Thieves have stolen the notorious metal sign that hung at the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and read "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes free"), museum staff and police said Friday.
AFP - Thieves have stolen the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work will set you free") gate sign from the Nazi-era Auschwitz death camp in Poland, museum staff and police said Friday.
"The inscription was stolen early this morning," Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfeld told AFP.
"It's a profanation of the place where more than a million people were murdered. It's shameful," he added.
The theft of the metal sign -- which was forged by prisoners on Nazi orders, and was one of the most sinister examples of their propaganda -- has sent shockwaves across Poland.
"This is horrible," Senate speaker Bogdan Borusewicz told the radio station Jedynka. "I hope the police will recover the sign soon and that it won't have been cut into pieces."
Andrzej Kremer, Poland's deputy foreign minister, told the PAP news agency he was shocked, because the sign was a "key symbol of this death camp".
Ex-president Lech Walesa, the former leader of the communist-era opposition movement Solidarity, said it was "unthinkable".
"But I don't see it as an ideological act. It's a criminal matter. It can't be comprehended any other way," Walesa told the rolling news channel TVN24.
Whoever stole the sign must have known what they were doing, Mensfeld said.
The forged iron inscription was not hard to unhook from above the large gates at the entrance, "but you needed to know how," he explained.
The police have launched an inquiry and the local governor has promised his full support.
Police spokesman Malgorzata Jurecka told the radio station Trojka that the theft had taken place at around 06:00 am (0500 GMT).
"A police dog has been set on the trail of the thieves," she added.
The site of the former camp, on the outskirts of the southern Polish town of Oswiecim -- Auschwitz in German -- is closed at night and patrolled by watchmen.
Police were combing through video surveillance footage from the site Friday.
Mensfeld said it was the first serious case of theft at the site, which has been a Polish state-run museum and memorial since the end of World War II.
Nazi Germany initially set up the camp for Polish resistance fighters in a former barracks, nine months after invading Poland in September 1939.
Over the ensuing years they expanded the site, building a vast complex nearby after razing the village of Brzezinka -- Birkenau in German.
Around 1.1 million people perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- one million of them Jews from Poland and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe -- some from overwork, starvation and disease, but most in the notorious gas chambers.
It was one of six death camps set up in Poland -- home to pre-war Europe's largest Jewish community -- by the occupying Germans, who murdered six million Jews during the war.
The camp's other victims included non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and anti-Nazi resistance fighters from across Europe.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945.
The 200-hectare site comprises 155 buildings and 300 ruins -- the Nazis blew up many of their installations before they retreated, in an attempt to cover their tracks. Last year, more than a million people visited it.
Date created : 2009-12-18