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'Auschwitz wasn't on another planet'

David Stavrou · 27 Jan 2010, 09:26

Published: 27 Jan 2010 09:26 GMT+01:00

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When writing about Auschwitz, it's important to start with the obvious. The theft of the camp's notorious entrance sign was an appalling act and those who are responsible for it must be punished. In a broader context, on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 65 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is important to point out that the original camp site, along with the museum and archive which were built on it, are in need of serious renovation. If the site's educational projects, research activities and ceremonial events, are to continue, there is need of a large investment, of international support and of course, a better security system.

So much for stating the obvious.

There is however another way of looking at the theft of the sign which naturally raised many angry reactions. Interestingly enough, statements made after the event were of the kind usually made when religious sites are desecrated. It's easy to forget that Auschwitz is not a holy site. It is not a vandalized grave or a burnt down synagogue, in fact it's as far from a holy site as one can imagine. Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) may well be the largest Jewish graveyard in the world and the site where thousands of Poles, Roma, Russians and many others were murdered, but the entrance sign of the main camp, Auschwitz 1, which simply states "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work liberates) is perhaps one of most profound symbols of evil and one of the most symbolic representations of Nazism. So much so that it is almost tempting to cry out to the thieves and to all the anti-Semites and neo-Nazis who support them: "If you want it so badly, just go ahead and take it!"

There is a reason why that sign is so symbolic. Auschwitz wasn't on another planet, as Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor Yehiel Dinur once put it. It was made from the stuff of our very own planet. It took all the evils of this world and brought them to a new level. Though it developed new and monstrous techniques, it didn't invent anything new. It was the most accurate representation of the world view of the Nazi movement which, while being politically revolutionary, was based on old and conservative values. Like Nazism itself, Auschwitz was hierarchical, racist, and murderous all of which are typical aspects of the twentieth century. It was a world where human beings had no value, where every part of their body and belongings was used to make profit before they were annihilated. It was a world of cruelty and ruthlessness, but not less interesting, it was a world of lies. And this is where the "Work Liberates" slogan has its deeper meaning.

The lies in Auschwitz weren’t limited to the lies told to the victims who were told, for example, that they are entering the showers when they were standing at the doors of gas chambers. They were deeper, almost philosophical. Auschwitz had every aspect of human life. There was music, medicine and even a judicial system. There were work places, sex life, trade and industry. But these were all distorted. Any trace of humanity was sucked out of them. Music, for example, was transformed from an expression of beauty and human emotions to a soundtrack of slave marches and executions. In the so called "Joy Division", sex was transformed from a source of pleasure and expression of intimacy to violent and repeated rape. In the torture chambers of Block no. 11, the judicial system served might instead of right and in Dr. Mengele's Block medicine did not save lives, but practiced diabolical experiments to glorify a mythical ‘master race.’

And then there's work. Work can define us; it can give us pleasure, release our creative abilities or at least provide for us. Work can liberate. But in Auschwitz work was the exploitation of people struck by disease and hunger by corporations, some of which, sadly enough, still exist today. All this makes the stolen slogan not only cynical but also a pure symbol of everything wrong in this world. As such, perhaps we can do without it.

Many, myself included, were shocked by the theft of the sign. But was the response proportional? Is the symbol really so important? I have visited Auschwitz many times and have seen how the sign has turned into a tourist attraction and how groups of laughing teenagers from all over the world gather beneath it to have their picture taken. Visiting Auschwitz is important and symbols are important too but they are not everything. It's important to remember that although the war ended in 1945 genocide, racism and oppression didn't. Perhaps it would be more effective if some of the attention given to the stolen sign were diverted to the atrocities in Darfur for example, or to the many cases of minority oppression and discrimination worldwide.

The Israeli historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who is one of the world's greatest authorities on the Holocaust, says: "There are many places in the world today where mass murder and even genocide are possible. Everyone knows about Sudan but there are other places like Burma (Myanmar) and East Congo. The situation in other regions like Iran, with its complex ethnical problems, the Balkans, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Iraq and some places in South America like Guatemala could also deteriorate into mass murder". Bauer, who is visiting Stockholm this week, serves as a senior adviser to many institutes including the Swedish government, the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research and the International Forum on Genocide Prevention. "The Holocaust was an unprecedented event because of its totality, universality and the pure ideological motives behind it", says Bauer, "But it was not unique, since it was an act of human beings on other human beings, it can happen again".

Though Bauer's work with the UN and other international organizations to prevent future crimes, may be more important to future generations than the preservation of old Nazi concentration camps, it can be claimed that the stolen sign, like the camp itself, is important as a witness of what happened and can be used in the battle against those who deny the Holocaust. There is truth in this. But there will come a day when not much will remain of the original camp. What then?

