on the gate of Dachau.*

The phrase itself was made popular by novelist Lorenz Diefenbach, who wrote a book called Arbeit Macht Frei in 1873. The novel is about gangsters who find virtue through hard labor. 

It is thus possible that Eicke had this phrase placed on the gates of Dachau not to be cynical but as an inspiration to those political prisoners, criminals, and others that were in the early camps. Höss, who worked at Dachau from 1934 to 1938, brought the phrase with him to Auschwitz.

But Dachau and Auschwitz aren't the only camps where you can find the "Arbeit Macht Frei" phrase. It can be also found at Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, and Theresienstadt.

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Dachau was stolen in November 2014 and was found in November 2016 in Norway.

The Sign's Original Meaning

The original meaning of the sign has long been a discussion of historians. The complete phrase as quoted by Hoss was "Jedem das Seine. Arbeit Macht Frei" ("To each what he deserves. Work makes free"). 

The original intent, according to historian Oren Baruch Stier, was to inspire the non-Jewish workers at the camp, who were to see the death camps as a workplace where "non-workers" were put to death. Others such as historian John Roth believe it is a reference to the forced labor that Jews were enslaved to perform. A political idea fomented by Hitler was that Germans worked hard, but Jews did not. 

Bolstering such arguments is that the sign was not seen by most of the Jewish people who were imprisoned at Auschwitz: they entered the camps at another location. 

A New Meaning

Since the liberation of the camps and the end of the Nazi regime, the meaning of the phrase is seen as an ironic symbol of Nazi linguistic duplicity, a version of Dante's "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here." 

Sources and Further Reading

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Arbeit Macht Frei Sign at Entrance of Auschwitz I." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Arbeit Macht Frei Sign at Entrance of Auschwitz I. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Arbeit Macht Frei Sign at Entrance of Auschwitz I." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).