- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

OSWIECIM, Poland | The Nazis’ infamous iron sign declaring “Arbeit Macht Frei” - German for “Work Sets You Free” - was stolen Friday from the entrance of the former Auschwitz death camp, Polish police said.

The 16-foot-long, 90-pound iron sign at the Holocaust memorial site in southern Poland was unscrewed on one side and torn off on the other, police spokeswoman Katarzyna Padlo said.

The theft from the entrance to the camp - where more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died during World War II - brought condemnation worldwide.

“The theft of such a symbolic object is an attack on the memory of the Holocaust, and an escalation from those elements that would like to return us to darker days,” Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said in a statement from Jerusalem.

The sign disappeared from the Auschwitz memorial between 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., Ms. Padlo said.

Police deployed 50 police officers, including 20 detectives, and a search dog to the Auschwitz grounds, where barracks, watchtowers and ruins of gas chambers stand as testament to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

Police said 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.

He said the thieves apparently carried the sign 300 yards to an opening in a concrete wall. That opening had been left intentionally to preserve a poplar tree dating back to the time of the war.

Four metal bars that had blocked the opening were cut. Tire tracks and footprints in the snow led from the wall opening to the nearby road, where police presume the sign was loaded on to a vehicle.

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said the theft could have been committed by neo-Nazi extremists, or even people scheming to sell the sign on the black market.

An exact replica of the sign, produced when the original received restoration work years ago, was quickly hung in its place.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski appealed to all Poles for help finding it. Police were offering a $1,700 reward for public tipoffs about the thieves.

After occupying Poland in 1939, the Nazis established the Auschwitz I camp in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim and initially used it for German political prisoners and non-Jewish Polish prisoners, who began arriving in June 1940.

Nazi guards ordered Polish inmates to make the original sign shortly thereafter in the camp’s iron workshop, Auschwitz museum spokesman Pawel Sawicki said.

Two years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews began arriving by cattle trains to the wooden barracks of nearby Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II, where most were killed in gas chambers.

The slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” appeared at the entrances of other Nazi camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The long curving sign at Auschwitz is considered the best known.

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