Office of the President and Provost (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion)


Blog: Arbeit Macht Frei, by Michael Sulu, Co-chair of UCL’s Race Equality Steering Group

A write up of Michael Sulu and Toyin Agbetu's visit to Auschwitz

'On the 14th November 2022, Toyin Agbetu and I had the pleasure of representing UCL on an educational event called “Letters From Auschwitz” coordinated by the Holocaust Educational Trust. The overall aim of the event was to centre the historical effect and significance of antisemitism and then relate the historical persecution to the present day impact antisemitism can have on students through their university experience.

While I am not going to try and cover all the educational points that were delivered through attendance of the sessions (there are 3 sessions outside the trip to Auschwitz), I am going to reflect here on the experience of visiting the concentration camp.

Firstly, Toyin and I had vastly different background knowledge of this aspect of World War 2, probably due to our different areas of academic expertise, and this may have influenced what we ‘received’ from the visit. On arrival at Auschwitz 1 (first think I didn’t know, it was made up of three geographically distinct camps), you are greeted with a view of part of the camp, which looks a lot like any mid-century army barracks, and then funnelled through security (they have some antisemitic vandalism so precautions are taken to limit this). This initial view doesn’t prepare you for the weight of what follows. While I obviously knew that I was on a site where unbelievable atrocities had taken place, there was still not the sense that the physical space would be as emotive as it turned out to be.

Stop 1. The Entrance gate, along with the adorning message “Arbeit Macht Frei” which loosely translated means “Work Sets You Free”. This fundamentally changes the atmosphere as the realisation that this lie upon entrance was really designed to placate the arriving people, and a placated group is easier to murder. As an engineer there is a lot of discussion around the German stereotype of engineering efficiency, which is something you rapidly discover they adapted to include killing. The museum (in Auschwitz 1) itself does a really good job of juxtaposing the scale of the killing, through exhibits such as the ‘Book of Names’, a collection of hair (all dead bodies were shaved and their hair was washed and used as a material) and the collection of shoes, with individual stories created from survivor narratives and found information. We moved through Auschwitz 1, in a group that was sombre, sometimes shocked, and often saddened by the capability of humans to create division and commit horrific acts.

If Auschwitz 1 is a story of anything it seems to be as a testing ground for even larger scale murder which can be found at Auschwitz Birkenau (or Auschwitz 2) there we just saw the remains of the industrialised killing of Jewish people from all over Europe. Emotions rose from seeing the physical sites where people were sent to be killed on arrival or sent to be worked to death. A reflection on the whole trip left me with a sense that there were brief moments of levity, through stories of survival. However, the stories of survival could be summarised by individuals were treated horrifically but by a mixture of fortitude and luck they avoided being killed by the Nazi regime. There are no stories that are entirely positive.'

Michael Sulu, Co-chair, UCL's Race Equality Steering Group (RESG)