Arbeit Macht Frei are the first words that prisoners would enter upon arrival at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The English translation is work sets you free. Having already gone to Auschwitz concentration when I was ten years old, I already knew the horrors that a death camp held for prisoners, but that did not prepare me for the horrors that the Sachsenhausen prisoners endured. Sachsenhausen was built to be the model work camp, the prisoner area was surrounded by an equilateral triangle so that the machine gunners could reach every point of the camp without any blind spots, the only flaw of the camp during World War II was that it was not big enough to humanely maintain the sheer number of prisoners being brought into the camp. This was in fact a work camp before it was a death camp. Prisoners were subject to harsh treatment, malnutritton, torture, and unsanitary living conditions. If the prisoners were able to survive all of that, many were killed in the gas chambers or suffocated in vans full of exhaust. Sachsenhausen was not built to be a mass extermination camp like Auschwitz was. Sachsenhausen was not able to kill nearly as many prisoners as Auschwitz. Auschwitz was a death camp, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign that hung over the entrance, while was not true at any of the concentration camps, was nothing more than words at Auschwitz. The prisoners at Auschwitz worked in part because they could not kill them fast enough. Auschwitz alone is responsible for over 1,100,000 deaths. The sheer size of the camp is evident in the sign; Sachsenhausen’s Arbeit Macht Frei was displayed on a metal gate door whereas Auschwitz’s sign was spread across the top of the entrance for everyone to see.
One of the saddest things that we have to face with Sachsenhausen is that it was not shut down after the war. After the war, starting in 1945, it was turned into a Soviet NKVD special occupation zone where prisoners were kept, enduring some of the same treatments, but not as bad. Public executions were common within the prison camp during this time. It was finally decommissioned in 1950, one year after the fall of the Berlin wall. At that point, Germany was faced with the decision of what to do with the camp. At the time, one of the most popular opinions was to forget it ever happened and to make it into a park. In the end though, an architect’s proposal to preserve the history and turn it into a historical site won. It is especially sad to see the same mistakes being made over and over again. The holocaust museum for instance is hidden within the concrete maze of the holocaust monument. There are no signs leading you to it, just a staircase leading underground to the museum.
I began this blog post with the theme of Arbeit Macht Frei because it was the premise of every concentration camp during the war. It was one of the biggest lies of the war, in many cases work meant death. As we reflect upon the past, let us always remember those words that have been burned into all of our memories, not as words, but as a reembrace of the horrific crimes that occurred in these work camps. Buildings will decay and fall apart, historical sites may be destroyed and turned into parks to be forgotten, but these words, Arbeit Macht Frei, always stay with us so that we will NEVER forget what happens.