Conservationists at the Memorial Put the Arbeit macht frei Sign Back Together
The Arbeit macht frei sign over the historical gate of the Auschwitz I main camp has been put back together after being destroyed by thieves. Detailed analysis and expert advice enabled conservationists to restore it to almost exactly the condition it was in before the theft. Further measures will be taken to protect the inscription, which will probably be placed in the Museum exhibition in the future.
"The theft and destruction of the Arbeit macht frei sign was a symbolic attack on remembrance. In this case it was not only a matter of an object of extraordinary historical significance, but also one of the most infamous slogans of totalitarian propaganda, an especially powerful warning today against the madness of nationalism, racism, and antisemitism. The perpetrators nearly achieved their heinous goal, but they did not succeed," said Museum Director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński. "We were mindful that the conservation work had to be carried out in the best way possible. After all, the number of historical heritage objects that exist in Poland today and are so well known all over the world can be counted on the fingers of one hand," he added.
The sign was in very bad shape when it arrived in the conservation workshop. "The thieves cut it into few pieces, bending and fracturing the metal tubes. We therefore had to deal not only with bending in the horizontal plane, but also with twisting and crushing. Many of the components were deformed, and the surface of the sign was scratched and dented," said Agnieszka Żydzik-Białek, who coordinated the conservation process. In the team of the Auschwitz Memorial conservators were also Andrzej Jastrzębiowski and Margrit Bormann.
Conservationists first set about making a detailed record of the state that the object was in, photographing it in visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. They also scanned it in three dimensions and analyzed the makeup and tensile strength of the various components. Use of a borescope and a magnaflux defectoscope made it possible to identify the smallest flaws in the metal, which were not visible to the naked eye. The protective coating was subjected to separate testing. All of this made it possible to work out a safe program for the conservation work. "It's also important that the research conducted on this object will have enormous significance in the conservation of other original metal objects from the camp in the future," said Andrzej Jastrzębiowski.
The discovery of historical tubing with the same cross-section and made from an identical alloy of steel was a great help in selecting the method for reassembly. "Thanks to this, we were able to carry out a range of tests on the method of welding, above all. This kind of material is very hard to obtain today because low-carbon rimmed steel is hardly ever produced. With historical material of the same properties we were able to choose with great precision the optimal method for joining the components, the proper brazing, and the welding technique and parameters," said Żydzik-Białek.
The sign was straightened under the supervision of a master locksmith with vast experience in working various alloys of metal. Two complementary methods for welding were selected. "We first joined the components by welding them with TIG, which made it possible to retain the maximum amount of the original material as well as make very strong welds. In order to obtain the best visual effect, we applied the finishing touches with a laser. This method made it possible to perform exceptionally precise spot welds, thanks to which they are in effect invisible. That was our objective. We wanted to eliminate all the damage inflicted during the theft, returning the sign to its original condition," said Andrzej Jastrzębiowski.
The conservationists will complete the job by carrying out a final examinations of the protective surfaces and applying measures to protect the object from corrosion. In the future, the original inscription will probably be located in the new main exhibition at the Memorial, which is currently in development. "Conservation considerations and the overall security of the object will be decisive," said Director Cywiński.