The brazen theft of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign sparked a national debate over alleged shortcomings in the security system at the memorial site of the former Auschwitz Nazi death camp.
Police found the sign, which means Work Sets You Free, on Sunday, cut into three pieces and hidden beneath a layer of snow in the woods.
They arrested five men and said the crime was not driven by ideology but probably commissioned by someone from abroad.
The pre-dawn theft on Friday of one of the most notorious symbols of Nazi Germany’s atrocities launched a national discussion about security at key historic sites in a country constantly trying to preserve its past and also pay for the present.
The state official in charge of wartime memorials in Poland, Andrzej Przewoznik, has said scant funding for the sites does not allow for proper – and often costly – security measures more commonly found elsewhere in Europe and the US.
Prosecutor Artur Wrona, the lead investigator overseeing the Auschwitz effort, said yesterday that lack of proper security allowed the perpetrators to approach the main gate “unnoticed” and “undisturbed” and called it “glaring negligence”.
He would not, however, discuss in detail how the surveillance camera system or the foot and car patrols operated when the sign was stolen.
Only one camera overlooks the gate and it remained unclear if it recorded the theft in the dark.
Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt said the security system had proven sufficient in more than 60 years of the memorial’s existence, but added that it was being reviewed and may need to be upgraded.
“Any upgrades that might be made must mean that no one will ever think of another theft,” he said.
Upgrades mean more spending for the museum sprawling over an area of 494 acres at two separate locations in the southern city of Oswiecim.
The museum is constantly trying to raise money to preserve the dilapidated wooden barracks and collapsing ruins of gas chambers where hundreds of thousands were murdered.
Just last week, Germany replied to appeals for assistance with a pledge of £43.5m (€49m) to help preserve the site that draws a million visitors annually.
Yesterday investigators held a re-enactment of the theft at the site with the participation of three suspects who confessed to having a role in the act, which is widely considered to be a desecration of the memory of more than one million of the camp’s victims.
Two suspects deny any involvement and refuse to speak to the investigators, prosecutors say.
Mr Wrona said the perpetrators drove to the then-closed museum in a sports car after dark last Thursday but found they needed tools to get the sign down. They found one store open, bought what they needed and returned.
When they arrived the second time, it was just after midnight and there were no guards about as they unbolted one side of the 16ft-long metal sign and ripped the 66lb metal phrase from the opposite gate post. They sawed it into three pieces to make it easier to stow in the car.
Mr Wrona said that evidence gathered so far suggested the crime was commissioned by a “person living outside Poland” and police were seeking help from partners in other European countries.
He refused to confirm or deny Polish media reports that someone in Sweden could be under suspicion. Swedish police said they had not been contacted about any links.
All five suspects face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of stealing and dismantling the sign, which is a symbol of the Second World War and the Holocaust and has historic value for Poland.
Prosecutors will decide when to return the sign to the museum where it will be further examined for authenticity. On January 27 the museum is to hold ceremonies marking its liberation by Soviet troops in 1945.
For now, a replica of the sign hangs in its place.
After occupying Poland in 1939, the Nazis established the Auschwitz I camp, for German political prisoners and Polish prisoners. The sign was made in 1940 and placed above the main gate there.
Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews began arriving by train in cattle cars to the wooden barracks of nearby Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II, where they were systematically killed in gas chambers.