George Steiner (born 1929) is an American critic, philosopher and essayist. His influential book Language and Silence explored the 'debasement' of language following the horrifying events of the two world wars and, in particular, the Holocaust.
These are all writers who describe the Nazi concentration camps, either through memoirs or literature based on their experiences. There is a school of thought within Holocaust theory that only those with direct first-hand experience of the Holocaust should write about it, as people without such experience cannot possibly hope to understand the truth of these horrific events. 'Outsider' writers like William Styron are accused of using the Holocaust simply as literary material, like any other subject. In this passage, Styron is answering such criticism.
The words Arbeit Macht Frei, 'work makes [you] free', appeared at the entrance to many Nazi concentration camps. This sign was placed at the entrance of Auschwitz by the first commandant of the camp, Rudolf Hoss.
Hoss attributed his survival in a prison camp during World War I to the menial labors that he performed, and for this reason he adopted this motto for the camp's gate. But work could only bring freedom to the Nazis' victims through death, either from disease, starvation, execution, or exhaustion. The terrible irony of this sign made it one of the most horrific symbols of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.