Polish police and border guards stepped up security checks at airports and border crossings today as the search intensified for the infamous sign stolen from the Auschwitz death camp memorial.
The brazen theft of one of the Holocaust’s most chilling and notorious symbols early Friday sparked outrage from around the world, and Polish leaders declared recovering the 16ft sign a top priority.
The sign read Arbeit Macht Frei – work makes you free – a grim Nazi slogan etched in the minds of millions.
Interior minister Jerzy Miller ordered police to question all possible witnesses and suspects in a nationwide effort to find the sign.
The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, who was visibly shaken by the theft, said he believed it was carried out by professionals and that none of the memorial museum’s staff were considered suspects.
“I think it was done by specialists,” Piotr Cywinski said. “It was a very well-prepared action.”
Security guards patrol the site around the clock, but due to its vast size they only pass by any one site at intervals. He said that gave thieves between 20 to 30 minutes to remove the sign and carry it off.
Museum authorities said they didn’t know how much the sign weighs exactly but spokesman Pawel Sawicki said it is made of hollow steel pipes and was believed to weigh only about 65lbs to 90lbs.
“A single person could lift it,” Sawicki said.
Sawicki said the entire Auschwitz staff was deeply shaken by the theft. He defended security at the camp but said no one could have ever imagined thieves seizing on the gate’s sign.
“Thieves are also able to robs banks and museums. Clearly this was well planned. It’s a blow to our human heritage,” Sawicki said.
More than one million people were killed in gas chambers, from forced labour, or starvation and disease at the camp set up by the Nazis in occupied Poland during the Second World War. Most of the victims were Jews but they also included gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political prisoners.
The camp was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. Polish officials plan to mark the 65th anniversary of that liberation next month with sombre ceremonies at the site.