‘Arbeit Macht Frei’

Last night on the History Channel, I watched the film, ‘Schindler’s List.’  I hadn’t planned on watching the film, but turned on the television at 9 p.m. and found the masterpiece playing.  It was played straight, with no commercials – a recognition of its importance.

I have seen it many times, but every time I watch it I feel like I get something new from it.  Last night was no different.

Originally, I had planned on going to bed early.  It had been a long week. But, with the house dark, I sat up, wrapped myself in blankets and watched the film in its entirety. And then after the movie was finished, I could not sleep.  I pulled out my laptop and began to write.  Images of my trip to Auschwitz ran rampid in my mind.  I stayed up long into the night and wrote a scene – it has no connection to my grandfather’s story, but I write it in the same style that I have been writing in prior posts… so here it is…

 ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’

The decision to get off in Krakow or more importantly Auschwitz, instead of heading directly to Bratislava and then up to Banska Bystrica was another ‘impulse thing’.  We were on our way to Bratislava and I was nestled nicely into my cabin seat, ready to sleep the overnight ride away, when Cait burst into the cabin, returning from the dining car, and said, ‘Let’s get off in Krakow.’  She had been going through our train map and seemed quite adamant about the idea.  Originally I was hesitant about it, going to a place I seemed to fear, but having not said no to any prior spontaneity, and again seeing her genuine enthusiasm I agreed. Cait explained her desire by repeating what has seemed to become quite a popular phrase, ‘some write about what they can feel and touch.’

It seemed fitting that when we arrived at Birkenau, it was a dreary day.  The sun was nowhere to be found and the clouds hung just above the treetops that encircle the infamous tower, railway line and wooden barracks.  It was a first for us; since our arrival and our departure on our ‘little’ adventure, there has been nothing but heat and sunshine.  I should have been excited to have relief from the sun, but it was odd that very quickly I began to miss it.  Cait communicated the same thing.  The cloud cover that in my mind never dissipated from this place bore down on me and very quickly I felt as if I was in a nightmare.

'work shall set you free.'
‘work shall set you free.’

Ironically, in retrospect, if one can imagine that the sun does exist in Auschwitz, the countryside would be quite a beautiful place to spend one summer’s day.  The golden swath of grain fields, the babbling brooks, rivers and streams, the large green forests and cozy looking cottages are all encompassing as one drives the forty-five minutes to the concentration camp.  The same can be said for Krakow.  There are beautiful feats of architecture and craftsmanship; romantic courtyards, and tall church towers. There are market places to buy priceless treasures, little boutiques and restaurants to sit and sip a hot beverage and watch horse drawn carriages take tourists about.  Cobblestone streets are everywhere and seem to lead everyone to the Wawel Castle.  The castle that survived the war has had little changed over time and still to this day remains an icon of Polish stately life. The Renaissance period structure evokes a romantic charm despite the atrocities committed near to and in Krakow.  Everything here is overshadowed by darkness.

Wawel Castle
Wawel Castle
Market Square - largest medieval square in Europe & St. Mary's Basillica
Market Square – largest medieval square in Europe & St. Mary’s Basillica
main square
main square

Cait asked me, while in the little red Volkswagen we rented, if my ‘Grandfather showed any signs of remorse about his time during the war, or if he seemed to struggle with certain topics?’  I told her ‘yes, but mostly it was I who struggled with the subject matter.’  My answer to her continuous questions reinforced her thought that I needed to see the infamous gate, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ and that I needed to breathe in the air and touch the cold iron of the railway tracks.


We arrived early in the morning and chose not to follow a guided tour.  I felt it almost inconsiderate for some reason; I don’t think that anymore.  We began with the main compound of the camp, known as Auschwitz I.  This portion housed the main barracks and the central offices.  Auschwitz Birkenau was a couple miles up the road and would be our next stop.  We walked through each red-bricked building.  We saw the room full of suitcases, satchels and bags that were stripped from the detainees as soon as they arrived off the train.  On the suitcases, the owner’s had written their name, town and address; ‘Klara from Hamburg or Sacha from Bucharest.’  We saw the room full of shoes; high heels, leather strapped sandals and baby shoes.  We walked by the forty by twenty foot glass encased room full of hair that was shaved off of each person upon arrival.  When the Soviets liberated the camp in 1945, it is said, that they discovered over 7000 kilograms of human hair.  Outside we continued by the ‘black wall’ in the red-bricked courtyard, between blocks ten and eleven.  The ‘black wall’ was where public executions took place.  The Nazis constructed this ‘wall’ out of logs and covered it in cork and black paint.  With the outer edges angled in, the wall protected the ‘beautiful’ red bricks behind it from fired bullets.  In this courtyard, resistors were made example of to the rest of the camp.  We heard and read their stories that are collected and stored in the room just off from the courtyard.

