The infamous iron sign over the gate to the Auschwitz memorial site with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” – German for “Work Sets You Free” – has been stolen.
Police believe it was stolen between 3.30am and 5am today, when museum guards noticed that it was missing and alerted police.
The iron sign, which spanned a gate at the main entrance to the former Nazi death camp in southern Poland, was removed by being unscrewed on one side and pulled off on the other.
Police have launched an intensive search. They said there are currently no suspects but police are pursuing several theories.
Criminal investigators and search dogs were sent to the grounds of the vast former death camp, whose barracks, watchtowers and ruins of gas chambers still stand as testament to the atrocities inflicted by Nazi Germany on Jews, Gypsies and others.
The slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” was used at the entrances to other Nazi camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The long curving sign at Auschwitz is the best known.
Between 1940 and 1945, more than one million people, mostly Jews, were killed or died of starvation and disease while carrying out forced labour at the camp, which the Nazis built in occupied Poland.
Today the site is one of the main draws in the region for visitors from abroad and Polish students, with more than one million visitors per year.
But the barracks and other structures, which were not built to last many decades, are in a state of massive disrepair and Polish authorities have been struggling to find funds to carry out conservation work.
This week, Germany pledged £53m to a new endowment that will fund long-term preservation work – half the estimated amount that officials at the Auschwitz memorial museum say is needed.