The Nazi-Themed Sign At The Packard Plant Is Down. Was It Art Or A Slur?

February 05, 2013, 11:24 PM by  Bill McGraw

The letters at the Packard Plant that replicated the slogan over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp have come down.

Two people showed up at Detroit's biggest industrial ruin at the same time Tuesday to perform their personal demolition job on placards that spelled out the German words "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- "Work Makes You Free." The sign, first reported by Niraj Warikoo in the Free Press, outraged many in both metro Detroit's Jewish community and beyond. The identity of the people who put it up and their motivation are unknown. 

One of the persons who climbed up into the covered bridge that spans East Grand Boulevard was 46-year-old Randy Wilcox of Harper Woods, who runs, a photo blog that chronicles Detroit's quirky landscape. 

"This story needs to be made into a 'teachable moment' because a lot of people were really hurt by it," Wilcox said.

"People in our Jewish community are especially outraged, as would be expected. I just think the damn thing was a hate crime, and domestic terrorism. I don't believe the people that did it thought it was free and clear of Nazi association and that the sign was an artistic comment on the condition of Detroit. Did you notice the font on the sign? The inverse 'B' is straight off the Auschwitz gate." 

Some people posted comments on the Facebook page that argued the sign was not a neo-Nazi statement, but perhaps an artistic comment on Detroit, or work, or the 3.5-million-square foot Packard facility itself, which is a symbol of industrial decline and one of the nation's largest factory ruins. 

Posting a sign that says "Work Makes You Free" over E. Grand Boulevard also can be seen as a harsh commentary given the neighborhood, one of the poorest in a poor city, where unemployment is rampant.

"It was anti-capitalism or anti-neoliberal. It has nothing to do with anti-semitism. I think some here really missed the point," said Sean Jagodzinski.

"Work makes you free. Stop working, slaves," said Thaddeus Besedin on Facebook, who asserted the sign was a satire. "You see how the factory system itself is not unlike a concentration camp. It doesn't seem that 'Nazi punks' are behind the sign."

Said Wilcox: "The Nazi symbolism is too strong to ever recontextualize or repurpose. It is too loaded and too charged - nobody can touch any of that stuff, unless they are talking about World War II  and the original context. Doesn't matter what it meant or how it was used before the Nazis. Same with the Swastika, it was ruined for all of history by the Nazis. It has a past in many cultures around the world, but no future other than being the Nazi symbol."

Wilcox said the placards were fastened firmly to the structure.

"Sixteen-gauge wire wrapped around eye bolts, with nylon zip ties mixed in. I cut the zip ties with my knife and used a claw hammer to break the wire. Had to pull them in carefully so they didnt fall on the road, that wasnt easy.. Another guy was there, had the exact same idea, and even had a claw hammer. So he came up and helped."

He said his action was nothing out of the ordinary.

"Detroit is in such a state that people have to pitch in and do stuff. Parks, cutting grass, boarding up houses etc. I do that sort of pitching in too, but its stuff like taking down this sign - usually something more like finding and reporting a broken water main.

"I didn't want this image of this sign to go nationwide or international, because it is that kind of thing that they would report on in Russia, Saudi Arabia. . . . Germany. Israel. I decided to publish my photos and talk about taking the sign down to steal thunder away from whoever did it, and turn the control back around to our side. Now it is a story about some guy getting rid of a massively inappropriate sign. That is better than everyone gawking at the sign for weeks, and filling the Flickr pages with photos of it."

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