Even today parts of it are falling apart despite all preservation efforts. Like it or not, physical artifacts, just like the testimonies of living survivors, important as they are, will have a smaller role in remembering and understanding the Holocaust in the future. It is, after all, an event from the past century, and sadly its survivors are becoming fewer and fewer. Camps like Treblinka and Sobibor were totally destroyed and many documents and artifacts are already lost. Future discussion about the Holocaust will have to be based on books, museums and films, and if we want it to have a future at all, public debate, educational dialogue and historical research will have to take the place of visiting the sites themselves.

From a Swedish perspective, these observations are particularly important. The apparent involvement of a Swedish neo-Nazi in the sign theft last month reminds us that there is a need to continue the efforts to fight racism, anti-Semitism and undemocratic trends in Swedish society. Sweden's ambivalent role in WW2 makes this even more crucial. As a vital exporter of iron ore to the German war machine, and as an industrial and sometimes political and ideological Nazi ally, Sweden has a moral and political obligation to deal with its past even if it is also responsible for saving many lives through its diplomatic efforts and generosity to refugees.

Story continues below…

"Anti-Semitism in Europe is getting worse", says Prof. Bauer and explains that it exists in the extreme right-wing as well as in the left and in parts of the second generation of Muslim immigrants who rebel against their communities by targeting Israel and the Jews. He points out Sweden's efforts in fighting these trends, "Sweden dedicated time and money and has created The Living History Forum, a government agency commissioned to promote democracy and human rights, with the Holocaust as its point of reference". There is of course still work to be done and Bauer claims that studying the core issues of the Holocaust and especially the dilemmas of its victims are crucial to this process.

As for the stolen sign, I don't really know what the thieves who climbed on Auschwitz's gate and removed the sign on that cold December night had in mind. Truth be told, I don't really care. I was shocked when it was taken and I'm glad it is now back. But that is stating the obvious.

Beyond the obvious is another thought. In one of his books, Yehiel Dinur describes a vision of an Auschwitz prisoner. He is sitting in a truck full of prisoners on the way to the crematorium and he's looking at an SS officer. He realizes, to his horror, that under other circumstances the roles could have been reversed and he could have been the killer. The worst thing about Auschwitz, he realizes, is that it is man-made, not the work of the devil and it lies within the potential of human behavior. He describes the truck passing under the German words "Arbeit Mach Frei" and in his mind the German words are transformed into Hebrew ones: "In the image of God created he him". The symbol of Nazism becomes the cradle of Humanism. Now that would be a sign no one could steal.

David Stavrou (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

12:23 January 27, 2010 by Nemesis
It is really good news that the sign has been recovered.

All children should learn about Auschwitz at school. That way hopefully we will never repeat that horror of killing innocents for absolutely no reason other than existing.
19:37 January 27, 2010 by DamnImmigrant
Sorry to disagree with you here but we learn NOTHING from history! We, the nations of this planet have mostly agreed that there must never be another Holocaust - but they are happening all the time and we are powerless to stop them. And no, I do not consider the Palestinians to be Holocaust victims of Israel. I am talking about the Tutsi's, about Darfur, and about that Serbian mess. We did and do NOTHING. We just give lip service to how bad the Holocaust was and how it should not happen again! It goes on all the time and we are powerless to stop it! We must teach about ALL the incidents throughout our history and not just one isolated incident!
13:07 January 31, 2010 by conboy
The links between the past and the theft of the Auschwitz sign and the Malexander murderers through the activities of the neo-nazi millionaire Lars Göran Wahlström tells it's own story. What is the Swedish Government and the Swedish Police going to do about Swedish citizens living here, supporting neo-nazi terrorism here and now today?
12:04 February 1, 2010 by glamshek
Did holocaust really happen? Let there be proper research. If it happened because of Hitler then let Germany pay for the crimes, not innocent Palestinians.

Palestinians have nothing to do with Auschwitz. Is it ?
20:01 February 1, 2010 by wxman
First of all, yes the Holocaust DID occur. Second, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, met with Adolf Hitler on numerous occasions to discuss solutions to the Jewish problem in both Europe and Palestine. There, fixed it for ya!
05:36 February 2, 2010 by ajs42548
WXMAN.. You are the man! Besides what you mentioned, I do recall that the Palestinians voted against UN resolution 181 which would have established a Palestinian homeland in 1948. They voted against it because it would have meant that they recognized Israel and they couldn't have that could they? It was al-Husayni who told the Palestinians to leave their homes so they could "push the Jews into the sea". They just keep turning down the opportunity to have their own state.
20:45 February 3, 2010 by Kevin Harris
Rather like the trying to understand the universe, I don't believe that any one person can fully understand the Holocaust. It's just too big and horrible too grasp. The iconic Auschwitz sign is an obvious symbol, but it's just a cold piece of metal and devalued by it's use as a backdrop to tourists' photos. Personally, I try to spend less time thinking about its theft and more time thinking about the victims, any one of whom is worth more than a sign. For me, a much better reminder of the significance of the Holocaust are the shoes lining the banks of the Danube in Budapest, marking the place where Jewish families were shot and pushed into the river. They are all incredibly moving, but the children's shoes are heartbreaking.
05:50 February 4, 2010 by Typical Whitey
The Holocaust was an expression of complete evil. Hitler and the Nazis are hopefully burning in Hell.

