Do you know the connotations behind the German phrase, "ARBEIT MACHT FREI"?
A sophomore at a top twenty university, I had no idea until a public art installation catapulted the phrase to the forefront of my entire university's attention. The three contentious German words were duct taped to the arch of a bridge connecting one side of Vanderbilt University's campus to another. Walking through the arch, I noticed the duct taped words on the wall, but -- like many of my classmates -- I failed to understand their significance.
Suddenly, the art installation was featured in the student newspaper and the Vanderbilt University Provost, Richard McCarty sent out an e-mail reminding the entire student body that "our university deplores any language that intimidates, causes pain, or degrades any person."
For those of you still unaware of the severe implications of posting that phrase to a wall, allow me to fill you in. "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" were the three words that stood above the gate through which prisoners entered Auschwitz. The words were constructed by forced laborers skilled in metalwork and erected by Nazi order in 1940. The bottom round of the 'B' in "ARBEIT" is smaller than the top round arousing suspicions that the metal workers deliberately made this mistake as a warning to incoming prisoners.
Discovering the profoundly dark connotation of "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" made me shiver. First of all, I am Jewish and the memory of the Holocaust continues to haunt our entire community. That said, has our generation let an instance of twisted Nazi humor that disparaged the six million slip from our memories so soon? How could I not know the meaning of that phrase? I could blame myself, but I wasn't alone in my ignorance. Many of my classmates were likewise oblivious. The artist himself claims he did know that "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" are three words irrevocably tied to an ideology that swept six million people off the face of this earth. An engineering student from Kentucky, he claims that he just "wanted to get people thinking and talking about the idea that work makes us free" as if anything could ever release the phrase of its' dark connotations.
Education efforts everywhere need to be redoubled if students at the university with the oldest Holocaust lecture series do not understand the connotations behind "ARBEIT MACHT FREI."
Holocaust education should not be a choice. Every university student and perhaps every conscientious citizen should understand the kind of edifice that allowed for death camps that killed millions if we want to prevent future Holocausts and "never forget."
As Eli Wiesel wrote in Night, his book on surviving the holocaust, "To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time." I shudder at the thought that we would let such a travesty occur.