Five men were arrested late on Sunday after the damaged “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) sign was found near one of their homes in a snowy forest outside Czernikowo, a village near the northern Polish city of Torun, across the country from the memorial site.
The brazen pre-dawn theft of one of the Holocaust’s most chilling symbols provoked outrage around the world. Polish authorities launched an intensive search for the 16-foot sign, which spanned the main gate of the camp where more than one million people, mostly Jews, were killed during World War II.
The men’s arrest came after more than 100 tips, said Andrzej Rokita, chief police investigator in the case.
Police said it was too soon to say what the motive for the theft was, but they are investigating whether the Nazi memorabilia market may have played a part. The suspects do not have known neo-Nazi or other far-right links, Rokita said.
“Robbery and material gain are considered one of the main possible motives, but whether that was done on someone’s order will be determined in the process of the investigation,” added deputy investigator Marek Wozniczka.
The suspects have not been identified publicly, but Rokita said they were between the ages of 20 and 39 and their past offences were “either against property or against health and life,” implying that at least one of them has a record of violent crime. Four of them are unemployed and one owns a small construction company, he said. He would not give any other details.
Four of the five men are believed to have carried out the theft, removing the 30kg to 40kg steel sign from above the Auschwitz gate in the town of Oswiecim, about 50km west of Krakow.
“It seems they cut the sign up already in Oswiecim, to make transport easier,” Rokita said at a news conference in Krakow. It was “hidden in the woods near the home of one of them”.
Police in Krakow released a photograph showing investigators removing the cut-up sign – covered in brown protective paper – from a van. A second photograph showed one of the suspects being pulled from the van, a hooded sweat shirt hiding his face.
Wozniczka said the suspects will be charged with theft of an object of special cultural value and could face up to 10 years in prison. Other charges could be added during the probe.
Museum authorities welcomed the news with relief, despite the damage. Spokesman Pawel Sawicki said authorities hope to restore the sign to its place as soon as it can be repaired, and was working to develop a new security plan.
An exact replica of the sign, produced when the original underwent restoration work years ago, was hung in its place on Friday.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, welcomed the sign’s swift recovery. “Whatever the motivation, it takes warped minds to steal the defining symbol of the Holocaust from the world’s most renowned killing field.”