And please, there is absolutley no comparison to the so-called Palestinians. First of all there is no such person (they are Jordanian) and secondly they have refused to recognize Israel, rather doing everything possible to eliminate the Jewsih state.

God Bless Israel and the Jewish people.
12:07 February 4, 2010 by Audrian
The murder of 6 million Jews by the Naziis might have been made to appear a vulger exception to European sensibility. The mistake the Germans did was to attempt to colonize Europe.

In the Congo Belgium's King Leopold army murdered more than 10 million people in less than 20 years. Read for example "King Leopold's Ghost" by a Belgium Journalist, Adam Hochschild. Another book, "History of the Hanged" by David Anderson (Harvard professor),, which is about Britain's Dirty War in Kenya, is another example. Nazi German cruelity in Nambia was its dress rehersal for its brutality in Germany.

I agree with the article the desecration of jews cemetry is a criminal offense. I do not however agree with him that he should use somber affair for Israel's political gain. If any he should use it for supporting Palestenians independence.
20:59 February 4, 2010 by belardo
I didnt read the whole article but this is just a reply on the comments I read.

Germans and the Othmans were allies. Jerusalem was a part of the Othoman Empire.

I think the Jews should be gratefull for muslims. If is was not for muslims, they would not have been existed nowadays. When muslims were in Andalusia, who protected the Jews from the Catholic chruch who envisioned to wipe out everything pagan,jew and muslim? Who tookthe Jews in to their country to live without being forced of being converted?

Ok now let us move to modern history: Who protected the jews from nazi german? The wealthy jews came to Sultan Abd-Hamid (during the last days of Othman Empire asking him to buy lands in the Empire so they can settle in. Abd Hamid refused because he insisted that the lands doesnt belong to him or to the Empire but there are citizens who own these lands, however, he grant them asylum to live free and have their own organization without interfering in their own business.

Also, WW2, the Albanians took the Jews in to their houses when the nazis were searching for jews to kill.

Also, before Isreal, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were living together in harmony in a land called Phalastine, and not Isreal. They were living in peace for centuries (regardless the fact that the jews were kicked out when the muslims conqured Jeursalem from the Roman Empire based on the order of the Patriarch of Jersualem who told Omar to kick them out because christians can not live together with the jews).

So, I beg you people read the whole book of history, instead of selecting what you think is suitable for you and what is not, or reading what agrees with your thoughts.

Here are my two cents.

I will not reply back.
12:52 February 5, 2010 by glamshek
If Muslims saved the jews from Hitler's brutalities, should the world support Palestinian Muslims or Jews and Hitlers? The response of good has become an evil?

Why? Moreover, why didn't the Western nations had the courage to say No to Hitler? They (UN) instead orchestrated the mass exodus of jews into Palestine. Why doesn't the world realize this? It's not about about revenge rather it's a very valid and sympathetic question from all who support the Israel's autonomy and existence.
15:03 February 9, 2010 by Audrian
Targetting civilians deliberately is terrorism. It is against international law. Hitlers action towards towards Jews, Polish and Roma people is a criminal offense of a formidable magnitude.

Civilians deaths that are foreseeable and inevitable by Israeli military actions is the same as death of civilians by Hamastargetting them. International law regards both equally criminal offenses. Bringing the Holucost as an excuse to steal Platestenianian land and kill its children is abomination.
19:19 February 9, 2010 by engagebrain
05:50 February 4, 2010 by Typical Whitey

And please, there is absolutley no comparison to the so-called Palestinians. First of all there is no such person (they are Jordanian) and secondly they have refused to recognize Israel, rather doing everything possible to eliminate the Jewsih state.

The British occupied a coutry called Palestine, which I assume makes the inhabitants Palestinians.

While the Palestinians have not been destroyed we must accept that they have been treated very badly by both the Jewish state and the neighbouring Arab states.

That many are still in refugee camps after 60 years is an affront to human dignity and that the preceding poster seeks to deny their identity is simply wrong.
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