A sign displayed by an anti-lockdown protester at a demonstration in Chicago was blasted by the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial, and the governor of Illinois as a slogan of hate once used in Nazi death camps.
The protest drew hundreds of people to downtown Chicago, most waving American flags and holding signs calling for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to end his coronavirus stay-at-home orders and jump-start the economy. But one unidentified protester was singled out as stepping over an anti-Semitic line by holding a handwritten sign reading, "Arbeit macht frei,JB." In German, the phrase "Arbeit macht frei" means "work sets you free" and was used by the Nazis to get concentration camp prisoners to work under the false belief they would be spared from death.
A photo of the sign shot by a registered nurse, Dennis Kosuth, who was participating in a counterprotest, quickly went viral and got the attention of the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial in Poland.
"'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," reads the tweet from the museum and memorial.
The Nazis even placed the words on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp and other death camps.
Pritzker, who is of Jewish descent, denounced the protester for carrying the sign at Friday's rally in front of the governor's office at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago as well as several other demonstrators he said carried signs containing swastikas, including one referring to the governor “Heil Pritzker."
''The people who were protesting -- there were quite a number of people who seem to have been carrying signs filled with hate,” Pritzker said in a tweet on Saturday. “There were people carrying signs with swastikas on them. The meaning of that swastika is apparently unknown to the people who are carrying it, or if it is known, it is a demonstration of the hate that is among us.”
Pritzker also took to Twitter to condemn such Nazi symbols being used at what organizers had billed as a peaceful protest.
"I've spent decades of my life fighting against bigotry & hatred," Pritzker tweeted, adding that he worked with Holocaust survivors to help raise money for a Holocaust museum in Chicago that was dedicated in 2017.
During a coronavirus press briefing on Saturday, Pritzker noted that only a few of the several hundred protesters displayed messages of hate.
The demonstration, one of several protests throughout the state this weekend against Pritzker's stay-at-home orders, came as the number of coronavirus cases in Illinois climbed to 58,505, with 2,559 deaths, according to the latest data released Saturday by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
While Pritzker said he understands the frustration of the protesters, many who have had to go on unemployment due to nonessential businesses being closed, he added that the drastic measures he's taken are to keep people safe and prevent the virus, formally known as COVID-19, from spreading.
"I’ll defend to the death their right to be wrong and to say it out loud, but the fact is that if they look at the facts the experts are trying to protect them, and the elected officials that stand on the right side of this are trying to protect them," Pritzker said.
But protesters say that the stay-at-home orders have gone on too long and Pritzker has overstepped his authority.
"The governor has gone beyond his legal authority to order citizens of the state to do anything," protester Ben Bierly, a Republican candidate for the Illinois state Senate, told reporters at the rally.
Another protester, Tony Peraicam, a former Cook County commissioner, added: "We are still the land of the free. We are still independent people who can think for themselves."
Similar anti-lockdown protests have occurred throughout the country, including large demonstrations drawing several thousand people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Oregon and Arizona.
What to know about the coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
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