Friday, December 25, 2009

ARBEIT MACHT FREI


The recent theft of the iconic sign over the entrance to Auschwitz is so rich in ironies that -- well, you just can't make these things up.

The Polish thieves were caught, and the sign found -- cut in three pieces, separating  work from freedom so the heist would fit in the car. Apparently not neo-Nazis, they stole to sell, such work, no doubt, promising them Freiheit in the form of cash. We don't know much about them, except that they all had previous arrests for theft. Given that record, it is unlikely they were patriots taking belated revenge on their occupiers. More likely workers trying to make work work. But they drove a sports car. Hmmm.

The Nazi use of the sign was complex. As with the overall psy-ops used to control panic, Auschwitz greeted the prisoners -- and the world -- as a work camp. That the work was extermination was kept secret as long as possible, right up to the end with the German attempt to destroy incriminating evidence.

But clearly those in the know, those giving the orders to build the sign, must have gotten a sadistic, sardonic chuckle about the offer for freedom, the freedom of smoke, possibly in the next world.

Painfully related -- if to a lesser degree -- is the hypocrisy of political and cultural cant about work here in depression America. "Get a job!" drive-bys occasionally yell at us at our nightly anti-war vigil. As if there were jobs to be had. "Welfare queens" cheating good, hard-working Americans of their hard-earned wages.  "Illegals" taki
ng jobs. If not for the poor, work would make us free. The myth.

One of the ironies, both here, and in Poland is that work (no longer available) might actually make some of us free to do something other than join the military out of desperation. It might, that is, if government bailout funds were used to create jobs, not to pay CEOs huge salaries. Or if banks actually used the money they've stolen from taxpayers to make loans to small employers. Or if larger employers didn't lower wages and benefits, or ship jobs overseas to maximize profit. Work separated from freedom -- our unstated M.O.

But given the goals our profits-above-all system pursues, administration in and administration out, work is not likely to make us free, and the sign above America has much the same truth-value as the sign stolen from Oświęcim.

When I visited the camp back in '73, I did notice a peculiarity in the famous sign. The "B" is upside down. Perhaps not.  German design at the time was quite visionary. Nevertheless, were the B to be flipped, its horizonal would match the "E" that follows it, and place the bulk more stably below. But I think it's in there wrong way up.

I wrote a poem about it at the time:

ARBEIT MACHT FREI

And so it does.
Even the mad, ironic gate to Auschwitz
proclaims the possibility of freedom.

Some Jewish slave, no doubt
at work constructing self-destruction,
but defiant, free until the last,
has turned the B in Arbeit
bottom-up --
a statement well past the ken of smoke-filled eyes
and uncorrected since.

Look deeply at this gate.
When all has come undone
what does it show?

The last will always, finally, be first,
the low, at last, inevitably, be high.

The worst may be the prelude to the best.
The earth is ever nuzzled by the sky.


And so we continue with our little gestures of defiance until the Great Power trips and falls.

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