“Arbeit Macht Frei”: A Reflection of My Day at Auschwitz

(Photo credit to Taka)

Established in 1988, The Holocaust Educational Trust was created to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today. Chipping Campden School’s History Department organised for two of our A Level students to be school ambassadors, traveling to Auschwitz to learn more about the Holocaust. What follows is one student’s experience.


“Arbeit macht frei” – work sets you free. This was inscribed on the gate as we approached the path into Auschwitz I, the same path that more than a million Jews, political prisoners, Roma, gays, and other forms of so-called “untermensch” (inferior life) walked through. Reading the sign, the word that I contemplated was “free”. The Nazis didn’t intend to use “Frau” in the sense that you or I would imagine. Instead they had the ultimate form of freedom in mind: death.

Unfortunately, no photos or descriptions can truly describe the sense of horror that these ordinary-looking buildings in the photo attached possesses; how they can invoke unique feelings of fear and distil an incredible feeling of unease. The unremarkable façade hides evidence of some of the most horrific events in human history. The deception is made complete by this aura of respectability. The juxtaposition between the regular-looking buildings, shoes, clothes and personal belongings at Auschwitz was disturbingly prevalent; what looked ordinary or indifferent often had stories of unique suffering behind them.

The outline of our trip started off by firstly visiting the well-preserved Auschwitz I camp in the morning, followed by visiting the second, larger camp; Auschwitz Birkenau. Birkenau differed from the other camp of Auschwitz I as very little remained. The barracks at Birkenau were predominantly constructed out of wood, which provided a quick solution to the problem caused by the sudden influx of inmates. Consequently, it was very easy for the Nazis to destroy the evidence at Birkenau and only a few of the barracks weren’t set ablaze.

After finishing the tour of Auschwitz I, we went on a short bus drive to the second, and larger, ad hoc camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The layout was just as systematic. The design was to make death as efficient as possible. Arriving at Birkenau, a photo of pre-WWII Jewish life struck me: a mother and daughter embracing each other in their garden. They looked so innocent and joyful. However, once they were transported to Birkenau, they would have undoubtedly have been immediately sent to the queue on the right along with 80% of other arrivals. These were the undesirables and un-profitable ones – according to the Nazis. Therefore, they were sent for immediate extermination. Just like they were embracing in the photo, they would have been embraced each other as they walked to their inevitable death. All was taken from them: their dignity, hope, and freedom. All they had was each other.

During my course with the Holocaust Educational Trust, I had the opportunity to talk to survivor Rudi Oppenheimer and Rabbi Garson. When I interviewed them on whether contemporary lessons had been learnt, they gave me a stark: “No”. As a student of politics, I have been paying attention to the systematic rise in far-right politics, currently described as “populism”. From Trump to Weidel, Wilders to Hofer, their credo is regaining traction. There are subtle parallels with the 1940s. There is a migrant crisis – the largest since the Holocaust – this time Syria, whose population is demonised and feared. People die trying to cross the Mediterranean and become free… or “frau”. There are on average ten anti-Semitic attacks in the US alone in a single day. Clearly lessons haven’t been learnt. The genocide of six-million individuals should usher in the determination to ensure that this is never repeated. However, recent events do not indicate that this is happening. Regrettably, the lessons of the largest genocide in history are not getting through.

So, what is the solution? If we collectively reflect and actively try to change, we can begin to atone for the six-million who were sacrificed to this ultimate form of racism. To all forms of intolerance, society must say: “never again.”

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