ARBEIT MACHT FREI – WORKS MAKES FREE

Apparently Heidrich Himmler was really good at making up slogans for concentration camps.   “Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Makes Free,” one of Himmler’s catchiest slogans, adorned the prisoner gatehouse in Dachau, the first concentration camp, welcoming prisoners on March 22, 1933.   This slogan later also adorned the gates of Sachsenhausen, Flossenburg and Auschwitz.

“Strict but fair” is how Himmler described the new concentration camps in his January 29, 1939 radio address.  “The slogan that stands above these camps,” Himmler explained, is, “There is a path to freedom.  Its milestones are: obedience, diligence, honesty, orderliness, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, readiness to make sacrifices, and love of the fatherland.”

Well, the SS folks loved this slogan and plastered it on the walls and roofs of concentration camps in case the prisoners missed the radio address.  The SS officers dutifully pointed out the slogan to new prisoners, assuring them that indeed “there is a path to freedom, but only through the chimney!”

Nikolaus Wachsmann, in his 865 page history of the German concentration camps details how it took more than Himmler’s slogans to create the intricate and extensive “KL” (Konzentrationslager) system.   Dachau was the first, but from the 1933 on, the Germans set up 27 main concentration camps and 1,100 “satellite camps.”

Lest you confuse the concentration camps with the “death camps” set up to murder Polish Jews, let me explain.  The concentration camps were set up as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933 to imprison political enemies, especially communists, journalists, criminals and “social deviants.”  Hundreds of these camps were set up within Germany to lock up real or imagined Nazi opponents.  The camps were consolidated and expanded over the course of the war as needed.  They became the dumping ground for German enemies, Polish elite, Soviet Commissars and POW’s, and of course, Jews.  The prisoners in these camps were not sent specifically to die there. In fact, most of the early prisoners, after being terrorized and beaten, were released, while the later prisoners were prized for the labor force they provided to the German war effort.

Death camps, by contrast, built in 1942, had one purpose – to murder Jews from Poland and its surroundings as rapidly as possible.  Sam Goldberg survived one of the three Operation Reinhard death camps – Treblinka.  The other two in this deadly trio were Belzec and Sobibor.  Assisting with the rapid elimination of Polish Jews in 1942 and 1943 were Chelmo and Majdenek.   No need for tattooed numbers like in Auschwitz because the vast majority of victims did not live longer than a few hours.  The only thing they had time for was to disrobe and for the women to have their hair shorn and sent back to Germany for mattress stuffing. Of the Operation Reinhard death camps, only approximately 150 people survived, if that many.   In contrast, approximately 160,000 survived the main concentration camps, mostly from Buchwald/Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Mauthausen and 90,000 from over 100 satellite concentration camps.  This helps explain why most people have heard of the concentration camps, while not so much about the death camps.

In the next few blog posts, I hope to share some of the voluminous information I learned about concentration camps from Mr. Wachsmann’s book, kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.

I believe that learning about these difficult issues makes us free.   Hitler and Himmler succeeded in murdering millions, but in the end they lost.  We are here telling the story of death, but also of survival.  We work hard and we are free.

Sources:

  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.
  • Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.  Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.  1987.
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