muckraker report

Creator of chilling Nazi message on Packard Plant comes forward, criticizes the sign’s removal

Packard SignThe creator of a chilling message that alluded to the Auschwitz concentration camp on the windowless overpass of the abandoned Packard Plant appears to have come forward, saying he was misunderstood and criticized the removal of the sign.

“ARBEIT MACHT FREI” was cruelly placed at the entrances of the labor camps in irony, with the knowledge that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no hope, only death,” the alleged artist, Penny Gaff, said, dismissing claims that the sign was anti-Semitic. “A parallel can be drawn with the current corporatocracy we are subjected to today. The illusion that one day we will be rich and successful is similarly misleading, but we swallow it and live in this false sense of hope. We whore our lives away day after day for corporations and the empty promises of the powers that be. We have become wage slaves, with no alternative, essentially reinstating forced labor.”

Penny Gaff most likely is a reference to popular entertainment for the lower classes in the 19th-century.

Blogger James Fassinger, of, discovered the alleged artist’s explanation for posting the sign, which was taken down a day or two later by another blogger, Randy Wilcox, who runs the blog,

The infamous German slogan – Arbeit Macht Frei, which translates to “Work Will Make you Free” – was spelled out in the same font on the Packard that “greeted” Jews as they were ushered into the gates of Auschwitz for an almost certain death. More than 1 million people were murdered.

“I placed the sign on the overpass, the gateway to Detroit, the heart of a once booming industrial America, full of capitalist promise and hope,” the alleged artist wrote. “Once, it employed thousands of people, but now lies in ruins and is dead, as are the dreams of those who sacrificed their lives in the form of labor. All that remains is a war torn cityscape, an economic genocide and GHETTOIZATION of ethnic and socioeconomic groups.”

Wilcox and another man ripped off the letters using a claw hammer to remove about 80 strong pastic and metal ties.

“This is a straight up hate crime,” Wilcox said. “It has been up for a few days with nobody stepping up to get rid of this thing.”

The alleged artist compared the destruction of the sign to the theft of the original sign from the Auschwitz camp in 2009.

“It is an affront to humanity, history, intellectual dialogue, art and the suffering of those who perished then and are perishing still at the hands of our oppressors,” the person wrote.

Got tips or suggestions? Contact Steve at

Steve Neavling is an investigative journalist, a freelance reporter for Reuters and former city hall reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Living on the city’s east side, Neavling explores corruption and the underbelly of an oft-misunderstood city.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for daily updates, investigations and photos of Detroit.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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    It is important to note that the sign was removed by two people, not just dETROITfUNK. Making the argument for tearing down the sign about dETROITfUNK and not about the sign is just a red herring. Had I not gone to the Packard that day, the Nazi sign would still have died at 5:00 P.M. The other gentleman, who I met for the first time that day, told his story to the Jewish News (last weeks edition). Roni was there at the same time, also with tools, prepared to remove the sign.

    It was much safer for all concerned to remove it with two people, so as to not drop the fragile brittle fiberglass panels down to street level or on traffic. The sign was secured very tightly to the bridge windows, however the sign material itself was brittle and easily cracked if bent or pushed. We found the easiest way to remove them was to grab and pull – then the i-bolts just tore out of each corner like it was paper. My point is this: the sign maker also did not account for safety when this thing was constructed. The high winds we had following the few days that the sign was up easily could have brought these panels flying down onto Grand Boulevard traffic….

    Now THAT would have been a brilliant socio economic artist statement, eh Penny Gaff ? Sort of like when Mr. Carlson thought turkeys could fly on “WKRP in Cincinatti” – and had them dropped from a helicopter for a promotion.

    Yeah, I am comparing the attempt at an art statement to a sitcom skit.

    More specifically, this is like a painter wanting a nice brown painting – so they decide to use human feces as paint. They are very happy with their painting, and they show it proudly, wanting all the viewers to be amazed by the deep hues and rich brown earthtones the artist achieved with the innovative use of materials…But instead, the only thing the viewers can talk about is the stench of the shit on the painting…The artist is confused and dismayed…calls the viewers “Hitler” and stomps out of the gallery….

    Yep yep – that’s you Penny, up on the bridge painting with poop.

    “As god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly”…..

  • Frank

    Eyes wide open, Penny Gaff, eyes wide open.
    Language matters.

  • Tony T.

