'Arbeit Macht Frei': Nazi Slogans Show Up at Illinois Rally Protesting Coronavirus Lockdown

Woman photographed carrying the sign at a rally against the policies of Illinois' governor, who is Jewish

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Protesters rally against Illinois stay-at-home order in downtown Chicago, Friday, May 1, 2020.
Protesters rally against Illinois stay-at-home order in downtown Chicago, Friday, May 1, 2020.Credit: Nam Y. Huh,AP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The use of an infamous Nazi slogan featured on the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in an Illinois protest against coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, along with other Nazi imagery, has sparked widespread condemnation. 

The phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" was photographed Friday on a sign at the "Re-open Illinois" demonstration and posted on Twitter. The woman carrying the sign was wearing an American flag face mask and, according to the tweet, denied being a Nazi, asserting that she has "Jewish friends."

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“Arbeit Macht Frei,” a German phrase meaning "work sets you free", was famously featured atop the iron gates at the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as other Nazi concentration camps.

The phrase was adopted by one of the demonstrators resisting the stay-at-home order issued by Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which is set to remain in effect until May 31. Friday's demonstration was one in a series of protests across the country aimed at pressuring governors to lift sweeping restrictions, "open" their economies, and allow businesses to return to full operation.

The use of a phrase with such a painful history was criticized by the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, which said that the slogan was part of the "false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners," adding that it was "painful to see this symbol instrumentalized and used again to spread hate." The museum indicated that the incident is "a symptom of moral and intellectual degeneration."

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee tweeted that the use of the phrase was "Shocking. Shameful. Sickening."

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, an Illinoise native, called the sign "disgusting."

Another protester was photographed with a sign featuring a swastika and the words "Heil Pritzker" in reference to Governor Pritzker, who is Jewish.

Pritzker’s chief of staff Anna Caprara responded to the tweets, saying that the protesters should not portray themselves as champions of liberty "when thse signs along with the ones portraying Illinois' Jewish Gov, whose family came to Chicago fleeing pogroms, as Hitler seem to be a staple at today's protests." She added, "You can protest a policy you don't like without being ragingly bigoted."

In Illinois, the use of Nazi phrases and symbols hit a particularly sensitive nerve, after a Holocaust denier and former leader of the Nazi party, Arthur Jones, won the Illinois Republican nomination for a Chicago-area congressional seat in the 2018 midterms. Jones ran unopposed in the party primary and was soundly defeated in the general election.

Illinois has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with over 56,000 testing positive for the virus and more than 2,400 deaths.

Signs with Nazi imagery have appeared at other anti-quarantine protests over the past month. On April 18, a Cleveland journalist tweeted an image of a sign showing a rat, a Star of David and the words "the real plague" at an Ohio protest against coronavirus restrictions.

At an "Open Michigan" rally against the lockdown orders of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, demonstrators held a sign that said "Heil Whitmer".

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