ARBEIT MACHT FREI
At the entrance gate of the camp there is a big notice-board which says: Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free). From every spot in the camp one can see a tall chimney like that of a big factory – the huge red column of the camp's crematorium. Between those two landmarks the prisoner's life is spent, from the moment when he loses his freedom, to the moment when he regains it, on his last ride in the coffin to the doors of the crematorium.
The administration of Auschwitz is big and rather complicated. The innumerable administration buildings and workshops are next to the camp's huts and barracks. Surrounding the camp for miles is a wide belt of farmland, whose owners have been deported. Far beyond the camp, some seven miles away, are the coal pits. And everywhere, on the surface of the earth and beneath it, the prisoners work. They work in the fields, build houses, hew coal, load and unload the trains. They produce goods of which only an infinitesimal part is used for the camp's needs, the rest being swallowed up by the army.
There are different ways of organising work. Auschwitz has worked out its own system, of which the slogan seems to be ‘demoniacal speed,' with the aim of wearing out the workers quickly and replacing them as often as possible with fresh ones. Therefore the most important product in the rich enterprise of Auschwitz is the smoke rising from the crematorium's chimney. Because Auschwitz – to put it shortly – is an institution for the ‘liquidation' of human beings. Until a short time ago, deaths were at the rate of fifty a day. Now it has reached an even higher number. There are sometimes days when the huge chimney cannot cope with all its work; and then spades must be called in to dig graves for the remaining bodies.
It is four o'clock in the morning. Dawn. The gong hanging near the gate will ring in half an hour's time for the morning reveille. But the barracks and huts are already full of movement. The prisoners pull themselves up from their pallets before their time, to be able to put on their clothes, put in order the straw mattresses and the blankets, to reach the overworked latrines, to dabble themselves with the water from the buckets, into which hundreds of hands dip in succession. Quicker, quicker – to avoid being punished for being late, to be in time to lap up from the basin, shared by three people, one's portion of coffee, and then to hurry into the yard for the morning roll call.
After that they run to their working parties and fall into rank. Those who are ordered to work in the ‘Holzhof' near the gong, go to the concrete factory, situated in the central hut in the yard. Some go to the coal mines, others to work in the fields. The prisoners scramble to their work. They hurry as if they were the fire brigade rushing to a fire. It had happened-especially in the early days, when the camp had just been organised – that some group had to carry sand to a certain place, and another had to carry it back. All to keep the tall chimney busy.
While the prisoners pass through the camp gate to a gay marching tune, played by the camp orchestra, their number is carefully checked. The rising sun looks down on this army of many thousands of men on the way to their daily tortures; the setting sun will see a decimated legion return, for every day a number of people die during their work.
On a spacious piece of ground, levelled amongst the rough hilly area, there advance, one after the other, wheelbarrows loaded with soil. They are pushed upwards by figures clad in striped, sack like overalls. There is, nevertheless, something strange in this ordinary sight. The wheelbarrows, piled up with clods of earth, move easily and quickly, as if pushed by a strong engine. Their movement is brisk and does not show any effort. But the human beings, pushing the wheelbarrows, cannot be classified as skilled. Their hands convulsively clutch the wooden handles, but their arms look limp and the muscles and veins show like thick rope in their thin arms. The exaggerated stooping of the bodies does not show an economy of strength, but is the result of utter exhaustion; the eyes, half closed, can only just see. The connection between the speed of the wheelbarrows and their sad pushers is regulated by the guard. Time after time the stick falls on the bent backs. Don't slacken! Quicker! In spite of the heavily loaded wheel-barrows, work must be done smartly-as at a gala performance. The prisoner struggles with muscles that refuse to work. If he can only stick it out until he reaches the place where the ground is almost even-if he can only manage the next fifty steps! 1, 2, 3, 4... over there, on that level bit of the way, it will be possible to breathe again, to relax the cramped grip of the hands. 1, 2, 3, 4... the wheelbarrow sways first to one side and then to the other. The stiff weakened hands, the numb feet, are not able to keep the load in balance. Strength is very closely related to skill. When the first gives way the second vanishes too. The guard is not interested in this relationship, but hits the guilty ones furiously. He drives on the herd of wheelbarrow-pushers, who become more and more bent under their burden. After an hour or two-perhaps even eight-the quick motion will not cease on the levelled ground, where a plant for artificial rubber is to be built. The sticks of the guards will see to that. Only one thing will be different-the kind of weariness of the prisoners, working with their last, fading strength. The weariness has grown to such an extent that it has changed into pain. Every part of the body has its own pain, that in the chest and back being particularly agonising. But towards the end of the day the race on the narrow, worn track will certainly be stopped once-or even more often. The staggering wheelbarrow at last loses its balance, when the hands can hold it no more. The clods of earth from the over-turned box are scattered next to the motionless prone body. The sticks of the guards are powerless to raise him. He is a man to whom work has given back his freedom. Arbeit macht frei.
The guard announces at the gate "a hundred and fifty men to dig potatoes." The S.S. man, receiving this report, meticulously counts the numbers in the ranks and makes a wry ironical face. It is indeed a queer detachment that goes to work in the early morning. The fiery tune of the orchestra cannot animate even their first steps. The prisoners hang their heads, their movements are uncertain, and their eyes are dim as if they were only, half-conscious. As they march from the yard and drag themselves along the road to the marching tune, they look like shadows, moving in some uncanny dream-walking dance.
These are men ordered for easier work; easy work does not require well-fed workers – they therefore are being given the corresponding 'light' ration. But it is not only for that reason that they have lost their human appearance; their former work underground and the loading of trains from the mines has changed them into mere shadows. In spite of the better though still not sufficient food at that time, nothing could stop their rapidly losing weight-several pounds every few days. A few weeks of this incredibly hard labour change even the strongest man into a pitiful wreck.
They are going to dig potatoes. Judging by normal standards, all of these men ought to be in bed. But the devilish system of Auschwitz squeezes the last shred of strength out of even emaciated half-sleeping bodies. The sticks are brandished over the bent men. The bony hands of the prisoners grope in the soil. Weak heads sway on thin necks; bodies creep on the ground, too weak to make use of the shaky legs.
Suddenly two of the figures lie down; they can't even creep any more. "Don't go to sleep! " the guard shouts, jumping from one to the other in the soft, turned-up soil. He does not use much energy, knowing that in a short time – perhaps even in a few days all these who cover the field today will have gone to the land of shadows. Having finished their task, they are doomed to feed the great chimney.
Every day the number of people who return alive from work, is smaller than the number which went out. When the reduction is too small, not reaching the number fixed by the Auschwitz statisticians, more successful machinery is put into operation.
The number of people who have been taken to Auschwitz is over 113,000.9 The average strength of the camp is about 30,000. Perhaps 7,000 people have come out of it. What has happened to the rest – the other 76,000?
The answer to this simple question is to be found in the three words that greet the prisoner every day: Arbeit macht frei – and the billows of smoke rising from the red chimney. Both these landmarks – the one, fixed at the gate of the camp, and the other, floating up to the sky – are equally eloquent.
9 The figures have been corrected according to German official camp-roll of March, 1943. See Note .