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Geography in the News: Auschwitz Remembered

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and Maps.com

Auschwitz Remembered As Ultra-Nationalists Target Minorities

Once more, ultra-nationalist parties are becoming more involved in Europe’s politics. The world is watching, as news media focus on right wing parties that recently targeted minorities in Hungary. These events remind us of events in Europe prior to and during World War II.

In late December 2009, the infamous sign above the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland was stolen. The sign, which was quickly recovered, reads “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work makes you free.” It is a potent reminder of the atrocities that occurred at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.


The Holocaust refers to the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis during World War II. Between 1942 and the end of the war in 1945, six million Jews across Europe were executed or were intentionally starved by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government. The Nazis exterminated 2.5 million Jews at the Auschwitz prison.

The former city of Auschwitz sits at the heart of densely populated, agricultural and industrialized southern Poland. Two cities, Krakow to the east and Katowice to the north, represent the two most important industrial centers of southern Poland, producing chemicals, iron, steel and heavy machinery. Large coal deposits nearby made much of this industry possible.

The Nazis chose Auschwitz because Jewish labor could be redirected to Polish manufacturing deemed necessary for the war. Most young men were conscripted for forced labor in nearby industries. The Nazis executed most of the women, children, sick and elderly who were not as capable of hard work.

Although early in the war, firing squads killed many Jews, most (and several other minorities) were sent to Auschwitz or another nearby death camp, Birkenau, known for its efficiency in killing by poison gas. There they were killed and their bodies cremated in the coal-fired ovens (furnaces).

There were 22 Nazi concentration centers scattered across Europe at the height of the war. Auschwitz, like most of the camps, was located on a rail line not easily visible. The Nazis attempted to make the death camps as inconspicuous as possible by locating them in small towns near industrial cities. Other notorious examples of death camps include Dachau near Munich and Buchenwald near Leipzig in Germany.

Hitler’s Nazis planned to exterminate Europe’s entire Jewish population. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, government-supported persecution of Germany’s Jews began almost immediately. The German invasion of Poland in 1939, then Belgium, Denmark, France, Norway, the Netherlands and France in 1940, and Greece, Yugoslavia and Russia in 1941 allowed the Nazis to take control of most of Europe’s Jewish population. Most European Jews were urban dwellers, and the Nazis methodically rounded them up and sent them to the concentration camps. Approximately two thirds of the continent’s Jews were exterminated.

Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, commemorated annually around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Poland founded a museum on the Auschwitz site in 1947. The solemn 65-year anniversary of the liberation will be observed in this year.

When five men stole the “Arbeit macht frei” sign, Polish officials declared a state of emergency. They tightened border controls and conducted random police checks attempting to locate the missing sign. When police found it in a nearby home, the sign had been chopped into three pieces and was purportedly going to be sold.

Prisoners at Auschwitz originally cast the bronze sign. It served as a cynical welcome to new inmates arriving at the death camp. Today, the sign stands as a powerful symbol of the suffering that millions endured at Auschwitz. Its theft and subsequent return remind the world that such atrocities should never occur again.

And that is Geography in the News™. January 15, 2010. #1024.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.


This is a revised version of GITN 1024 Auschwitz Remembered, originally posted on Maps.com’s Map101 education package on Jan. 15, 2010. Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101.com, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.


  1. Graham Bridgeman- Clarke
    February 4, 8:48 am

    Regret your German translation is incorrectRichard. Direct translation is Work Makes Free not made. Like signs in the camp saying baths the sign was made to let the prisoners think they could work and live. Recommend you get a copy of Auswitz on Audible which was written by a Jewish doctor who was impression end there and explains how the nazis lied continually to the prisoners.

  2. Richard M. Popielarz
    United States
    May 11, 2013, 10:06 am

    “Arbeit Macht Frei” actually means “Work Made Free,” therefore, an allusion to slave labor.