The reader first sees the sign when the group enters the prison camp. The rabbi asks his daughter, Fayge, to tell him what the sign says. She does not reply, so Hannah interprets it for him. The sign is in German and says "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (pg 87) which means "Work makes you free". The rabbi sees that as a good sign because Jews are not afraid of hard work.
However, when the three-fingered woman takes the women and lines them up, she tells them,
"I will tell you what to expect. Hard work, that is what. hard work and more hard work. And punshment if you do not perform well and on time, without complaints." (pg 109)
If the prisoners could not work or if they became ill, they were "chosen" and sent to the gas chamber. When Shifre asks Rivka why some of the prisoners are chosen, Rivka tells her,
"Because they cannot work.... and work....Because work macht frei." (makes you free) (pg 128)
When Schmuel and the other five men are brought out in chains for trying to escape the camp, the commandant makes everyone watch as they are gunned down. However, he makes a speech first. He says,
"This camp is in the middle of nowhere, remember that. You are in the middle of nowhere. All that gives you life is work ---- and my good wishes. Do you understand?" (pg 151)
ARBEIT MACHT FREI (transliterated: arbite makt frei) literally means "work makes free." Later in the book, however, the sign is interpreted to mean that "work makes you free."