The gates of hell. Learn more about Gate to Auschwitz I

Arbeit macht frei

The first thing that visitors to Auschwitz see is the cast iron gate bearing the sign Arbeit macht frei – Work sets you free. This paraphrase of a Biblical quote appears not only above the entrance to Auschwitz, but also on the gates to other Nazi camps at Dachau, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Theresienstadt and Flossenbürg. Prior to the war, this slogan was used by the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party] as part of the fight against unemployment in Germany.

Knowing the full terrifying history of the Nazi concentration camps, it is clear how derisive this slogan was. For the prisoners, the only way of becoming free was generally through death, as they used to say themselves, repeating a camp couplet that was as ironic as the inscription itself.

Arbeit macht frei
durch Krematorium Nummer drei

[Work sets you free
through crematorium number three

The gate was constructed by Polish prisoners under the leadership of Jan Liwacz (camp number 1010 – a master of artistic blacksmithing before he was sent to Auschwitz), who arrived in Auschwitz in one of the first transports from the prison in Wiśnicz in 1940. The construction itself
was part of the work related to the strengthening of the camp fence (when the wooden poles were replaced with reinforced concrete ones with taut barbed wire).

When you look at the sign, you might be able to notice that the letter “B” is welded upside down. Rumour has it that the blacksmiths did this on purpose – as an act of rebellion. However, there is also the theory that it was merely accidental.

Kazimierz Albin (1922-2019), one of the few survivors who came to Auschwitz in the first transport (camp number 118), clearly remembers the day that the sign was mounted on the gate:

We were shocked by the cynicism of the Germans. They wrote ‘Work sets you free’, but we found out for ourselves that the work at Auschwitz was only a method of killing prisoners. So we quickly put together the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei durch den Schornstein’, meaning ‘Work makes you free [to exit] through the chimney.’

Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, drawing from the series “Prisoner’s Day” Author: Mieczysław Kościelniak – former prisoner of KL Auschwitz

After the liberation of the camp, the Soviets planned to transport the sign to Russia, but that idea was foiled by former prisoner Eugeniusz Nosal (camp number 693), who managed to bribe the guard of the wagon where the sign was being kept – with a bottle of moonshine, by all accounts – and then hide the inscription in the Oświęcim town hall. Thanks to him, the sign could then be put back in place once the museum was established.