The German phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’, meaning ‘work sets you free’, is the title of a novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, in which gamblers and fraudsters found the path to virtue through labour. Unfortunately, the slogan has become infamous, as it appeared at the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.
All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The Auschwitz concentration camp complex was the largest of its kind established by the Nazi regime. It was actually three camps in one, which consisted of a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave-labour camp. But, all the three camps basically used the prisoners for forced labour. One of them also functioned for an extended period as a killing centre. The camps were located in an area that Nazi Germany annexed in 1939, after invading and conquering Poland.
The Nazis, under cover of the war, developed the technology, bureaucracy, and psychology of hate to cruelly murder millions of Jews. Though they socially and economically isolated the Jews with sufficient efficiency, the actual physical isolation of the Eastern European population did not begin until December 1939. The very purpose of the Nazi ghetto was to segregate the Jews from the others, to concentrate and confine them in a particular area, as in a prison, which was very much unlike the ghettos of centuries past, where they were permitted to leave the ghetto during the day and participate in the business of the general community.
Life in the ghetto was more than miserable. The food ration was insufficient and barely enough to allow survival. The water supply was contaminated. Epidemics of typhoid, tuberculosis, and lice were common. Without medicine and treatment, people died helplessly. Bodies of new victims piled up in the streets faster than they could be carted away. During the first two winters, more than 70,000 died of exposure, disease, and starvation only in the Warsaw ghetto.
Hitler’s intention was not only to isolate the Jews in Germany and countries annexed by the Nazis, subjecting them to subhuman regulations and random acts of violence. He was convinced that his ‘Jewish problem’ would be finally solved only with the total annihilation of every Jew, along with the gypsies, communists, homosexuals and the mentally and physically handicapped. His official plan for genocide was developed at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, in Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, where the details of the “Final Solution” were worked out. The meeting was convened by Reinhard Heydrich, who was the head of the S.S. main office and S.S. Chief Heinrich Himmler’s top aide. The Final Solution was planned with provisions for the deportation of Jews to the specific killing centers, immediate death for those who were unable to work or the very young, the old, and the weak and mass killing through forced labour with insufficient nourishment, inhuman punishment and eventual death for the remnant in gas chambers.
Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz was initially constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940, while the first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941. Ultimately, it became a concentration camp complex, which included Auschwitz I, the original prison camp, Auschwitz II –Birkenau, a combination of concentration / extermination camp and Auschwitz III – Monowitz, a labour camp. Apart from extermination in gas chambers, some prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele (1911-79), which included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, and various amputations and other surgeries that were often conducted without anesthesia. It is believed that, once Dr, Josef Menele even sewed together a set of twins named Guido and Ina, who were about 4 years old, from the back in an attempt to create Siamese twins. The poor parents somehow were able to get some morphine and killed them to end their suffering.
All the inmates at Auschwitz were given special badges for marking. Yellow stars were allotted for the Jews, a pink triangle for gay prisoners, a brown triangle for the Gypsies, a purple triangle for Jehovah's witnesses, a black triangle for people who were deemed asocial elements, like the mentally ill, pacifists and the prostitutes. Initially, the genocide was carried out in the form of mass shootings, followed by mass killing by blowing up the victims with explosives and finally, they settled for the most effective and shortcut way of gassing their victims, usually with Zyklon-B poison gas.
At the arrival at the camp, the prisoners were immediately examined by the Nazi doctors and those who were considered to be unfit to take workload, were immediately ordered to take showers along with the children, the elderly, the pregnant women and the infirm. However, the bathhouses to which they marched, were actually, the gas chambers in disguise. Once inside, the prisoners were exposed to Zyklon-B poison gas, which killed about one-third of the victims immediately. These individuals, marked as unfit for work, were never officially registered as Auschwitz inmates. Hence, it is impossible to calculate the actual number of lives lost in the camp.
It was estimated they during World War II (1939-45), more than one million people lost their lives at Auschwitz. In January 1945, when the Soviets entered Auschwitz, they found thousands of emaciated detainees and piles of corpses left behind.
At Auschwitz, the prisoners worked in subhuman conditions and finally, died or killed. The inmates worked and were set free in death.