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, on the other side of the country from the memorial site.
The brazen pre-dawn Friday theft of one of the Holocaust's most chilling symbols sparked outrage from around the world. Polish leaders launched an intensive search for the 16-foot sign that spanned the main gate of the camp in southern Poland where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed during World War II. 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. Museum authorities welcomed the news with relief despite the damage. Spokesman Pawel Sawicki said authorities hope to restore it to its place as soon as it can be repaired and was working to develop a new security plan.
The grim slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" was so counter to the actual function of the camp that it has been etched into history. The phrase appeared at the entrances of other Nazi camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen, but the long curving sign at Auschwitz was the best known. "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 offenses were "either against property or against health and life," implying that at least one of them has a record for violent crime.
Four of them are unemployed and one owns a small construction company, he said. He would not give any other details. 'Hidden in the woods' Four of the five men are believed to have carried out the theft, removing the 65- to 90-pound steel sign from above the Auschwitz gate in the town of Oswiecim, about 30 miles 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."