Auschwitz Museum condemns Nazi slogan at ‘Re-open Illinois’ protest

The Auschwitz Museum and Memorial condemned a protester who brought a sign featuring the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” to a rally against Illinois’s stay-at-home orders.

The museum’s official Twitter account responded to a photograph from the “Re-open Illinois” protest, which showed a woman wearing an American flag face mask while carrying a sign reading “Arbeit macht frei, JB.”

The initials appear to be directed to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), who is Jewish.

“‘Arbeit macht frei’ was a false, cynical illusion the SS gave to prisoners of #Auschwitz. Those words became one of the icons of human hatred. It’s painful to see this symbol instrumentalized & used again to spread hate. It’s a symptom of moral & intellectual degeneration,” the tweet reads.

The German phrase meaning “work sets you free” was the slogan displayed at a number of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. 

The photograph was taken by a registered nurse named Dennis Kosuth, who posted it on Twitter, where it quickly went viral.

In a phone call with The Hill on Saturday, Kosuth said he attended the Chicago rally with other nurses to act as peaceful counterprotesters.

He said he originally did not plan on engaging with any of the participants but could not help but ask the woman if she knew the origins of her sign.

“I asked, ‘Do you know what that stands for? Are you a Nazi?’” Kosuth recalled.

He said the woman responded that she wasn’t a Nazi and had friends who were Jewish.

“I couldn’t deal with her. I was so disturbed by it,” he said, adding that he snapped the photo when the other nurses he was with began confronting her.

Mary Bowman, a nurse practitioner who was also at the protest, confirmed the authenticity of the picture to The Hill, saying she was the one arguing with the sign-holder.

“We weren’t really wanting to engage with the protesters but then I saw a literal Nazi and it was too hard not to respond to that,” Bowman said. 

Bowman added that there was a “strange cross-section” of people attending the protest, including many wearing gear and holding signs supporting President Trump. 

Several nurses brought signs of their own, including one banner that read: “Nurses are dying, go home.”  

Kosuth said he went to the protest dressed in scrubs while carrying a sign reading “Hazard pay for all” to offer “a different narrative” for those protesting against coronavirus containment measures.

He noted that while he has access to personal protective equipment, others — including restaurant or grocery store workers, delivery people, and Amazon warehouse employees — do not.

The veteran nurse of 13 years also said that disparities that have always existed in the U.S. health care system — such as a lack of sick pay or available child care — are still prevalent during the pandemic.

“Going back to the way things were is a terrible idea,” Kosuth told The Hill. “Normal was wrong, and I already had a lot of problems with it.”

Social media users also condemned the use of the Nazi phrase, causing “#Auschwitz” to trend on social media late Friday night.

Hundreds of people, many of whom were not practicing social distancing, gathered in Chicago on Friday to protest Pritzker’s extended stay-at-home order that went into effect that day. 

Friday was also the day Illinois reported the largest one-day spike in coronavirus cases, with an additional 3,137 cases being confirmed within 24 hours. The state has reported 56,055 total cases and 2,457 deaths. 

The Hill has reached out to Pritzker’s office for comment.

There were reportedly other signs featuring Nazi imagery at the protest.

Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff, retweeted an image of a protester appearing to hold a sign that read “Heil, Pritzker” with a swastika.

“Don’t want to hear about ‘liberty’ when these 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,” Caprara wrote on Twitter. “You can protest a policy you don’t like without being ragingly bigoted.”

Updated: 1 p.m.

Tags Auschwitz Auschwitz concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum Chicago concentration camp Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Donald Trump Illinois J.B. Pritzker J.B. Pritzker Nazi re-open protest The Holocaust World War II

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