Police have found the infamous Nazi sign stolen from Auschwitz death camp and said it appeared to have been taken by common criminals hoping to sell it to neo Nazis.
Five men were arrested late yesterday after the damaged “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) sign was found near one of their homes in a forest near the northern Polish city of Torun, across the country from the memorial site.
The pre-dawn theft on Friday of one of the Holocaust’s most chilling symbols provoked outrage around the world. Polish leaders launched an intensive search for the five-metre sign, which spanned the main gate of the camp in southern Poland where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed during the Second World War.
The men’s arrest came after more than 100 tips, said Andrzej Rokita, the 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.
“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.
“They are ordinary thieves,” Mr Rokita said.
The suspects are aged between 20 and 39 and that their previous offences were “either against property or against health and life”.
Four of them are unemployed and one owns a small construction company.
Four of the five men are believed to have carried out the theft, removing the steel sign from above the Auschwitz gate.
“It seems they cut the sign up already in Oswiecim, to make transport easier,” Mr Rokita said. 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.
Mr 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.
Museum authorities welcomed the news with relief, despite the damage. A spokesman 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.
Security guards patrol the 940-acre site around the clock, but due to its size they only pass by any one area at intervals.
After occupying Poland in 1939, the Nazis established the Auschwitz I camp, which initially housed German political prisoners and non-Jewish Polish prisoners. The sign was made in 1940. Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews began arriving by cattle trains to the wooden barracks of nearby Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II.
More than a million people, mostly Jews, but also Gypsies, Poles and others, died in the gas chambers or from starvation and disease while performing forced labour. The camp was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945.
The grim slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” contrasted so dramatically with the function of the camp that it has been etched into history.