By Niraj Warikoo/Detroit Free Press
In the spring of 1944, Rabbi Aaron Bergman's father entered the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland as a 13-year-old, passing under an infamous sign reading "Arbeit macht frei."
It was German for "Work makes you free."
David Bergman survived, but his parents, brother and sister all perished in Nazi-run concentration camps in Auschwitz and elsewhere. So when Rabbi Bergman of Farmington Hills heard Tuesday about a sign posted on the decaying Packard Plant in Detroit mimicking that Auschwitz sign, he was upset.
"It was chilling for me because my dad is a Holocaust survivor," said Bergman of Adat Shalom, a synagogue in Farmington Hills. "A sick mind would come up with something like this."
Randy Wilcox of Harper Woods agrees.
And so late Tuesday afternoon, he took the letters down himself, using a claw hammer to slice the nylon straps and wire that held them up.
"Like most reasonable people, I was shocked and disgusted at the use of a concentration camp sign in such a fashion," said Wilcox, who runs the website DetroitFunk.com. "I can't imagine what the people who did it were thinking."
Those views were echoed by others across metro Detroit on Tuesday, the day after the Free Press first reported on freep.com that someone had placed placards spelling out that German phrase in the windows of an overpass spanning East Grand Boulevard.
John Bologna, an attorney for the plant's owner, called the letters "an abomination."
It was unclear who was behind the sign as people debated whether it was an act of hate or extreme satire intended to highlight the degeneration of manufacturing and cities such as Detroit.
The plant has become a symbol of urban blight and industrial decline. Designed by noted architect Albert Kahn, the 110-year-old Packard Plant used to be an auto manufacturing facility where thousands worked and was once a symbol of the strength of blue-collar labor in the Midwest. But in the decades after the plant closed in 1958, it began to wither, and its empty buildings attracted everyone from vagrants to graffiti artists to scrappers.
In recent years, some artists have used the site to make social statements.
Regardless of the motive, Wilcox and Jewish groups said making references to the killings of 6 million people is unacceptable.
The placing of the letters "was either done with great malice, or done in complete stone ignorance of what Nazi symbolism" means, Wilcox said. He said the people who put up the letters appeared to have "spent some time and effort and money doing this. ... The boxes from the 16-gauge wire were still on the floor. ... The panels each had six eye bolts fastened to them."
Heidi Budaj, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League -- the leading Jewish civil rights group in the U.S. -- said "this graffiti is offensive to Jews and particularly to Holocaust survivors. ... This sign greeted more than 1 million prisoners as they were herded into the Auschwitz nightmare with the duplicitous message that 'work sets you free.' "
The style of the lettering in the Packard Plant sign has specific similarities to the Nazi sign at Auschwitz that made it unique. For example, the upper half of the letter "B" in "Arbeit" ("Work") is bigger than the lower half, just like it was at Auschwitz.
Stephen Goldman, executive director of the Holocaust Memorial Center's Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills, said: "This message is offensive on so many levels. It ... needs to be taken down." He noted that many Holocaust survivors live in Michigan.
"It's an ironic sign because the Nazis had no intention of making people free by working there," Goldman said. "They were worked to death."
Goldman realizes that artists use satire to make points, but said that using a Nazi slogan is "a poor image to use."
"I see no value in this," he said.
David Schulman, 53, a Huntington Woods resident who had relatives killed in the Holocaust, came across the Packard Plant sign while driving home last week from Belle Isle.
"I found it disturbing," he said. "It's a form of hate speech. ... It really appalled me."
FBI Detroit spokesman Simon Shaykhet said he could neither confirm nor deny whether the FBI is investigating the sign as a possible hate crime.
After surviving the Holocaust, Rabbi Bergman's father later immigrated to the U.S., where he worked as an engineer. As part of his job in Michigan, David Bergman would work with auto companies, which makes the Packard sign all the more painful.
For decades, David Bergman, now 81 and living in Florida, has worked to educate the public about the Holocaust, lecturing at numerous schools across metro Detroit, his son said.
Bergman and his father visited the site of Auschwitz in 1999, even posing for photos under the sign.
Maybe the Packard sign was meant to be "horribly ironic," Rabbi Bergman said. But for him and others, "it's just hate."