WARSAW, Poland — Polish police have recovered the infamous Nazi sign stolen from the former Auschwitz death camp, cut into three pieces, and said Monday it appeared to have been taken by common criminals seeking profit.
Five men were arrested late 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 Friday of one of the Holocaust’s most chilling symbols provoked outrage around the world. Polish leaders launched an intensive search for the 5-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 late Sunday 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. 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.
“They are ordinary thieves,” Rokita said.
The suspects have not been identified publicly, but Rokita said they were between the ages of 20 and 39 and that 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 30- to 40-kilogram steel sign from above the Auschwitz gate in the town of Oswiecim, about 50 kilometres 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. He said other charges could be added during the investigation.
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 Friday.
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, 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,” he said.
The chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, expressed relief.
“The theft of the sign, which had become a symbol both of the ultimate evil that found its expression in Auschwitz, and of the memory of the Shoah — Jewish Holocaust — gave pain to Holocaust survivors and people of conscience everywhere,” Avner Shalev said in a statement. “The concern expressed by people around the world illustrates the importance and awareness of Holocaust remembrance today.”
Noach Flug, an Auschwitz survivor and chair of a consortium of survivors’ groups, welcomed the sign’s recovery and called for tighter security.
Security guards patrol the 200-hectare 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 1 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 Jan. 27, 1945.
The grim slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” contrasted so dramatically with the function of the camp that it has been etched into history. The phrase appeared at the entrances of other Nazi camps, too, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen, but the long curving sign at Auschwitz was the best-known.
Associated Press Writer Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.