The slickly organised theft of one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust sent a wave of outrage around the world yesterday.
The sign that hung over the gates of Auschwitz extermination camp, where more than a million people died during the Second World War, was stolen in minutes. Polish police suspect that the culprits were either neo-Nazis or acting on behalf of collectors or a group of individuals.
The slogan wrought in iron, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work sets you free”), was the cynical welcome to those entering the camp in the 1940s. One million of the 1.1 million people who died at Auschwitz were Jewish.
The theft in the early hours of yesterday was seen as an attempt by right-wing extremists to muddy the narrative of the Holocaust.
“This act constitutes a true declaration of war,”</b> said Avner Shalev, the head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial institute in Jerusalem. “We don’t know the identity of the perpetrators but I assume they are neo-Nazis.”
Poland is treating the recovery of the sign from the site, near Cracow, as a matter of national honour. President Kaczynski said: “I appeal to all countrymen to help the police to track down the sign. A worldwide symbol of the cynicism of Hitler’s executioners and the martyrdom of their victims has been stolen. This act deserves the strongest possible condemnation.”
President Peres of Israel held an emergency meeting with Donald Tusk, the Polish Prime Minister, on the sidelines of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen to express “the deepest shock”. Mr Tusk promised to make the hunting down of the thieves “an absolute priority”.
Mr Peres said: “The sign holds deep historical meaning for both Jews and non-Jews alike as a symbol of the lives that perished at Auschwitz.”
The sign, five metres long and weighing 40kg, was erected by the Nazis soon after the old Auschwitz barracks was converted into a labour and extermination centre in 1940. It was supposed to suggest that hard work could allow inmates to walk free, but as Auschwitz was turned into a hub for the Holocaust, it became a mocking commentary.
“It seems that a gang of perhaps three people unscrewed the sign between three o’clock and five o’clock on Friday morning,” said Dariusz Nowak, a police spokesman. “They must have used a ladder and had a car waiting for them.”
Police said that they were reviewing footage from a surveillance camera that overlooks the entrance gate and the road beyond, but declined to say whether the crime was recorded. The sign appears to have been dismantled in six minutes flat — corresponding to the time it takes for the museum guards to change their shifts.
The museum has offered a £23,000 reward for information. Jaroslaw Mensfelt, its spokesman, said: “This is not only a theft but a horrible profanation in a place where more than a million people were murdered.”
He added that a replica sign had been installed already over the gate.
Holocaust deniers have long targeted Auschwitz in an attempt to demonstrate that the systematic murder of Jews was invented or exaggerated. Deniers have previously taken soil samples from the camp and made measurements to try to argue that the number of victims gassed and cremated was far smaller than claimed. (WTF)
There has always been a danger — as Holocaust survivors and their Nazi murderers die out — that the authenticity of the sites will be questioned. Auschwitz is made up primarily of red-brick buildings that formed part of Habsburgian barracks, used initially to imprison Polish political prisoners, and the wooden prisoner huts of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Birkenau was the location of the gas chambers, but both parts of the old Nazi camp are showing signs of wear and tear as hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the site every year.
The critical question has been how far to restore the buildings and the crumbling personal possessions — including 80,000 shoes and 3,800 suitcases taken from victims — and risk opening up the museum to charges of falsification.
In all there are 155 buildings, including crematoriums, and some 300 ruins on the sprawling site.
A visit to Auschwitz forms part of the curriculum of many German and Polish schools. The theft could be linked to the decision this week by Germany to pay half the cost of patching up the buildings.
Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, said after meeting his Polish counterpart: “It is a shameful act, an act that must be punished.”
Dieter Graumann, vice-chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said: “This is shocking and hurtful and dreadful and tasteless. For all survivors and for survivors’ descendants and for everyone this is a great hurt and a shock.”
— Opened June 14, 1940
— About 1.1 million people, a million of them Jews, died in the four years it operated. Up to 25,000 people were killed a day
— Among them were Polish political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, the disabled, Gypsies, homosexuals, and prisoners of conscience or religious faith, including several hundred Jehovah’s Witnesses
— The camp held between 15,000 and 30,000 prisoners at any one time
— More people died at Auschwitz than in the British and US forces during the Second World War
— A canteen, cinema, theatre and grocery served the camp’s 7,000 staff, only 700 of whom were ever punished
— The camp’s slave labour force generated about 60 million reichsmarks, equivalent to £125 million today, for the Nazi state
— 7,000 survivors were liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945
Source: BBC, Times database