Auschwitz sign ‘irreplacable’

The theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Sets You Free – sign that hung over the entrance gate to the Auschwitz camp was nothing less than a desecration, writes Rabbi Andrew Baker on the BBC News website.

The announcement came on the same day that the German Government announced that it was planning to contribute 60 million Euros towards the upkeep of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Whether this was a coincidence remains to be seen.

Auschwitz has become a representative symbol for the Holocaust as a whole. Although Jews and other oppressed groups were murdered in other places – Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, Madjanek, and many other places – there is something about Auschwitz that remains in public consciousness. The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz serves as International Holocaust Memorial Day. The main camp at Auschwitz is actually much smaller than Birkenau, the much larger camp, but there is something about the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign that acts as a stark warning of where you are, that you are walking in the footseps of evil and suffering.

The Auschwitz State Museum, responsible for the preserving the site, had recently embarked on a major campaign to raise more than 100m euros to ensure the permanent protection and preservation of the site and its contents – from victims’ suitcases, and inmates’ graffiti, to wooden barracks, barbed wire fences, rail platform and crematoria.

But all this is really secondary. The visitor to Auschwitz knows he is walking along that same platform where half a century ago Dr Mengele was directing victims to the gas chambers. He is looking at the same electrified fence that had imprisoned countless slave labourers.

And he is walking through the same gate and beneath the very same sign that cynically offered hope, but in reality promised only destruction. Or at least he was until Friday.

Apparently the people who stole the sign broke into the camp through a drainage channel, removed the sign, and then made their escape by cutting through the barbed wire. Surely I am not the only person who thinks there is something particularly disrespectful about people breaking IN to Auschwitz and then cutting through the wire to get OUT. Just how many thousands of people would have wished every second to escape that place back in those dark, dark days?

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