“In Germany they came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left
to speak up for me.”
The title asks a question that is really a false choice. Work is honorable. It is enjoyed by many and avoided by some. But work really has nothing to do with the question. The phrase “Work Shall Set You” is the English translation of the German phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” which infamously appears on numerous German Nazi Concentration camps most notably Auschwitz. Made by the prisoners themselves, this sign greeted the millions who came to work and die in the camps as well as those who went directly to be exterminated in the gas chambers of the camps.
The obvious irony was that the only freedom that could be earned in the camps was in the form of being worked to death. Those running the camps knew the cruel deception that the signs implied. The hope that all these humans could muster, in the face of being uprooted from their homes and lives, was to be crushed in an instant as they undressed and walked naked before their cruel tormentors into the gas chambers. After this monstrous evil had been committed, in a systematic process, fellow prisoners sorted the possessions of those who had perished while other prisoners carted the bodies to the crematoriums. This level of horror is so enormous that its truth could only be presented as a deception. Human beings are not built to accept that our normalcy could be upended by an evil as immense as the Holocaust.
Imagine yourself having 10 minutes to collect your most treasured or necessary possessions as armed soldiers led you from your home. If given any information, it would have been vague, troublesome, and delivered coldly by those who understood your fate, as they insulated themselves from the emotional impact of their actions. Riding for days in a cattle car, your anxiety would be escalating until you arrived into the chaos of the camps. The culling of the useful from the infirm, old, or young, was done swiftly but with a softer touch, to reaffirm the good intentions of the captors.
Recall the Doctor at the Auschwitz camp in the movie Schindler’s List. In a historically correct depiction, he is examining the women from Schindler’s group who have mistakenly been sent to Auschwitz instead of the factory where they were supposed to have been delivered. In a calming, understanding voice, knowing his decisions mean life or death for the unsuspecting, he gently questions the older women in the group. From the script:
If you were a grandmother at Auschwitz with your young grandchild, you would have probably gone directly to the gas chambers. Informed you were taking a shower, you would clutch your crying grandbaby tightly to your naked breast. If you were close to the gas intakes, death was almost immediate. If you were screaming, or if a child were crying, death again would have been quicker. Those nearer the doors would last as long as they could hold their breath. After 30 minute or so, the bodies covered in excrement, vomit, and some blood would have been taken to the crematories.
Those possessions you had grabbed, as you were plucked from your home, ended up in sorting buildings. Items you needed like you’re comb or a brush, your eye-glasses, and your clothes were sent back to Germany for use by the German population. Valuable items like jewelry often ended in the hands of the masters of the camp. Items you cherished like your family photos, proving you had lived, loved, and existed, were destroyed. The ashes from your body ended up in a thousand different places: farm fields; ponds; rivers; and forests. Anywhere they could be scattered or wherever the wind carried the ashes that fell from the smokestacks.
The German people who were paraded through the concentration camps after the Allies had liberated those camps had some level of understanding of what was going on in those camps. But they chose to ignore the reality, or justify the necessity of the camps for some reason whether it was the war, protection of the prisoners, economic realities, the moral depravities of some of the internees, or the fear that many of the prisoners were indeed enemies of the fatherland. Of course after seeing the camps, they could then say they didn’t know, and certainly didn’t understand the extreme nature of the camps.
But they had lived in Germany and had seen how the Jews and countless others had been exposed and marginalized. Good decent German citizens had watched as their neighbor’s property was confiscated; their businesses were closed; or had seen their neighbors forcibly removed from their homes. Remember it all started with a broken window or a Star of David painted on a door. How could a country of the world’s smartest, most industrious, and decent people end up being the architects of the Holocaust?
Words are used to comfort and to deceive. The use of the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the “Cage” portion of the statue are meant to remind us that a phrase as truthful, as hopeful, or even as innocuous, as Work Shall Set You Free, can be used to deceive us. Deceit is the essence of evil because it lulls us into a sense of complacency as it hides its true nature. In our day and age, we look at the face of evil in the apparently crazed terrorist who calls us an infidel and would burn us alive. This is evil, but it is honest evil since it makes no excuses and refuses to hide its face.
The Holocaust represents the higher order of evil. Evil that systematically prepares its people to accept, tolerate, or at least ignore what is easily understood but willfully ignored. The bigger the lie, the more willing we are to believe it. The larger the evil, the more willing we are to ignore it. Our decency compels us to reject what a psychopathic leader finds so easy to accommodate within his or her worldview. So how do we prevent our inherent decency from leading us down the path of destruction?
The answer on the statue is found at the bottom of the hand where these words appear: THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE. This phrase originates from the Bible and has been incorporated in innumerable settings in academia, business, law, and politics. I do not us this phrase to make a theological statement, nor to even make the standard academic statement related to seeking true knowledge or facts, to which no sane person should object. I don’t even use it to mean the big picture, objective truths of reality provided by science.
This statement, the Truth Shall Set You Free is a conclusion. Truth will be defined by each of us differently, subjectively. Does it mean there are no objective truths? Certainly not. But on a personal level, our ability to see truth in our lives is so filtered through our own experience and biases, that what we see as truth may not be “the truth” but some shade of “the truth”. The central value in the Truth Shall Set You Free, is that our willingness to actually question whether we possess the truth on an issue, does actually set us free. It is our awareness that we don’t possess all truth and that neither does anyone else, that allows us to get closer to the truth. Being closer to a state of objectivity rather than subjectivity, it throws out the burden of being right on everything. It helps us listen to others with whom we disagree rather than demonizing them. It prevents us from blindly following ideas or people that we shouldn’t follow. Instead of undermining our shared humanity, it strengthens it.
Several years ago I made my second visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. This second visit was with my children. It was as moving as the first time. During both visits, the greatest emotional impact was the combination of sight and smell one experiences walking through the cattle car and walking into the hall of shoes. The cattle car stands out because of the old, wooden, musty smell and the tangibility of walking into a real item of history. No imagination is needed. But the hall of shoes personalizes what the cattle car generalized. These are not brash, synthetic, vibrantly colored shoes like we wear today. Rather, they are European styled shoes from that period that are bent, twisted, worn, unmatched, and mildewing. The correlation to the piles of broken bodies found at the death camps is obvious and powerful. It is that musty smell that sears the visual realization that real people wore these shoes and that this is all that tangibly remains to testify to their horrific extermination. It is always sobering to realize the thousands of worthless items that we possess which will outlive us.
But these shoes, should serve as a reaffirmation of the phrase, THE TRUTH SHALL SET US FREE, because it demonstrates that evil can rear its ugly head anywhere with any group of people. Only by being eternally vigilant to the limits of our ability to see the truth, are we more likely to discover it. Correspondingly, the more of us that seek the truth, the more likely we are to act upon it. Either way, freedom is its fruit. Seeking the truth, as always is up to you. Thou Mayest!
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. – Henry David Thoreau
And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. – Talmud