    I’m actually in more agreement with the message behind the sign than with Randy’s decision to take it down. Sometimes art offends people and makes people uncomfortable. Drats. Live with it and analyze the deeper meaning as to why it makes you uncomfortable. To argue the artists intent has no meaning other than “anti-semetic” offense is bull and a cop out. Jews weren’t the only ones killed in those camps, and every time I hear that I’m offended as an agnostic leaning atheist lefty. I would have been there too.


    Wow what a silly nilly explanation by some anonymous person who maybe did that sign thing. If Pennywise is so proud of what he did, then he should use a real name.

  • Mindi Steffens

    The placement at the Packard was the right location for the “art” in it. It wouldn’t have worked the same as if placed downtown or on a freeway overpass. ‘Work will make you free”….did it set all the workers at the Packard free? NO. That’s the point. Free-thinking, Choices and Love set your free, not your 9-5, slave to the wages and keeping up with the Joneses.

    Not all art is roses and kittens, it can be cruel, cold and chilling, but if it makes you think then it doesn’t make it less art and more hate speech.

    Would it have made everyone feel better if is was in English and in graffiti instead?

  • lauraleeauthor

    As an artistic statement, it seems lazy. It is easy to take a scene of an abandoned place that already has a certain dark, haunting artistry to it, and to put a dark statement on it. It is always easy to be shocking. What would be more of an intellectual and creative challenge would be to put up a statement that made the viewer feel uplifted or hopeful and inspired to take action to change the world. Taking a scene of industrial decay and making a statement out of it that essentially says “this is industrial decay” is not all that imaginative.

  • burnt_toast

    What are pastic ties? Duh

  • Robert

    “I placed the sign on the overpass, the gateway to Detroit, the heart of a once booming industrial America, full of capitalist promise and hope,”

    The ignorance and stupidity expressed in the above sentence is impressive. The simple reality of it all is that nothing has changed and the United States of American remains an incubator of innovation and small businesses. Just because lumbering automobile companies collapsed doesn’t mean the dream is lost.

    Penny Gaff, you are lucky you are protected by the freedom of speech because in Germany you would be sentenced to jail time for hate speech. Do yourself a favor, study history and get a life.

  • Eric D

    As I said before, the sign should’ve been placed on the Ford Highland Park plant given German Ford’s, and German GM for that matter, involvement with Nazi Germany leading up to and during WWII.

  • Alan Stamm

    So we have a pseudonymous “artist” (Terrahawk also beat me to it) taking credit, if that’s the right word, for something he or she may or may not have done.

    Even with text qualifiers (“appears to have,” “alleged artist”), your over-reaching headling assumes a fact not introduced into evidence, Steve.

  • cattgirl0813

    “I placed the sign on the overpass, the gateway to Detroit, the heart of a once booming industrial America, full of capitalist promise and hope,” the alleged artist wrote. “Once, it employed thousands of people, but now lies in ruins and is dead, as are the dreams of those who sacrificed their lives in the form of labor. All that remains is a war torn cityscape, an economic genocide and GHETTOIZATION of ethnic and socioeconomic groups.”

    Then why not post this comment on the “ghettoization” of the city and its “ethnic and socioeconomic groups” someplace where it would be more visible and open to debate and discussion – like one of the many abandoned buildings downtown near the current redevelopment by people like Dan Gilbert? Or along one the overpasses on the city’s freeways? Or in the face of the development in Midtown and near the Eastern Market?

    Not that I agree with the artist’s work or statement, but it seems to me that if this artist wanted to be provocative and make a political statement, then s/he could’ve done so without contributing to the ruin porn that’s helping keep the city mired in its current depressive state.

  • DVS

    Someone fixed that nazi Packard sign, though the new artist is remaining anonymous…better?

  • Headly Westerfield

    I was going to make the same point about “Penny Gaff.” However, that doesn’t negate the point the artist was making.

    I thought this was offensive until I read the artist’s explanation, but now I am not so quick to say that. I will need to digest this message some more.

  • penobscot

    Dear Ms. Gaff,


    Cordially, Detroit

  • Terrahawk

    Really? Penny Gaff? I think the name describes the thing that they did….

    “A penny gaff was a popular entertainment for the lower classes in 19th-century England. It consisted of short, theatrical entertainments which could be staged wherever space permitted, such as the back room of a public house or small hall.”