"Arbeit macht frei" means "labor makes one free" in German. These words became a symbol of Jewish oppression under the Third Reich, as the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz bore this legend. In February, this slogan appeared in graffiti across the walkway of Detroit's derelict Packard plant on East Grand. It ignited a firestorm of debate. Jewish groups and Holocaust survivor collectives pushed for its removal, saying it was an offensive, ugly reminder of past suffering, reports the Detroit Free Press. Packard has a long history of notoriety in Detroit.
The walkway where the sign appeared connects two sides of what was Packard's 35-acre industrial complex. The plant opened in 1903 and became the luxury auto leader in the '20s, outselling Cadillac and all competitors combined, says a Detroit Free Press special report.
Packard equipped the U.S. defense effort in two world wars, making engines for Liberty military aircraft in World War I. In WWII, Packard workers helped Detroit earn President Franklin D. Roosevelt's distinction as an "arsenal of democracy." Detroit put out one-third of the nation's war production, says the Detroit Historical Society. Packard built engines for U.S. and allied military.
At its peak in 1943, Packard employed 36,000 people. It became a staging ground for racial integration and paid the price. Detroit's Great Rebellion says that when three black men were promoted to the white-only assembly line, 25,000 white employees walked out.
Packard, once a symbol of prosperity and industrial might, is now a crumbling wreck. The last auto rolled off the line in 1954. It's an attractive nuisance for illegal dumpers, vandals, urban spelunkers, and scrappers, says MLive. Locals decry it as a dangerous eyesore. says the Detroit Free Press. Other graffiti besides the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign decorates the building.
When the Nazi slogan appeared, locals and readers debated -- was it provocative art, hate speech, a social statement on the auto industry decline, or just random graffiti? Regardless, members of the Jewish community in Detroit wanted it gone, says MLive. And a blogger from Detroit Funk agreed. He went to the Packard plant and tore down the sign placards.
A December Detroit Free Press piece explains legal hassles with the Packard property. Dominic Cristini bought it in 1998 and housed his business, Bioresource, there. Cristini owes the city back taxes. Cristini prevailed in a 2006 ownership battle, then went to prison for dealing drugs. He's now collecting rent from the last property tenant, while claiming not to own the associated Bioresource. Cristini is suing the city for not securing the property during a period when they claim ownership. Estimates say the property will cost more than it's worth to clean up.
A native Michigander, Marilisa Sachteleben writes about people, places, and events is her state's most pivotal city of Detroit.
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