We walked along the tall, once electrified fences and I thought it was odd to see green grass, large poplar trees lining the streets and planted flowers outside of each red bricked building.  What was even more peculiar was to learn that the flowers, grass and trees were something that was always present during the camp’s operation.  The Nazis planted the trees and flowers because they ‘loved’ nature.  I heard a tour guide explaining that ‘this is why the grass was always cut and the flower beds were always weeded and kept.’  There truly was a type of elegance to the camp.  Cait interjected that besides the electric fences, striped pyjamas and wooden shoes the camp resembled a university campus.  ‘Perhaps like Cambridge or some Ivy League school in the States,’ she said.  I told her that it reminded me of my Oma’s garden.

Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I

Despite the couple hundred people that were roaming through the grounds, the camp remained quiet.  I think the silence was out of respect for the lives lost, but also because of the recognition and discovery that human kind is capable of such atrocities.  Words from one of my classmates, from way back at the University of Winnipeg pops into my head, ‘World War Two would not have been possible without Adolf Hitler, but the ability to ‘liquidate’ six million Jews would not have been possible without all of Europe.’  My pulse began to quicken, I began to feel that restless itch, like I wanted to run.  Under the cool cloud cover I could feel sweat on my brow, under my arms and across my chest.  Suddenly as I was leaving the last of the red-bricked buildings I felt Cait’s fingers intertwine with mine.

Auschwitz I
Auschwitz I

In silence we entered our little red car and drove the few miles to Birkenau.  This is where the appearance of Auschwitz is most known.  We walked beneath the watchtower and I could still feel Cait’s fingers locked with mine.  The tracks continued past the building.  When the train would arrive, the prisoners were lined up and registered.  Then the belongings were stripped.  After being stripped, an inspection of each prisoner was taken by an SS ‘doctor’.  It was this man that determined the immediate fate of the individual.  To the left was the barracks and work detail, to the right was the gas chamber.  The elderly, women and children were sent to this line.  During its operation, Auschwitz murdered over one million people, the entire population of Manitoba.

Auschwitz II - 'The Tower'
Auschwitz II – ‘The Tower’

Cait and I continued down the tracks.  To our right were remaining barracks, to our left more barracks.  They seemed to stretch for miles.  Before fleeing the advancing Russians at the end of the war, the Germans destroyed the gas chambers, but you can still see where they once stood.


Auschwitz II - Barracks
Auschwitz II – Barracks

A forest lies at the end of the tracks, where I have read the Germans tested out their ‘zyklon B’ gas on Jews and Soviet POWs in little cottages far away from the rest of the camp – fearful of what the response might be.  Once we reached the end of the tracks we sat down on the metal rails.  I leaned my head against Cait’s shoulder and looked back in the direction of the watchtower.  We sat there for a while until it started to rain.  Cait then by the hand led me back to our car.


She drove us back to Krakow…

“So did you have any family here during the war?”  Cait asks as she down shifts and passes a blue Opel.  There is an echoing of rain drops on the windshield.

“No, I know for a fact no one from my family was anywhere near this place during the war,”  I reply.  I look at her and can see she is phrasing her next question.

“Then why the fear?”  She asks.  “You have been very quiet?”

I choose my words carefully, “This is it,” I reply.

“What do you mean?”  she asks again.

“Life; this is where it ends.  This is the endgame.  This is where every politician, SS officer, German soldier, police officer, farmer, or neighbour who didn’t object when their former friends were stripped of their property and sent here; this is where they saw their work come to an end.  This place is the final stop.”  I say.

“I don’t understand?” she continues.

“Don’t you see, this was an entire peoples; lets ignore the rest of Europe for a second and focus on Germany.  This is my family, my heritage.  Everything we did together was surrounded by this culture.  Our Christmas traditions, our church services, my Oma’s yard and our daily expressions, my Opa and I had our own little language of sayings and mannerisms, and I embraced it.  When someone in our family rejoiced they sang a German hymn, when we were sad or upset we expressed ourselves in various German sayings.  It is a culture that has woven itself into my life and I loved it.  How do I now embrace a culture when it leads to this place?”  I respond.

Cait takes her hand from the stick shift and grasps my fingers. A light patter of rain begins once again on the windshield.


4 Replies to “‘Arbeit Macht Frei’”

    1. Yes! I totally agree. There are so many wonderful things about my family heritage and German culture that I hold close to my heart. I love the food (spaetzle, schnitzel), the beer, the German foothills, the language, and the little mannerisms. While I travelled and studied and immersed myself in the Second World War and my grandfather’s story I got lost in the darkness. It is very important to see and acknowledge both sides. Thank you for the comment!

  1. The Nazis planted the trees and flowers because they ‘loved’ nature. I heard a tour guide explaining that ‘this is why the grass was always cut and the flower beds were always weeded and kept.’

    Interesting point you mention. I heard an interview by English bombers during the war and they mentioned that even when German army barracks were camouflaged they were still visible from the air because the soldiers planted rows of flowers along the edges of their sleeping quarters.


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