This is not the first time one of these notorious signs has been lifted from a concentration camp site. In 2009, the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the Auschwitz camp in Poland was cut out and whisked away by thieves. It triggered an international diplomatic incident and a massive hunt by Polish police. The sign was found three days later in the country's north, and authorities arrested a Swedish neo-fascist who, with a few accomplices, had attempted to pilfer this piece of Nazi history and had broken it into various parts to transport it.
"This is an attack on the remembrance of the Holocaust," said the president of Israel's Yad Vashem, the country's official Holocaust memorial site, at the time.
Dachau was one of the first concentration camps opened by the Nazi regime, established in this town northwest of Munich just five weeks after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. The site served as a model for future camps and a training center for Hitler's SS. Its first prisoners were communists, Social Democrats and other political opponents. Later, Dachau's population swelled to include a whole range of supposed undesirables, from Jehovah's Witnesses to homosexuals to gypsies and Jews.
Nazi scientists experimented on inmates in Dachau, injecting some with drugs, infecting others with diseases, testing humans' ability to ingest seawater. Inmates were put to forced labor — the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign itself was welded by imprisoned Jewish metal workers. And, of course, tens of thousands were slaughtered.
Between the camp's opening and its liberation by Allied forces in 1945, Dachau housed nearly 200,000 detainees. The number of those killed is unknown, but estimated to be around 50,000.
A U.S. general described the scene as American forces approached the camp:
The scene near the entrance to the confinement area numbed my senses. Dante's Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of Dachau. A row of small cement structures near the prison entrance contained a coal-fired crematorium, a gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses. As I turned to look over the prison yard with unbelieving eyes, I saw a large number of dead inmates lying where they had fallen in the last few hours or days before our arrival. Since all the many bodies were in various stages of decomposition, the stench of death was overpowering.
Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish intellectual who survived a year in Auschwitz, puzzled over the chilling phrase inscribed on the gates of this living hell. He figured its "meaning is ironic, springing from the heavy, arrogant, funereal wit to which only Germans are privy." Levi went on:
The camps were ... an anticipation of the future assigned to Europe in Nazi planning. In the light of these considerations, phrases such as the one at Auschwitz, "Work makes free," or the one at Buchenwald, "To each his own," take on a precise and sinister meaning. They are, in their turn, an anticipation of the new tablets of the Law, dictated by master to slave, and valid only for the slave.If Fascism had prevailed, the whole of Europe would have been transformed into a complex system of forced labour and extermination camps, and those cynically edifying words would have been read on the entrance to every workshop and every worksite.